Water Pollution Facts & Causes

Dying Coral Reef (note the white color) - Coral is killed by chemicals and water heating up.
Dying Coral Reef (note the white color) - Coral is killed by chemicals and water heating up. | Source

Take apart the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Ocean garbage patches, supplement that with analyses of sea life stomach contents, and you'll find that the main article of pollution in the oceans is plastics - at least in the gyres. Look at dying still life, like corals, and the paucity of sea life around the mouths of major rivers, which used to host some of the most lively and varied ocean populations, and you'll find that the major source of human-caused pollution in both places is chemicals. Plastics and chemicals.

Unfortunately, because of how focused we are on creating new things (our lives and our products), by the time we notice the problems we've caused, the destruction has become widespread, which is why we finally notice it. Note the once mighty salmon runs up the Columbia River in Washington that are practically nonexistent now, due to pollution and dams. That belated recognition calls for lifestyle changes by every human being, not just the originators.

The good news is that any problem caused by humans can be cleared up by humans, whether we start now or later. The first section of this article will discuss causes, the second the changes we can make, each in our own lifestyles.

Sometime attributed to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, sometimes to a harbor in the Far East, this ocean is so cluttered you can barely see the rowboat in the middle of it.
Sometime attributed to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, sometimes to a harbor in the Far East, this ocean is so cluttered you can barely see the rowboat in the middle of it. | Source

" . . . stop polluting the ocean, because once we kill the coral reefs and the rain forest, this earth is toast."

Michael Berryman

Water Pollution Cause #1: Discarded Trash

One of the reasons so much plastic and other trash ends up in the ocean gyres is because we humans are too focused on making and buying too many products . . . without providing an adequate disposal system for those we've used up. The gyre in the North Pacific is a 7–9 million square mile convergence of trash, brought there by four ocean currents that move in a giant circle where they meet. Due to its location, the gyre has become the main cause of pollution of the Hawaiian Islands, and most of it is discards.

The trash comes from a variety of sources, from people on ships dumping it directly into the ocean, people on beaches leaving trash for others to pick up, people on vacation at lakes and rivers dropping trash where they finish with it, and manufacturers and their transporters dumping their own excess in the most convenient places. It comes from trash in the streets being washed down by rain, and from floods carrying articles out of houses flooded out. All of this we can change, person by person, community by community.

Plastic Resin Pellets - Fish "food" in the open oceans that ends up killing fish and their predators.
Plastic Resin Pellets - Fish "food" in the open oceans that ends up killing fish and their predators. | Source

Pollution Cause #2: Careless Handling & Dumping

When manufacturers of raw plastic pellets (used by other manufacturers to make plastic finished products) have finished converting oil and additives into plastic, they bundle up the tiny pellets into giant plastic bags and ship them off via truck and/or train. The handlers of these bags, wherever they are on the route, commonly drop one or two, or pack them carelessly, so the bags roll off the vehicle onto the ground where they break open. The bag and its scattered plastic pellets are left there to be washed down to the ocean when it rains. These tiny pellets are one of the most common types of plastic found in the bellies of sea life and their predators.

Container ships that transport raw materials and finished products overseas are often overloaded, such that containers stacked on deck (themselves overloaded) slide off into the ocean in rough seas, where they sink to the bottom and release their bounty over time, as container fasteners break down. Container ships have even been known to tip over in port when offloading a too heavy cargo, dumping contents into the bay (photos).

Container ships also have a habit, now illegal but still widely practiced, of dumping their bilge (waste) water into the sea. This bilge water is usually contaminated with oil, which collectively outweighs the amount of oil spilled in the Exxon Valdez incident off the coast of Alaska in 1989. The oil coats everything it touches, including seaweed and plankton - the primary food for fish and many sea mammals (like the baleen whale) - which then prevents the plants from growing further and sickens the wildlife that eats them.

Tossing leftover drugs down the toilet affects the entire water supply system, and way too many people do it. Although water companies do filter out many such drugs, the newer ones are often missed.
Tossing leftover drugs down the toilet affects the entire water supply system, and way too many people do it. Although water companies do filter out many such drugs, the newer ones are often missed. | Source

Cause #3: Discarding Pharmaceuticals

Leftover medications are increasingly contaminating our urban wastewater and downstream waterways. Instead of throwing extra medications and hormones in the trash, where they could be recovered by scavengers, many users (and hospitals) are throwing them down the toilet or pouring them down the sink. This includes veterinary hormones and health treatments, discarded by animal hospitals and factories. In addition, the body excretes any extra drugs it doesn't need, which also goes down the toilet (hopefully).

Eighty percent of our streams are showing contamination by medications now, according to a study by the US Geological Survey. In areas where household water is primarily obtained from wells, families are showing traces of drugs and hormones they haven't themselves taken.

Cause #4: Losing Possessions

Many parents take their children on vacation without teaching them how to keep track of their possessions and without checking for their own. Beach lifeguards and cleanup crews have found watches, sunglasses, balls, clothes, tanning lotion, and other such accidental left-behinds that are washed out into the oceans. Most of these same items have also been found floating in all five ocean gyres (North Pacific, South Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean).

Open Floodplain (Hahamongna Watershed) - The community in the hills beyond is built above, not in the floodplain. This lets the floodplain do its job of absorbing rainwater into the aquafir.
Open Floodplain (Hahamongna Watershed) - The community in the hills beyond is built above, not in the floodplain. This lets the floodplain do its job of absorbing rainwater into the aquafir. | Source

Cause #5: Building in the Wrong Places

We build our houses in flood plains, then wonder why they get caught and destroyed in floods. While homeowners may rationalize that an occasional flood does not warrant buying somewhere else, since insurance will cover it, after all, they end up contributing mightily to water pollution when the flood does come ­– possessions, furniture, crushed building materials, medications and household toxic cleaners, plastic and more plastic. Comparatively little flood debris is ever recovered.

