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Grand Canyon University Point and Non Point Pollution Discussion

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Pollution, Water from Global Social Issues: An Encyclopedia View article on Credo Water pollution is any contamination of water with chemicals or other foreign substances that are detrimental to human, plant, or animal health. These pollutants include fertilizers and pesticides from agricultural runoff; sewage and food-processing waste; lead, mercury, chromium, and other heavy metals; chemical wastes from industrial discharges; and contamination from hazardous waste sites. Worldwide, nearly 2 billion people drink contaminated water that could be harmful to their health, and water pollution and contamination are the two largest causes of sickness and death in the world. The sources of water pollution fall into two general categories: point and nonpoint. Point sources refer to identifiable and discrete conveyances, such as pipes, ditches, and tunnels. Nonpoint sources have diffuse origins, and the pollution occurs when rainfall or snowmelt move over and through the ground. As the runoff moves, it picks up and carries away natural and human-made pollutants, finally depositing them into lakes, rivers, wetlands, coastal waters, and groundwaters. Return flows from irrigated agriculture and urban storm water runoff are two widespread examples of nonpoint water pollution. Many factors, such as increasing urbanization, climate change, mining, forest and wetland destruction, the expanding geographic extent of energy exploration, and many other direct and indirect anthropogenic activities, pose significant threats to our water resources. Since water is one of the three primary requirements for life on Earth (energy and organic molecules being the others), failure to properly understand and manage water pollution has severe consequences for civilization. Earth’s Water—A Vital Resource Water is unique because it is the only substance on Earth found in all three states (liquid, solid, and gas) within the planet’s temperature range. Liquid water is essential to life, as it composes approximately 60 percent of the human body by weight and 70 percent of the human brain. Some organisms are 90 percent liquid water by weight. Each day, humans must replace 0.63 gallons (2.4 liters) of water, some through drinking and the rest taken by the body from the foods consumed. Without water humans would not exist. The ability of water to dissolve so many different substances allows cells to use the nutrients, minerals, and chemicals in biological processes. In natural systems, wherever water goes—the air, the ground, streams and lakes, biota, or through our bodies—it takes valuable chemicals, minerals, and nutrients picked up along the way. Globally, the movement of water is cyclical and is called the hydrologic cycle, or water cycle. This movement of water is initiated by solar energy, which evaporates surface water into the atmosphere. Much of this water vapor condenses and falls as some form of precipitation on a distant land surface, where it either evaporates, flows back into the oceans through rivers and streams, is taken up by vegetation and slowly released into the atmosphere as evapotranspiration, or infiltrates into the ground. Groundwater also migrates back to the oceans. Today, there are immense challenges facing humans with respect to securing water for their basic needs and long-term quality of life. Although almost three-fourths of Earth’s surface is covered by water, most of this water is not potable; a high percentage of the fresh water is either frozen, underground, or in a gaseous phase. In addition, water on Earth is very unevenly distributed, from the deserts where it is scarce to the rainforests where it is plentiful. Moreover, the precipitation so critical to replacing our surface and groundwater reservoirs is highly variable and unpredictable. The transport ability of water also means it can carry substances harmful to humans and the environment. If these contaminants are present at a sufficient concentration and the exposure is long enough, harmful effects can occur. The damage can be immediate and obvious—as when oil is washed up on a beach and kills waterfowl—or slow developing and silent, such as the leaking of gasoline from an underground storage tank into a drinking water well. Protecting the oceans is especially critical, since all water on Earth and any residual contaminants present will eventually cycle through this reservoir. The necessity of reducing wastes before they are released into the environment, and decreasing their quantity and toxicity, underscores the close relationship between water quantity and water quality. For example, when the amounts of urban runoff contaminated by sediment, heavy metals, and pesticides are reduced, the quality of the receiving water bodies generally improves. All of these characteristics of water make protecting it for human use very complex, so a successful and sustainable effort will require a combination of political, sociocultural, economic, and technological factors that are guided by science-based planning. Earth’s Water by Source, Volume, and Type Human Development and the History of Water