Everyone can recognize that litter is bad, but not but not all water pollution is as easy to see as a discarded bottle. To add to the confusion, in many cases it’s hard to pinpoint where a pollutant is coming from and how it can be controlled.
Do You Have Dirty Drinking Water?
You probably don’t spend a lot of time worrying about if your drinking water is safe or not. After all, mankind has found countless ways to tame and treat water. So you might be surprised to hear that even in North America the water pollution levels in public water can overwhelm treatment plants. In the most serious incidents all that can be done is to issue do-not-drink warnings to residents and hope the stores don’t sell out of bottled water.
In 2014, residents of Toledo, Ohio were advised not to drink their water due to increased phosphorus and algae blooms. The toxins released by these algae blooms are known to damage the liver and nervous system in humans let alone the countless other creatures impacted. From that one event over half a million people were impacted thanks to the tainted water from the city’s water source, Lake Erie. Despite the lake being the source of water for countless residents in the US and Canada, it’s remained the most polluted of the Great Lakes.
This is just one of many examples of how water systems can quickly be spoiled. While events like this are largely the result of business activity, there are consumer goods that are contributing to our water pollution problem as well.
Sunscreen Keeps You Safe But Kills Coral
One of the most essential items for any outdoor activity is sunscreen, but most commercial sunscreens contain chemicals that scientists have discovered kill coral reefs. You may think it’s just some sunscreen, a little bit won’t hurt, but research suggests that up to 6,000 TONS of sunscreen is entering our water each year and subsequently damaging our coral reefs. (That’s a lot of us pasty-white people trying to cover up!)
Unfortunately no sunscreen is completely reef-friendly, but the most harmful chemicals can usually be avoided by choosing brands that use titanium oxide or zinc oxide as their active ingredient. Another alternative is to wear a physical barrier such as a hat or shirt, but even that isn’t necessarily water-pollution free.
You Can’t Escape Microfibers
While physical barriers provide protection from the sun without seeping chemicals into the water, researchers have found that our clothes may be contributing to a new problem: microfibers. Microfibers are small bits of plastic that are shed when we wash any synthetic clothes. Yoga pants, moisture wicking shirts, and fleece blankets are just some of the items that cause this pollution.
Patagonia is one of the companies trying to understand what impact microfibers have on the environment. The study done by Patagonia showed that while older clothing items shed more microfibers than new items, that was not the sole factor in determining how many fibers were discarded after a wash. What detergent was used and what temperature water the wash cycle was set for also contributed to an increased microfiber blowout.
Not the Fiber You Want in Your Diet
While nobody wants to eat little bits of plastic, the idea that these shreds are microscopic makes them seem less troublesome to the average person. Unfortunately, our digestive system is much more sensitive than our eyesight and these microfibers will make you uncomfortably sick. The research suggests that these microfibers cause gastrointestinal infections in humans and more complex issues in aquatic life. Plastics can be such a pain in the butt!
While microfibers are still a concern, there’ve been successful efforts to eliminate other microplastics from our waterways.
Feeding Our Fish Microbead Trash
Remember seeing small plastic beads in your favorite liquid hand soaps a few years back? Turns out they were just adding to the microplastic water pollution, but thanks to regulations and environmentally conscious companies, they’re a thing of the past!
In 2015, a bill was passed to make the plastic beads illegal to put into personal health products after it was discovered that about 8 trillion microbeads were making their way into our water systems. (That’s enough to coat the surface of 300 tennis courts every day!)
At the time, much was unknown about this type of pollution but the sheer volumes caused concern among all government agencies and representatives. In just a few short years we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in microbead pollution. Unlike the issue of microbead pollution, microfiber pollution is going to be more challenging to combat since there is no one unified source.
Troubled Waters Upstream
While it’s no secret that the White House would like to defund the EPA, some states are also pushing for regulation changes that would impact water quality. West Virginia recently passed a bill through both chambers of the State Legislature that would allow for an increase in waste to be dumped in rivers with the hopes that dilution would happen in the larger bodies of water these rivers empty into making it…someone else’s problem.
This problem demonstrates a key concern with water pollution prevention. The waters from West Virginia run into two large bodies of water, the Chesapeake Bay and the Mississippi River. In other words, these regulations will have a direct impact on the water of at least 13 other states. It’s not just a problem with one state or even one country and so the solution requires a lot of cooperation. (Which isn’t really one of our planet’s strengths right now!)
What You Can Do Locally
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time of course! I know it’s a joke that’s been told a million times, but the theme rings true for tackling any large scale problem; you have to start somewhere.
We might wait a long time for our waterways to be granted the same rights as people, so it’s best to focus on what you can do as part of a group or as an individual. In Washington State, various groups have worked together to remove 20 tons (40,000 pounds) of trash from state beaches. This doesn’t just have a positive impact on beach visitors, but can save wildlife from an unfortunate fate.
As an individual there are countless lifestyle changes that you can make that can limit the introduction of water pollutants into our environment. Here are a few ideas:
- Use sunscreen that uses titanium oxide or zinc oxide as the active ingredient
- Minimize the use of fragrant chemical detergents and fabric softeners when washing laundry
- Avoid harsh chemical cleaners like bleach and opt for lemon juice or white vinegar instead
- Dispose of old prescription medications at your municipal facility
- Dispose of paint, oil, and other toxic liquids at your municipal facility
- Don’t rely on pesticides and fertilizers in your garden
- If you have a sump pump make sure it doesn’t drain into a sanitary sewer system
- Hard surfaces like concrete and asphalt redirect rainwater make sure you’re not accidentally draining that water into a sanitary sewer system
- Maintain your storm water runoff system and plant vegetation near the drain to reduce erosion
It’s that simple (I know, it actually takes some work) to help save our water. Using common sense and being responsible will keep you on the right track!