Top 17 Causes of Water Pollution in 2024

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Water pollution is one of the biggest global problems we face today. In this article, we’ve listed the top 17 causes of water pollution that everyone should be aware of.

Plastics and other wastes floating in the ocean

📈 17 Most Common Causes of Water Pollution

  1. Rapid urban development – Urban development causes land disturbances, such as the building of new housing developments, roads, and commercial and industrial facilities. The increased use of chemicals and detergents, and the increase in industrial waste and exhaust emissions from a growing population, elevate the risk of local surface water pollution.
  2. Sewage and wastewater dumping – After sewage and wastewater is treated at a sewage treatment plant, it is released into the ocean with fresh water. The pollutants and pathogens in this contaminated water breed disease, potentially harming or killing marine species.
  3. Industrial waste – Some of the biggest contributors to global water pollution are industrial facilities and sites. Many industrial sites release gases, chemicals and pollutants into the environment. While industrial pollution in the US is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, it’s still common for industries to have poor waste disposal practices.
  4. Climate change – Rising temperatures caused by climate change heat up our oceans, lakes, and rivers, threatening aquatic life and causing many water-dwelling species to die. When large numbers of aquatic organisms die, this further pollutes the water supply. Rising CO2 levels also increase water’s acidity.
  5. Farming activities – Fertilizer runoff is a major agricultural source of water pollution. Fertilizers used to maximize crop growth on agricultural land run into water bodies and are carried downstream to lakes and reservoirs, potentially polluting the local drinking water supply. Alongside nutrient pollution, fertilizers in water cause algal blooms, which kill off plants and fish. Agricultural pollution is common in rural areas.
  6. Marine dumping – Polluted water in the ocean is predominantly caused by marine dumping. Marine debris blown from landfills or garbage from storm drains often ends up in the ocean, having a significant impact on marine life, contaminating the food chain, and destroying aquatic ecosystems. Most garbage in the ocean takes up to 200 years to completely decompose.
  7. Oil spills – Small and large oil spills, including oil spills from large boats and minor oil leaks from vehicles, all contribute to water pollution. Oil pollution may be direct – such as ferries or freighters spilling water directly into the sea – or indirect – such as an oil spill on the road polluting a storm drain and ending up in a water system.
  8. Chemical waste dumping – Toxic substances may be dumped accidentally or on purpose into lakes or streams, and gradually make their way into the ocean. Examples of toxic waste produced by factories are polychlorinated biphenyls, detergents, and heavy metals like lead. Chemicals in contaminated air may also pollute water supplies due to rainfall or snow.
  9. Radioactive waste disposal – Uranium mining or the release of waste from nuclear power plants causes radioactive substances to pollute the air, water, and soil. Radioactive waste has a half-life of hundreds to thousands of years, so once it enters the environment, removing it is incredibly difficult.
  10. Mining activities – Mining involves crushing rocks to obtain materials that can be used for infrastructure, technology development, and electricity generation. Shifting and crushing rocks containing sulfides and metals pollutes the local land. Rainwater and surface drainage at the mine site carry these pollutants through soils and into lakes, rivers, and groundwater sources, degrading their water quality and harming or killing aquatic life.
  11. Accidental leaks and spills – Not all water pollution is intentional. Industries involved in handling and storing chemicals are occasionally responsible for accidental leaks and spillages, causing toxic chemicals and other water pollutants to contaminate surface and groundwater sources.
  12. Deliberate or illegal waste discharges – All facilities that dump waste must hold a permit according to EPA regulations, but due to the high cost of “proper” waste disposal, deliberate or illegal waste disposal still happens today.
  13. Construction activities – On a day-to-day basis, construction sites use paints, harmful chemicals, solvents, cleaners, diesel, and oils, which are discharged into the surrounding environment and eventually end up in groundwater.
  14. Improper household disposal – Household chemicals, personal care products, and medications are all incorrectly disposed of by humans every day. Water treatment facilities aren’t designed to handle these contaminants, and water quality decreases significantly. Controlling our use and disposal of household products is the only way to minimize this contribution to water contamination.
  15. Improper disposal of batteries – Most batteries need to be recycled at special facilities to prevent pollution. Corroding batteries in landfill are known to leak cadmium, mercury, and other chemicals into soil, which eventually pollutes water bodies.
  16. Leaking landfills – When waste and garbage break down in landfills and water flows through that waste, a highly toxic liquid called leachate is formed. The exact formation of leachate depends on the waste found at the landfill site. This liquid may pollute the earth’s surface, groundwater, and potable water sources.
  17. Animal waste – Waste from animals contributes to the biological pollution of surface water sources, like rivers and streams. Likely sources of animal waste in surface water are manure land runoff, septic systems, feedlot runoff, and direct animal deposits.
  • Laura Shallcross
    Senior Editor

    Laura is a passionate residential water treatment journalist who holds an undergraduate degree in Print Journalism and a master’s degree in Creative Writing. Over a span of 5 years she's written on a range of topics including water softening, well water treatment, and purification processes.

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