Los Angeles was built in a floodplain. In 1934 a huge flood washed out many of the shops around the Los Angeles River, which had overflowed. The majority of debris ended up in the ocean. Instead of acknowledging a mistake and moving their shops elsewhere, the angry and frightened shop owners demanded that the city do something to prevent another flood. So the city spent millions of dollars changing the shape of the river and designing a storm drain system, which they then made part of the building code, which cities in the area have followed ever since.

Storm Drain Algae Bloom - This green scum is algae that grows on urban and agricultural runoff. It's "purpose" in the oceans is to clean up biological and chemical toxins. It also breathes oxygen, so competes with oxygen-breathing fish.
Storm Drain Algae Bloom - This green scum is algae that grows on urban and agricultural runoff. It's "purpose" in the oceans is to clean up biological and chemical toxins. It also breathes oxygen, so competes with oxygen-breathing fish. | Source

Cause #6: Sending Runoff to the Ocean

In areas like Los Angeles, nearly all of our rainwater now washes out to the sea through the storm drains, carrying surface pollutants with it, away from the earth's own cleanup processes that could be preventing the pollution. Fertilizers, pesticides, and other farm applications also wash out to the sea, causing algae blooms at the mouths of rivers and drainage outlets, and killing local ocean life.

Earth's natural system, which we have seriously disturbed, would have let rainwater sink down into healthy, living soils, taking surface toxins with it. There the existing mycelium and other soil organisms would break the toxins down into usable plant food and harmless leftover substances, at the same allowing clean water to sink further down into groundwater storage.

Unintentionally, with a combination of construction, compacting the earth, laying down impermeable concrete and asphalt surfaces, and seasonal plowing and fertilizing, we have killed off most of these organisms and rendered the earth sterile. This can be reversed.

Water Pollution Solutions: What can individuals do to stop water pollution?

There are really two sides to the solution issue: Cleanup and prevention. Here are some ideas for prevention, many of which you may be doing already:

  • Recycle everything you can, instead of trashing it.

  • Buy less and reuse more to minimize discarded packaging.

  • Buy local goods and food (or grow it yourself) to minimize shipping.

  • Teach your kids to respect and keep track of their possessions. Even make checklists for outings, until they get used to making sure they come home with everything they took there.

  • Find a drug return center like Walgreens or Rite Aid to dispose of unwanted prescription medications.

Reduce pollution from plastic bottles by drinking this . . .
Reduce pollution from plastic bottles by drinking this . . .
. . . not this.
. . . not this. | Source
  • Instead of buying bottled water, buy a kitchen water filter and a strong BPA-free water bottle to fill up for going places. The cheap plastic bottles from bottled water are some of the worst pollution culprits.

  • Make it a point to locate and use the trash bins on beaches, public parks, and city streets.

  • Change your car's oil at a facility that recycles oil, or do it yourself and take the old oil to Pep Boys or another oil collection place. This reduces oil in the streets and storm drains.

  • Do what you can to help the earth regain her natural cleanup systems. Break up any impermeable surfaces in your yard and replace it with rocks, plants, or permeable concrete. Plant mushrooms in dark places all over the yard, so its mycelium can spread throughout the soil (mushrooms are the fruit of mycelium - the plant grows underground). You'll get a ton of side benefits as well, as you'll see in this video.

  • Look on your city's website to see if they have a list of recycling locations. If not, write or call them to ask for one, or compile one yourself and give it to them. Follow the last link below to see what Los Angeles County has done.

  • Keep an eye out for dumped raw materials and report them to the manufacturer, the transportation company, the city or county, and/or the press, especially if it's a regular occurrence.

  • Refuse to build or buy a home built in a floodplain. Make sure your realtor knows that it's important to you. Go online before approaching the realtor to find out what drainage basin factors to consider.

  • Join a nonprofit organization working toward a better, cleaner, healthier world and help prevent pollution in the first place. There are plenty of them around.

  • Help teach the next generation to be cleaner than we have been. Get them involved with you in cleaning up pollution and developing a cleaner family lifestyle.

Taking Action: What would make it worthwhile?

This may seem like a lot of work, but it's perfectly doable if you take it one step at a time. I started recycling in the early 90's. Every year or so I added another practice. More than half of these are now an inherent part of my lifestyle and I like it. Even my giveaways feel valuable, as they spark the lives of those I give them to just a little.

"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It's not."

Dr. Seuss, from The Lorax

The reward, of course, is knowing that you are part of the solution, not the problem. Dreaming of a better world and seeing yourself as helping to create it, walking your talk and drawing others to you as you do, soon you will see a new world emerging from the collective efforts of all - a clean world, healthy and beautiful.

How well are you helping to curb water pollution?

  • Haven't started yet.
  • Already doing 2-3 of these for other reasons.
  • Got nearly all the personal actions down.
  • Taking both personal and public actions. Yes!
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Comments 4 comments

FiltersFastLLC profile image

FiltersFastLLC 4 years ago from Monroe, North Carolina

Great article! Good tips on how to reduce water pollution. If more people followed the advice given, our water supply would be much better off


watergeek profile image

watergeek 4 years ago Author

Don't we wish! If we talk about it and let people know about the changes we're making in our own lives, perhaps more will take action like we are.


Philanthropy2012 profile image

Philanthropy2012 4 years ago from London

Great hub! So great that I created a link from one of my French Pollution hubs to this one :)


watergeek profile image

watergeek 4 years ago Author

Thanks Philanthropy 2012! I appreciate it.

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    watergeek profile image

    watergeek251 Followers
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    Susette has a Masters degree in wise use of natural resources. She leads the Green Council and writes for The Sustainable Business Review.



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