By Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics
June is World Ocean Month. While many of the national and international activities have focused on the 72% of the earth that is covered by water, there is an urgent need to understand how pollutants can affect the ecosystems in the oceans, tributaries, and rivers because our air, land, and water are all interdependent.
It may shock you to know these little known facts about water pollution:
- 80% of the world’s wastewater is released back into the environment.
- 80% of trash in the oceans comes from land-based sources.
- There are some 500 “dead zones” where no living organism can live.
- Oil spills only account for 12% of oil entering the seas every year.
- Around one million seabirds die from ocean litter.
- Almost 50% of plastic has been manufactured since 2000.
- Europe has a plastic recycling rate of 30% — the highest in the world.
- 90% of all plastic waste in oceans comes from just 10 rivers.
- 100,000 marine mammals die annually as a result of plastic pollution.
- Ingesting over 200 pieces of plastic equals certain death.
The Water Cycle Is Important
There is an undeniable connection between the earth’s oceans, rivers, and streams. So it is important to understand the relationship between the oceans and drinking water. Most water in the United States comes from one of three sources:
- Surface Water – The most available drinking water comes from fresh surface water. This is the water we find in lakes, reservoirs, rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, glaciers and ice caps.
- Ocean Water – The vast majority of water in the world is ocean salt water. It accounts for about 98 percent of the water in the world.
- Groundwater – Most of the world’s freshwater is contained in underground aquifers. Water remains in an aquifer an average of 1,400 years and groundwater pollution is extremely difficult to treat because it does not readily wash out.
What’s perhaps more shocking is the interconnected ripple effect of water contamination and pollution, which can come from a multitude of sources. Oversaturated carbon dioxide, greenhouse gas, untreated sewage, leaking septic systems and pesticides all contribute to water quality. According to Water Benefits Health, there are 10 not well-known statistics about U.S. water quality that need to be discussed:
- Over two-thirds of U.S. estuaries and bays are severely degraded because of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution.
- Water quality reports indicate that 45% of U.S. streams, 47 percent of lakes, and 32 percent of bays are polluted.
- Forty percent of America’s rivers are too polluted for fishing, swimming or aquatic life. The lakes are even worse: Over 46% are too polluted for fishing, swimming, or aquatic life.
- Every year almost 25% of U.S. beaches are closed at least once because of water pollution.
- Americans use over 2.2 billion pounds of pesticides every year, which eventually washes into our rivers and lakes.
- More than 73 different kinds of pesticides have been found in U.S. groundwater that eventually end up in our drinking water unless it is adequately filtered.
- The Mississippi River, which drains over 40 percent of the continental U.S., carries an estimated 1.5 million metric tons of nitrogen pollution into the Gulf of Mexico every year. This resulting pollution is the cause of a coastal dead zone the size of Massachusetts every summer.
- Septic systems are failing all around the country, causing untreated waste materials to flow freely into streams, rivers and lakes.
- Over 1.2 trillion gallons of untreated sewage, groundwater, and industrial waste are discharged into U.S. waters annually.
- The five-minute daily shower most Americans take uses more water than a typical person in a developing country uses in a whole day.
A Call for a National Drinking Water Standard
There are calls for a national drinking standard as PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances) contamination concerns grow in numerous states. According to EPA.gov, PFAS are a group of manmade chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and many others. New data show PFAS contamination at 2337 sites in 49 states.
As a result, not only is drinking water unsafe, but in some areas bathing and swimming are potentially harmful. In addition, a recent study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience found that substandard drinking water pipes are partially responsible for the ingestion of inorganic copper which can be partially absorbed into the body and elevate the serum free copper pool.
Flint, Michigan, is just one of several cities that became infamous for poor water quality due to abnormally high lead and copper levels. As a result, in addition to the $100 million from the federal government, the state of Michigan provided Flint with more than $350 million to make water quality improvements and pipe replacements to upgrade healthcare, food sources, and educational resources.
Current Water Quality Cases
Cities, municipalities, and states have taken drastic measures to address water quality concerns. For instance:
Kentucky is updating its water standards to align with the Clean Water Act. Officials from the Medford Water Commission requested residents of the area to voluntarily reduce their water usage due to a “critical” shortage of the chlorine that is used in water treatment processes.
New Mexico is locked in a court battle with the federal government over the cleanup of toxic plumes from past firefighting activities at two U.S. Air Force bases that are affecting the drinking water.
Citizen data scientists in Pennsylvania are documenting algae and water conditions at docks on Lake Wallenpaupack. City officials have solicited volunteers to play a key role in a community-led water quality monitoring program. A community-led approach to data collection engages residents in maintaining water quality standards and is an overall cost savings.
In the Pacific Northwest, one solution was to create a new wastewater treatment plant, ending a century-long practice of dumping millions of gallons of untreated sewage that contained excess levels of nutrients, ammonia, fecal coliform bacteria, microplastics and toxins that harm all parts of Puget Sound and coastal ecosystems.
It’s important to understand the interconnectedness of the environment and the effect on the ecosystem. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awarded $2.5 million to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and Practical Farmers of Iowa as part of the EPA’s Farmer to Farmer grant program.
These projects support improving water quality, habitat, resilience, and peer-to-peer information exchanges among farmers to benefit residents and ecosystems from the northern watersheds all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
So what should you do if you notice a change in the taste of the water? Take action. Switching to bottled water may be expensive, but it is an effective alternative. Water testing is another alternative but might take a while before yielding an accurate analysis. A different test might be needed depending on the household water taste; Does your water taste moldy, musty, bleach-like, bitter, metallic, rotten eggs (smell), salty, or sweet?
Last but not least, report any changes in water quality to local officials. This can help protect potential outbreaks from becoming more widespread.