Sources of Water Pollution

Water pollution is the release of substances into subsurface groundwater or into lakes, streams, rivers, estuaries, and oceans to the point where the substances interfere with beneficial use of the water or with the natural functioning of ecosystems.

In addition to the release of substances, such as chemicals or microorganisms, water pollution may also include the release of energy, in the form of radioactivity or heat, into bodies of water.

Water pollution (Figure 1) affects plants and organisms living in these bodies of water and in almost all cases the effect is damaging not only to individual species and populations, but also to the natural communities.

Sources of Water Pollution

Non-point source

Point sources of pollution are those which have direct identifiable source. Example includes pipe attached to a factory, oil spill from a tanker, effluents coming out from industries.

Point sources of pollution include wastewater effluent (both municipal and industrial) and storm sewer discharge and affect mostly the area near it.

Whereas non-point sources of pollution are those which arrive from different sources of origin and number of ways by which contaminants enter into groundwater or surface water and arrive in the environment from different non identifiable sources.

Examples are runoff from agricultural fields, urban waste etc. Sometimes pollution that enters the environment in one place has an effect hundreds or even thousands of miles away. This is known as trans-boundary pollution.

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One example is the radioactive waste that travels through the oceans from nuclear reprocessing plants to nearby countries.

Water Pollutants

Water bodies can be polluted by a wide variety of substances, including pathogenic microorganisms, putrescible organic waste, plant nutrients, toxic chemicals, sediments, heat, petroleum (oil), and radioactive substances. Several types of water pollutants are discussed below.

Domestic sewage

Domestic sewage is the primary source of pathogens (disease-causing microorganisms) and putrescible organic substances. Because pathogens are excreted in faeces, all sewage from cities and towns is likely to contain pathogens of some type, potentially presenting a direct threat to public health.

Putrescible organic matter presents a different sort of threat to water quality. As organics are decomposed naturally in the sewage by bacteria and other microorganisms, the dissolved oxygen content of the water is depleted.

This endangers the quality of lakes and streams, where high levels of oxygen are required for fish and other aquatic organisms to survive. Sewage-treatment processes reduce the levels of pathogens and organics in wastewater, but they do not eliminate them completely

Domestic sewage is also a major source of plant nutrients, mainly nitrates and phosphates. Excess nitrates and phosphates in water promote the growth of algae, sometimes causing unusually dense and rapid growths known as algal blooms.

When the algae die, oxygen dissolved in the water declines because microorganisms use oxygen to digest algae during the process of decomposition. Anaerobic organisms (organisms that do not require oxygen to live) then metabolize the organic wastes, releasing gases such as methane and hydrogen sulfide, which are harmful to the aerobic (oxygen-requiring) forms of life.

The process by which a lake changes from a clean, clear condition with a relatively low concentration of dissolved nutrients and a balanced aquatic community to a nutrient-rich, algae-filled state and thence to an oxygen- deficient, waste-filled condition is called eutrophication.

Eutrophication is a naturally occurring, slow, and inevitable process. However, when it is accelerated by human activity and water pollution (a phenomenon called cultural eutrophication), it can lead to the premature aging and death of a body of water.

Toxic waste

Waste is considered toxic if it is poisonous, radioactive, explosive, carcinogenic (causing cancer), mutagenic (causing damage to chromosomes), teratogenic (causing birth defects), or bioaccumulative (that is, increasing in concentration at the higher ends of food chains).

Sources of toxic chemicals include improperly disposed wastewater from industrial plants and chemical process facilities (lead, mercury, chromium) as well as surface runoff containing pesticides used on agricultural areas and suburban lawns (chlordane, dieldrin, heptachlor).


Sediment (e.g., silt) resulting from soil erosion can be carried into water bodies by surface runoff. Suspended sediment interferes with the penetration of sunlight and upsets the ecological balance of a body of water. Also, it can disrupt the reproductive cycles of fish and other forms of life, and when it settles out of suspension it can smother bottom-dwelling organisms.

Thermal pollution

Heat is considered to be a water pollutant because it decreases the capacity of water to hold dissolved oxygen in solution, and it increases the rate of metabolism of fish.

