Water pollution is the contamination of our rivers, lakes, public beaches, and drinking water by unwanted agents known to cause illness, disease, and death. The pollution can be biological, such as an unwanted bacteria or parasites. It may be a chemical known to cause cancer, which has been discharged from an industrial waste site. The ill effects of water pollution can range from a mild inconvenience to a serious health problem in humans. Animals and fish, even more sensitive to many pollutants and toxins, can be placed at risk when the ecological system of our rivers and lakes is disrupted. Whatever form the water pollution takes, it places California's scarce and most precious commodity at particular risk. Everyone has an individual responsibility to curb the pollution that threatens the health of the population, the safety of the food and water supply, and ultimately has a devastating impact on the economy of California.
When toxic chemicals spill into the water system the wildlife that depends on that supply suffers. In the case of an oil spill from a tanker, the results are fast and obvious. The oily sludge permeates their fur and feathers handicapping any hope of the animal's survival. This form of pollution is highly visible and causes damage that can be easily measured and evaluated. We can readily see the animals die as they encounter this water pollution. However, other types of pollution that threaten California's wildlife are not so readily apparent.
Industrial chemicals that leach into our water supply, streams, and lakes may not be visible to the human eye but threaten to destroy our food chain. They may not kill fish instantly as the fish survive the moderate levels of the toxins that are present. However, many industrial pollutants, build up in the fish and wildlife over time. PCBs, a known carcinogen that is now prohibited, continues to persist in our environment and water supply years after it was banned (Environmental Defense Fund). When a human eats the fish, they ingest the pollutants that have been stored. Consuming this source of food on a regular basis can cause severe health problems and lead to death.
Often times when wastewater from a sewage system is improperly discharged into the environment it contaminates a public area that is used for swimming or recreation. This contaminated wastewater carries potentially dangerous viruses, parasites, and bacteria with it. The effects of these waterborne pathogens can be as mild as a case of diarrhea or as serious as meningitis. High fever, liver infection, and birth defects have all been traced to water pollution caused by contaminated wastewater discharged into a public lake or beach (Nester et al). Though these contaminates do occasionally foul our drinking water supply, the most likely contact the public has is at a common recreational area.
According to DiGiacomo, Washburn, Holt and Jones, “Treated municipal wastewater from urban areas of the Southern California Bight is commonly discharged into the coastal ocean […] interfering with human activities near shore such as swimming fishing, and surfing” (1018). The surfactants in these wastewater plumes are primarily man made and include detergents, solvents, and human waste (DiGiacomo et al. 1021). These waste products are toxic to wildlife and humans.
The CDC documents all reported cases of illness caused by polluted water and found during the period of 1995-1996 of the 12000 cases of disease caused by contaminated water, a full 75 percent were contracted in a public beach or swimming facility (Nester et al.). These statistics show not only the seriousness of the illnesses associated with water pollution, it also points out the widespread scope of the threat to our public beaches.
Often these pollutants are the direct result of improperly disposed of waste near a population center. This carries a serious risk of contaminating a water supply for a city. This has happened many times in large and small communities such as the cryptosporidium outbreak in Milwaukee in 1993 (Corso et al.). The germs are familiar to anyone who reads the news these days. Salmonella, streptococcus suis, hepatitis E virus, and e-coli are recognizable killers that may be passed to humans by indirect contact with fecal wastes (Corso et al.). It is of the utmost importance that these waste products be processed in a fashion that prevents their entry into public water supplies.
A more serious and long term problem caused by water pollution is the presence of chemicals that may be of odorless and colorless but known to pose a long-term health risk. There are over 100,000 different synthetic organic chemicals in use around the world and many of them are present in our drinking water (Nadakavukaren). Many of these are known to cause cancer, chronic and acute illness, and birth defects. Due to the extreme toxicity of these substances, minute quantities are all that are required to pose a grave health danger.
The long term consequences of water pollution lie in the difficulty in cleaning up the drinking water once it is contaminated. MTBE is a chemical additive used in the manufacturing of gasoline. California has suffered from the migration of MTBE from refinery sites and into the local groundwater near Santa Monica. According to the EPA, “Soon after the discovery of the MTBE pollution at the City of Santa Monica's wellfield, these wells were shut down. Southern California Water Company then shut down their wells in order to prevent the spread of contamination to these wells” (“MTBE Contaminated Wells”). This action took place 10 years ago and is still in effect with no solution in sight. With the scarcity of water today, California can not afford to abuse and lose any of this precious commodity through negligence such as this.
Other sinister chemicals leach into our water supply through more subtle methods. Lead used to solder copper water pipes can slowly dissolve into the water as the solder corrodes and threaten the person who drinks it with lead poisoning. Older homes built before the public's awareness of lead poisoning are particularly at risk due to substandard plumbing and the composition of the solder (Nadakavukaren). The long term exposure to other chemicals, such as benzene, dioxin, and PCBs, account for a growing increase in leukemia, cancer, and organ disease.