Pollution With the domestication of plants and animals about 12,000 years ago, humans made the transition from nomadic to settled societies. Many of the early human settlements began near a water source in large river valleys, such as the Tigris-Euphrates, Indus, and Nile. Soon, rivers and other water bodies became useful for transportation, water supply (both potable and for agriculture), and as a receptacle for human waste. During the first 11,000 years in which agricultural societies developed and subsequently began to dominate our planet, the importance of clean water was not understood. For example, in ancient Rome, sewers carried human waste into the Tiber River. About 2,300 years ago, this river became so polluted the Romans had to construct aqueducts to obtain clean drinking water. The pollution of water by raw sewage acted as the catalyst for subsequent typhoid and cholera outbreaks in many parts of the world. After the establishment of sedentary agriculture, human population grew slowly. Indeed, it was not until the early 1800s that population reached 1 billion. Improvements in medicine, public health, and living standards spawned by the Industrial Revolution resulted in a population explosion. Yet the connection between water pollution with human waste and the outbreaks of diseases such as cholera was not understood until the 1850s. In 1854, a devastating cholera outbreak occurred in the Soho section of London, centering around the Broad Street well. A physician named John Snow deduced through statistical maps that the cause of the outbreak was contamination of the well. Since no one believed him, Snow suggested taking off the well pump’s handle. Once the well was not in use, the epidemic ended. The cause was later traced to washing a sick baby’s dirty diapers in a cesspool that seeped into the well. Unfortunately for the people of Soho, calls for eliminating cesspools from the vicinity of wells in that area went unheeded for quite some time. Human population has now reached 7 billion people. Over the past 200 years, this impressive quantitative growth in population has been accompanied by rapid urbanization, which has influenced the distribution of people on Earth. As the population living in cities increased, the waste released was directed into streams and landfills without adequate pollution regulations or the infrastructure necessary to minimize its impact on the environment. To make matters worse, after World War II, the type of pollutants involved changed significantly. Industries within the industrialized nations of Asia, North America, South America, Europe, and Australia began manufacturing and using synthetic materials such as plastics, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and inorganic pesticides, including the notorious dichlorodiphenyl trichloroethane, better known as DDT. These materials are toxic, accumulate in the environment, and take a long time to biodegrade. Many of these chemicals and other industrial waste by-products found their way into the water, either through direct dumping or through leaching into groundwater from landfills or dumps. Current Effects of Water Pollution About 2 billion people worldwide still lack access to potable water. The World Health Organization estimates that 78 percent of the people in developing nations do not have clean water supplies, and up to 85 percent of those people live in areas with inadequate sewage treatment. In these areas, cholera outbreaks are an ongoing concern. In New Delhi, for instance, a third of the water supply is lost through cracks in an antiquated delivery system, and much of the sewage from the city is being discharged untreated back into local waterways. A recent United Nations report noted that some 3 billion people globally can be expected to be without clean water and adequate sanitation by the year 2025. Globally, the lack of sanitation and clean water has made diarrhea the second leading cause of child mortality, with most of these deaths occurring in Africa and Asia. The most prevalent water quality problem worldwide is eutrophication, a result of high nutrient loads (mainly phosphorus and nitrogen), which substantially impairs beneficial uses of water. Major nutrient sources include agricultural runoff, domestic sewage (also a source of microbial pollution), industrial effluents, and atmospheric inputs from fossil fuel burning and bush fires. Lake Erie (U.S.-Canada border) and the Baltic Sea (northern Europe) provide two notable examples of this problem. Other widespread consequences of water pollution include accelerated species mortality and the reduction of biodiversity. A primary example of these ecosystem impacts is seen in many of the world’s coral reefs, which have become “bleached.” Coral reef bleaching is the whitening of the organisms that live symbiotically within the corals and results from anthropogenic and natural variations in the reef environment. Coral-bleaching events have been increasing in both frequency and extent worldwide in the past 20 years, with all of the world’s major coral reef regions (Caribbean/western Atlantic, eastern Pacific, central and western Pacific, Indian Ocean, Arabian Gulf, Red Sea) experiencing some degree of this process. Two of the primary human-induced