Valuable species of game fish (e.g., trout) cannot survive in water with very low levels of dissolved oxygen. A major source of heat is the practice of discharging cooling water from power plants into rivers; the discharged water may be as much as 15 °C (27 °F) warmer than the naturally occurring water.


Petroleum (oil) pollution occurs when oil from roads and parking lots is carried in surface runoff into water bodies.

Accidental oil spills are also a source of oil pollution as in the devastating spills from the tanker Exxon Valdez (which released more than 260,000 barrels in Alaska‘s Prince William Sound in 1989) and from the Deep water Horizon oil rig (which released more than 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010). Oil slicks eventually move toward shore, harming aquatic life and damaging recreation areas.

Agrochemical pollution

Improper disposal of pesticides from field farms and excessive fertilizer application contribute a lot of pollutants to water bodies and soils. Some of the pesticides are: DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), Aldrin, Dieldrin, Malathion, Hexachloro Benzene etc.

Pesticides reach water bodies through surface runoff from agricultural fields, drifting from spraying, washing down of precipitation and direct dusting and spraying of pesticides in low lying areas polluting the water quality.

Most of them are non-biodegradable and persistent in the environment for long period of time. These chemicals may reach human through food chain leading

Industrial wastes

Some industries such as steel and paper industries are situated along river bank for their huge requirement amount of water in manufacturing processes and finally their wastes containing acids, alkalies, dyes and other chemicals are dumped and poured down into rivers as effluents.

Groundwater and Ocean

Groundwater: water contained in underground geologic formations called aquifers, is a source of drinking water for many people. For example, a lot of people in Nigeria depend on groundwater for their domestic water supply.

Although groundwater may appear crystal clear (due to the natural filtration that occurs as it flows slowly through layers of soil), it may still be polluted by dissolved chemicals and by bacteria and viruses.

Sources of chemical contaminants include poorly designed or poorly maintained subsurface sewage-disposal systems (e.g., septic tanks), industrial wastes disposed of in improperly lined or unlined landfills or lagoons, leachates from unlined municipal refuse landfills, mining and petroleum production, and leaking underground storage tanks below gasoline service stations.

In coastal areas, increasing withdrawal of groundwater (due to urbanization and industrialization) can cause saltwater intrusion: as the water table drops, seawater is drawn into wells.

Although estuaries and oceans contain vast volumes of water, their natural capacity to absorb pollutants is limited. Contamination from sewage outfall pipes, from dumping of sludge or other wastes, and from oil spills can harm marine life, especially microscopic phytoplankton that serve as food for larger aquatic organisms.

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Sometimes, unsightly and dangerous waste materials can be washed back to shore, littering beaches with hazardous debris. By 2010, an estimated 4.8 million and 12.7 million tons (between 5.3 million and 14 million tons) of plastic debris had been dumped into the oceans annually, and floating plastic waste had accumulated in Earth‘s five subtropical gyres that cover 40 percent of the world‘s oceans.

Another ocean pollution problem is the seasonal formation of dead zones‖ (i.e., hypoxic areas, where dissolved oxygen levels drop so low that most higher forms of aquatic life vanish) in certain coastal areas.

The cause is nutrient enrichment from dispersed agricultural runoff and concomitant algal blooms. Dead zones occur worldwide; one of the largest of these (sometimes as large as 22,730 square km [8,776 square miles]) forms annually in the Gulf of Mexico, beginning at the Mississippi River delta.

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Benadine Nonye

An Agric. Consultant & a Writer. - National Diploma in Agricultural Technology - Bachelor's Degree in Agricultural Science - Master's Degree in Science Education... Visit My Websites On: - For Scientific Research Based Agricultural Knowledge and Innovations. - For Practical Agricultural Knowledge and Natural Health Benefits. - For Proper Waste Management and Recycling Practices. Join Me On: Twitter: @benadinenonye - Instagram: benadinenonye - LinkedIn: benadinenonye - YouTube: Agric4ProfitsTV - Pinterest: BenadineNonye4u - Facebook: BenadineNonye

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