Once in the water supply, these chemicals are difficult if not impossible to eliminate. Biological agents that find their way into our drinking water, if not treated properly, can cause typhoid and cholera epidemics (Guttman). Yet, the unseen and undetected chemicals that are present in our water supply may pose an even graver threat to the public. Water pollution has indeed been shown to be the source of many illnesses and disease and poses a serious problem to human health.
As devastating to health as these risks are, they also carry dire economic consequences. Tourism suffers a setback when beaches are unsafe or undesirable to swim in. Attendance at outdoor recreation areas, parks, and fishing locations will be reduced if there is a warning of unsafe water. Real estate values plummet when they are located next to or near a toxic lake or pond. According to an article in Money Magazine, “[…] clean water and clean air are two of the most important factors Americans consider in choosing a place to live” (qtd. in U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). Entire neighborhoods may be abandoned if the water supply is unsafe or unfit to use.
Food crops that are irrigated with contaminated water may become unfit for consumption as was seen in the recent warning on California spinach and lettuce. If there is a perception that the food chain is unhealthy, exports can be sanctioned as other countries move to protect their population. Tourism and agriculture are California's two leading industries and can be easily threatened by a tainted water supply.
Embarking on the road to cleanup can be greatly aided by a public awareness campaign. Individuals may be polluting the water supply unintentionally and without their conscious knowledge. Water that flows across polluted property contributes to the pollution and may be solved by local remedies. According to McManus, when it rains the runoff water flows across the yard and down the street and that, “runoff water was probably picking up oil, chemicals, pesticides and sediments built up on lawns, driveways and streets as it flowed…” (McManus). This problem is magnified when confronted by the high population density in California. Yet, there are simple solutions to this problem.
Craig Tufts, chief naturalist for the National Wildlife Federation, says, “Storm water runoff is one of the biggest sources of surface water pollution in this country” (qtd. in McManus). He suggests using a system of rain gardens that contain the runoff and prevents it from entering the public system. The EPA has a national program to control runoff on a larger scale through their watershed restoration project. The EPA's Clean Water Action Plan states, “Watershed restoration programs nationwide have demonstrated that partnerships promoting voluntary stewardship can protect America’s water resources and restore even badly degraded conditions…” (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). Unfortunately, as easy and inexpensive as this may be, California has recently received a 'failing' grade from the EPA for their lack of attention paid to watersheds (“Most States Ignore”). Preventing water pollution starts at home with public awareness and action by individual citizens.
To further prevent water pollution demands a multi-faceted approach to target the individual points where toxins enter the water supply. Legislation is needed that will require not only the safe handling and storage of chemicals, but also penalties that seriously discourage mishandling. Infrastructure needs to be upgraded so that wastewater is not dumped into the ocean. Industrial sights that store underground chemicals need to be upgraded to assure absolutely no leakage. Stricter legislation also means that the government needs to devote more research money on science to create new ways to deal with our waste products.
Recycling and returning many materials would be practical if the necessary research could be funded. Storm drain runoff could also be controlled to assure that it flows to areas that will not pollute public areas. The public needs to use common sense and begin to think of the environment as an extension of their own home. Conservation is at the heart of any program and as Edward Abbey, noted environmentalist, proclaimed, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell” (qtd. in Weiss). The public needs to develop a sense of reason, ethics, and urgency.
Becoming aware of our environment and developing an appreciation for the life that it grants us can go a long way towards correcting the problem. Aldo Leopold, one of our country's original ecologists, believed that maintaining a healthy environment was a matter of ethics. Leopold contended that since members of the community were dependent on each other, it demanded that they treat each other ethically. He further argued that this dependence also extended to nature and as such we were morally obligated to treat the environment with a sense of ethics. Leopold wrote in his landmark work, A Sand County Almanac (1949), “A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of land.” (qtd. in “The Land Ethic”). It was this philosophy that led to his advocating of sustainable wildlife and protection of their habitat.
Edward Abbey followed in Leopold's footsteps and advocated the preservation of nature as a necessary step toward self-preservation. Though his manner was more abrasive and militant towards his view of ecology, his message was in line with Leopold's belief in environmental ethics. The earth and water is to be as if it is sacred. He contended that we do not own the land, we are only short-term caretakers. We owe the good care of the planet to all the inhabitants. Everyone, everywhere on the globe will feel the pollution of any individual.
When we pollute the runoff water that enters our streams and rivers, the most immediate effect is on the wildlife and other life forms that are dependent on these areas for habitat. As these toxins make their way into the food chain, the poisons build up and are passed into the human food supply. California's scarce water resources and population density put it in an especially vulnerable position. Yet, as pointed out by the EPA, the state has done little to implement important programs. The physical and economic life of California is at stake and requires immediate action. This may be as simple as taking the first individual steps and creating a sense of ethics as Leopold has suggested. Creating local rainwater gardens or organizing a watershed program could aid immeasurably. Though the problem may seem insurmountable, each individual can make a difference. Local remedies can have an impact when it creates an awareness that demands that the environment be treated as a member of our own living community.
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