A practical definition of water pollution is: "Water pollution is the addition of substances or energy forms that directly or indirectly alter the nature of the water body in such a manner that negatively affects its legitimate uses".: 6 Therefore, pollution is associated with concepts attributed to humans, namely the negative alterations and the uses of the water body. Water is typically referred to as polluted when it is impaired by anthropogenic contaminants. Due to these contaminants it either does not support a human use, such as drinking water, or undergoes a marked shift in its ability to support its biotic communities, such as fish.
The major groups of pathogenic organisms are: (a) bacteria, (b) viruses, (c) protozoans and (d) helminths.: 47 In practice, indicator organisms are used to investigate pathogenic pollution of water because the detection of pathogenic organisms in water sample is difficult and costly, because of their low concentrations. The indicators (bacterial indicator) of fecal contamination of water samples most commonly used are: total coliforms (TC), fecal coliforms (FC) or thermotolerant coliforms, escherichia coli (EC).: 47
In 2022, the most comprehensive study of pharmaceutical pollution of the world's rivers found that it threatens "environmental and/or human health in more than a quarter of the studied locations". It investigated 1,052 sampling sites along 258 rivers in 104 countries, representing the river pollution of 470 million people. It found that "the most contaminated sites were in low- to middle-income countries and were associated with areas with poor wastewater and waste management infrastructure and pharmaceutical manufacturing" and lists the most frequently detected and concentrated pharmaceuticals.
Solid waste can enter water bodies through untreated sewage, combined sewer overflows, urban runoff, people discarding garbage into the environment, wind carrying municipal solid waste from landfills and so forth. This results in macroscopic pollution– large visible items polluting the water– but also microplastics pollution that is not directly visible. The terms marine debris and marine plastic pollution are used in the context of pollution of oceans.
Microplastics persist in the environment at high levels, particularly in aquatic and marine ecosystems, where they cause water pollution. 35% of all ocean microplastics come from textiles/clothing, primarily due to the erosion of polyester, acrylic, or nylon-based clothing, often during the washing process.
Thermal pollution, sometimes called "thermal enrichment", is the degradation of water quality by any process that changes ambient water temperature. Thermal pollution is the rise or fall in the temperature of a natural body of water caused by human influence. Thermal pollution, unlike chemical pollution, results in a change in the physical properties of water. A common cause of thermal pollution is the use of water as a coolant by power plants and industrial manufacturers.Urban runoff—stormwater discharged to surface waters from rooftops, roads and parking lots—and reservoirs can also be a source of thermal pollution. Thermal pollution can also be caused by the release of very cold water from the base of reservoirs into warmer rivers.
Industrial processes that use water also produce wastewater. This is called industrial wastewater. Using the US as an example, the main industrial consumers of water (using over 60% of the total consumption) are power plants, petroleum refineries, iron and steel mills, pulp and paper mills, and food processing industries. Some industries discharge chemical wastes, including solvents and heavy metals (which are toxic) and other harmful pollutants.
Industrial wastewater could add the following pollutants to receiving water bodies if the wastewater is not treated and managed properly:
Nonpoint source (NPS) pollution refers to diffuse contamination (or pollution) of water or air that does not originate from a single discrete source. This type of pollution is often the cumulative effect of small amounts of contaminants gathered from a large area. It is in contrast to point source pollution which results from a single source. Nonpoint source pollution generally results from land runoff, precipitation, atmospheric deposition, drainage, seepage, or hydrological modification (rainfall and snowmelt) where tracing pollution back to a single source is difficult. Nonpoint source water pollution affects a water body from sources such as polluted runoff from agricultural areas draining into a river, or wind-borne debris blowing out to sea. Nonpoint source air pollution affects air quality, from sources such as smokestacks or car tailpipes. Although these pollutants have originated from a point source, the long-range transport ability and multiple sources of the pollutant make it a nonpoint source of pollution; if the discharges were to occur to a body of water or into the atmosphere at a single location, the pollution would be single-point.
