March 2019: Water Pollution Collection
I opened my eyes and the pain set in immediately. There was no going back to sleep. My throat felt like a desert on a hot summer day. I could hardly swallow and was out of the one thing that could have quickly and easily ended my mystery. I laid there for what felt like eternity, hoping I would magically remember a forgotten water bottle I had stashed somewhere. The tap water in Koh Phangan isn’t potable, and the closest bottled water would have required getting dressed and walking through intense heat to the nearest convenience store. I looked at my backpack and saw my water filter poking out. The insert that came with the filter listed the countries where it could safely be used, and Thailand wasn’t one of them. In my desperate state, I decided to chance it. After all, I only needed one small sip, just enough to wet my throat so I could make it to the store...
For the next 12 hours, I found myself in a deeper hell than I could have ever imagined. The pain I endured that morning was nothing in contrast to the misery I suffered as a consequence of my poor decision. It was a cleanse of epic proportions, and all of my own doing.
From that day on, I never took the clean water that comes out of every tap in the United States for granted. Every day before I go to sleep, I think about all the things I’m grateful for. I recall that day in Thailand, and consider what life would be like without such a simple luxury. It’s so easy to take clean water for granted when we’ve always had it, but if we wish to maintain that privilege, we’re going to have to start paying more attention to it.
Did you know that unsafe water kills more people each year than war and all other forms of violence combined? Global demand for freshwater expected to increase 30% by 2050, but less than 1% of the earth’s freshwater is currently accessible to us. Water pollution is a topic many of us don’t often think about, but should.
When rainfall seeps into the earth and fills the cracks and porous spaces of an aquifer, it becomes "groundwater"—one of our least visible but most important natural resources. I, along with nearly 40% of Americans, rely on groundwater, pumped up to the surface, for drinking water. In many rural areas, it’s their only freshwater source.
Groundwater gets polluted when contaminants—from pesticides and fertilizers to waste leached from landfills and septic systems—make their way into an aquifer, rendering it unsafe for human use. Ridding groundwater of contaminants can be difficult to impossible, as well as costly. Once polluted, an aquifer may be unusable for decades, or even thousands of years. Groundwater can also spread contamination far from the original polluting source as it seeps into streams, lakes, and oceans.
Over 60% of Americans source their freshwater from surface water, such as lakes, rivers and springs. According to a recent EPA survey, nearly HALF of our rivers and streams, and over 1/3 of our lakes, are polluted and unfit for swimming, fishing and drinking.
What’s contaminating these precious sources? Surprisingly, it's the agricultural industry. The very nutrients that plants and animals need to grow are actually major pollutants of our water sources. Every time it rains, farm waste, fertilizers and pesticides wash bacteria and viruses into our waterways. This nutrient pollution is the number one threat to water quality worldwide.
You may have heard of the algal blooms that have been happening in beaches and rivers around the country. It's a toxic soup of blue/green algae that can be harmful to people and wildlife. Last summer, Florida experienced its most toxic bloom in decades. The main cause? You guessed it - agricultural runoff. The nutrient pollution fuels the growth of algae, which eventually decompose and deplete oxygen in the water. This loss of oxygen causes fish and other wildlife to suffocate and makes these aquatic areas uninhabitable.
If you think that's bad, recent research suggests that thanks to increased rainfall from climate change, the worst is yet to come. Without acting to reduce carbon emissions or polluted runoff, nitrogen loading in rivers will increase by 20-30% in the U.S. by the end of the century.
Do you ever wonder what happens to the things you pour down your drain? More than 80% of the world's wastewater flows back into the environment without being treated or reused. That figure rises to 95% in less developed countries. In the U.S., wastewater treatment facilities process about 34bn gallons of wastewater per day. These facilities reduce the amount of pollutants before discharging the treated waters back into the environment. However, these sewage treatment systems are old and get easily overwhelmed. The EPA estimates that over 850bn gallons of untreated wastewater are released into our waterways each year.
The pollutants can include pathogens from sewers as well as heavy metals and toxic chemicals from industrial waste. They come from our sinks, showers, and toilets, from commercial, industrial, and agricultural activities, and from stormwater runoff, which occurs when rainfall carries road salts, oil, grease, chemicals, and debris from impermeable surfaces into our waterways.
Do you know where the vast majority of the oil pollution in our water comes from? While big oil spills dominate headlines, you may be surprised to know that consumers are actually the main culprit. Think about all the oil and gasoline that drip from millions of cars and trucks every day.
Why should we care? Because water pollution kills. In fact, it led to 1.8 million deaths in 2015. Contaminated water can also make you ill. Every year, unsafe water sickens about 1 billion people, with low-income communities disproportionately at risk because their homes are often closest to the most polluting industries. Don't think this can happen here in the U.S.? It has! Recall the lead poisoning incident in Flint, Michigan only 5 years ago. It's a real threat, and can hit close to home. Tomorrow I'll go over some ways we can help keep our most sacred resource pollution-free.
How we can do our part to ensure that the water that comes out of our tap stays clean?
Don't use your sink or toilet as a trash can. Properly dispose of baby wipes, old pills, chemical cleaners, oils, and non-biodegradable items to keep them from ending up down the drain.
Maintain your car so it doesn't leak oil, antifreeze, or coolant.
Avoid using chemical pesticides and herbicides in your yard. Opt for organic alternatives instead.
Pick up after your pup. It's not just neighborly, but scooping up dog poo keeps that bacteria-laden crap from running into storm drains and waterways.
Tell your elected officials that you support the Clean Water Rule.
Donate to organizations that fight for clean water, such as the NRDC. You can do so directly or by purchasing a piece from the Water Pollution Collection.
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