factors are sedimentation from accelerated land erosion and the input of excess organic nutrients from fertilizers. Until only a few decades ago, the oceans had been viewed as limitless and unaffected by human actions. Throughout the world, coastal countries have used the oceans as receptacles for all types of waste, from sewage and sewage sludge, to industrial and radioactive wastes, to munitions and other warfare agents. As a result, harmful red tide events have become more frequent and widespread since the 1980s. A red tide occurs when huge volumes of algae are produced and discolor coastal waters. The algae may deplete oxygen in the waters and/or release toxins that cause illness in humans and other animals. Major factors influencing red tide events include warm ocean surface temperatures, low salinity, high nutrient contents within agricultural runoff, calm seas, and rain followed by sunny days during the summer months. Countries affected by red tide events include Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Denmark, England, France, Guatemala, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Guinea, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, the Philippines, Romania, Russia, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, the United States, and Venezuela. Plastics, other nonbiodegradable materials, and oil spills have also besieged the oceans. Many experts believe that the ocean floor has essentially become a vast underwater dump. In the Pacific Ocean alone, an area the size of the state of Texas has been affected. The occurrence of several large oil spills annually is also a concern, since oil damages the water and marine life for at least a decade. An estimated 4.9 million barrels of crude oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico after the April 2010 explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig and the rupturing of a wellhead a mile underwater. It was considered the worst marine environmental disaster in history. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) Besides the oceans, other major reservoirs of the water on Earth also suffer the extensive impact of pollution. Every day, 2 million tons (1.8 million metric tons) of human waste is disposed of in rivers. Consequences of this pollution include water-borne illness, water shortages, and lowered property values. Groundwater—the largest supply of accessible fresh water—is also at risk. Since groundwater usually flows more slowly than surface water, the pollution within this reservoir stays around longer and can potentially affect the health of more people. As a result, the direct, or hydraulic, connection between groundwater and surface water has become increasingly important as a global issue because larger urban areas are seeking out subsurface supplies for their growing populations. The increase in groundwater withdrawals in urban areas has placed the pollution of groundwater front and center. For example, in the industrial Midwest of the United States, the highly toxic compound hexavalent chromium has been detected in groundwater. Across the world in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, heavy use and contamination have caused groundwater levels to fall. As a result, high concentrations of iron and nitrate have developed, and the groundwater has become brackish near the coast from saltwater intrusion. Population of Megacities Dependent on Groundwater, 2010 Responses For most of the years following the Industrial Revolution, the prevailing attitude toward pollution was that the “solution to pollution is dilution”; that is, the volume of the nearby water body—and especially the oceans—was sufficient to handle whatever pollution it received. This view held up until several high-profile events, such as the major oil spill off the coast of California in 1969, and the inundation of major lakes such as Erie (North America) and Biwa (Japan) with phosphates spurred social action against pollution. Coordinated international action to address ocean pollution began in 1972 with the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matters. This convention was established to control pollution of the sea by dumping of wastes, which could create hazards to human health or harm living to resources and marine life, damage amenities, and interfere with other legitimate uses of the sea. The convention encourages supplementary regional agreements. It calls on parties “to promote measures to prevent pollution by hydrocarbons, other matter transported other than for dumping, wastes generated during operation of ships etc., radioactive pollutants and matter originating from exploration of the sea bed.” To address pollution, many nations have adopted the “Polluter Pays Principle,” which states that the party responsible for producing pollution is responsible for paying for the damage done to the natural environment. This framework has been adopted by most Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and European Community countries. To date, efforts to limit the sources of transboundary pollution, such as acidic precipitation (United States, Canada, and Northern Europe) and groundwater contamination have stalled, as have
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