Agriculture is a major contributor to water pollution from nonpoint sources. The use of fertilizers as well as surface runoff from farm fields, pastures and feedlots leads to nutrient pollution. In addition to plant-focused agriculture, fish-farming is also a source of pollution. Additionally, agricultural runoff often contains high levels of pesticides.
Water pollution may be analyzed through several broad categories of methods: physical, chemical and biological. Some methods may be conducted in situ, without sampling, such as temperature. Others involve collection of samples, followed by specialized analytical tests in the laboratory. Standardized, validated analytical test methods, for water and wastewater samples have been published.
The use of a biomonitor or bioindicator is described as biological monitoring. This refers to the measurement of specific properties of an organism to obtain information on the surrounding physical and chemical environment. Biological testing involves the use of plant, animal or microbial indicators to monitor the health of an aquatic ecosystem. They are any biological species or group of species whose function, population, or status can reveal what degree of ecosystem or environmental integrity is present. One example of a group of bio-indicators are the copepods and other small water crustaceans that are present in many water bodies. Such organisms can be monitored for changes (biochemical, physiological, or behavioral) that may indicate a problem within their ecosystem.
Water pollution is a major global environmental problem because it can result in the degradation of aquatic ecosystems. The specific contaminants leading to pollution in water include a wide spectrum of chemicals, pathogens, and physical changes such as elevated temperature. While many of the chemicals and substances that are regulated may be naturally occurring (calcium, sodium, iron, manganese, etc.) the concentration usually determines what is a natural component of water and what is a contaminant. High concentrations of naturally occurring substances can have negative impacts on aquatic flora and fauna. Oxygen-depleting substances may be natural materials such as plant matter (e.g. leaves and grass) as well as man-made chemicals. Other natural and anthropogenic substances may cause turbidity (cloudiness) which blocks light and disrupts plant growth, and clogs the gills of some fish species.
Nitrogen pollution (a form of water pollution where excessive amounts of nutrients are added to a water body), can cause eutrophication, especially in lakes. Eutrophication is an increase in the concentration of chemical nutrients in an ecosystem to an extent that increases the primary productivity of the ecosystem. Depending on the degree of eutrophication, subsequent negative environmental effects such as anoxia (oxygen depletion) and severe reductions in water quality may occur, affecting fish and other animal populations.: 131
View of secondary treatment reactors (activated sludge process) at the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant, Washington, D.C., United States. Seen in the distance are the sludge digester building and thermal hydrolysis reactors.
Pollution control philosophy
One aspect of environmental protection are mandatory regulations but they are only part of the solution. Other important tools in pollution control include environmental education, economic instruments, market forces and stricter enforcements. Standards can be "precise" (for a defined quantifiable minimum or maximum value for a pollutant), or "imprecise" which would require the use of Best Available Technology (BAT) or Best Practicable Environmental Option (BPEO). Market-based economic instruments for pollution control can include: charges, subsidies, deposit or refund schemes, the creation of a market in pollution credits, and enforcement incentives.
Moving towards a holistic approach in chemical pollution control combines the following approaches: Integrated control measures, trans-boundary considerations, complementary and supplementary control measures, life-cycle considerations, the impacts of chemical mixtures.
Well-designed and operated systems (i.e., with secondary treatment stages or more advanced tertiary treatment) can remove 90 percent or more of the pollutant load in sewage. Some plants have additional systems to remove nutrients and pathogens. While such advanced treatment techniques will undoubtedly reduce the discharges of micropollutants, they can also result in large financial costs, as well as environmentally undesirable increases in energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
Sewer overflows during storm events can be addressed by timely maintenance and upgrades of the sewerage system. In the US, cities with large combined systems have not pursued system-wide separation projects due to the high cost, but have implemented partial separation projects and green infrastructure approaches. In some cases municipalities have installed additional CSO storage facilities or expanded sewage treatment capacity.
Industrial wastewater treatment
Industrial wastewater treatment describes the processes used for treating wastewater that is produced by industries as an undesirable by-product. After treatment, the treated industrial wastewater (or effluent) may be reused or released to a sanitary sewer or to a surface water in the environment. Some industrial facilities generate wastewater that can be treated in sewage treatment plants. Most industrial processes, such as petroleum refineries, chemical and petrochemical plants have their own specialized facilities to treat their wastewaters so that the pollutant concentrations in the treated wastewater comply with the regulations regarding disposal of wastewaters into sewers or into rivers, lakes or oceans.: 1412 This applies to industries that generate wastewater with high concentrations of organic matter (e.g. oil and grease), toxic pollutants (e.g. heavy metals, volatile organic compounds) or nutrients such as ammonia.: 180 Some industries install a pre-treatment system to remove some pollutants (e.g., toxic compounds), and then discharge the partially treated wastewater to the municipal sewer system.: 60
Sediment from construction sites can be managed by installation of erosion controls, such as mulching and hydroseeding, and sediment controls, such as sediment basins and silt fences. Discharge of toxic chemicals such as motor fuels and concrete washout can be prevented by use of spill prevention and control plans, and specially designed containers (e.g. for concrete washout) and structures such as overflow controls and diversion berms.
Erosion caused by deforestation and changes in hydrology (soil loss due to water runoff) also results in loss of sediment and, potentially, water pollution.
Control of urban runoff (storm water)
Effective control of urban runoff involves reducing the velocity and flow of stormwater, as well as reducing pollutant discharges. Local governments use a variety of stormwater management techniques to reduce the effects of urban runoff. These techniques, called best management practices for water pollution (BMPs) in some countries, may focus on water quantity control, while others focus on improving water quality, and some perform both functions.
Share of water bodies with good water quality in 2020 (a water body is classified as "good" quality if at least 80% of monitoring values meet target quality levels, see also SDG 6, Indicator 6.3.2)
Some examples for legislation to control water pollution are listed below:
In the Philippines, Republic Act 9275, otherwise known as the Philippine Clean Water Act of 2004, is the governing law on wastewater management. It states that it is the country's policy to protect, preserve and revive the quality of its fresh, brackish and marine waters, for which wastewater management plays a particular role.
The Clean Water Act is the primary federal law in the United States governing water pollution in surface waters. The 1972 CWA amendments established a broad regulatory framework for improving water quality. The law defines procedures for pollution control and developing criteria and standards for pollutants in surface water. The law authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate surface water pollution in the United States, in partnership with state agencies. Prior to 1972 it was legal to discharge wastewater to surface waters without testing for or removing water pollutants. The CWA was amended in 1981 and 1987 to adjust the federal proportion of construction grant funding for local governments, regulate municipal storm sewer discharges and to later establish the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. The fund provides low-interest loans to improve municipal sewage treatment systems and finance other water quality improvements.
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^Arvaniti and Stasinakis, 2015. Review on the occurrence, fate and removal of perfluorinated compounds during wastewater treatment. Science of the Total Environment vol. 524-525, August 2015, p. 81-92. Arvaniti and Stasinakis, 2015
^Bletsou et al., 2013. Mass loading and fate of linear and cyclic siloxanes in a wastewater treatment plant in Greece. Environmental Science and Technology vol. 47, January 2015, p. 1824-1832. Bletsou et al., 2013
^Gatidou et al., 2016. Drugs of abuse and alcohol consumption among different groups of population on the Greek island of Lesvos through sewage-based epidemiology. Science of the Total Environment vol. 563-564, September 2016, p. 633-640. Gatidou et al., 2016
^Gatidou et al. 2019. Review on the occurrence and fate of microplastics in Sewage Treatment Plants. Journal of Hazardous Materials, vol. 367, April 2019, p. 504-512. Gatidou et al., 2019