Despite being one of the most prominent issues in our world, water pollution is commonly overlooked in our society, particularly groundwater pollution. Even environmental activists can have very little knowledge on how impactful this problem really is, but the fact remains that groundwater pollution is a terrifying reality lurking just beneath our feet. By ignoring this issue, multiple societies hace allowed themselves to pump the pure groundwater full of nitrates and other harmful chemicals. Payal Sampat, a senior researcher at World Watch Institute, puts it best by saying:
Numerous studies have tracked the extent to which our increasing demand on water has made it a resource critical to a degree that even gold and oil have never been. It’s the most valuable thing on Earth. Yet, ironically, it’s the thing most consistently overlooked, and most widely used as a final resting place for our waste. And, of course, as contamination spreads, the supplies of usable water get tighter still (Payal).
The biggest questions people have when approaching the topic of groundwater pollution are Why does this matter? and Is it really that bad? These questions can be best answered by the Weldon Springs incident from 1980s. In the 1940s, soldiers would clean off nitrates from TNT in the fields of Weldon. Years later in the 1980s, it was found that nitrates were bubbling up in springs branching out miles away from the site, and was relatively undrinkable due to this. After knowing of this incident and the many others like it, it becomes much easier for people to accept that groundwater pollution is something that should be researched properly.
In order to properly delve into the topic, it must first be discussed exactly where the groundwater contaminates come from and how they affect the environment. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the top contaminate in groundwater pollution is sewage. It is easy for people to pass over this factor because it is out of our sight. However, sewage systems often are cracked and allow harmful pollutants to mix with the clean groundwater. Jim Davis, a contaminants taxologist who does research for MarineBio, has looked into this topic. He found that a good portion of sanitation plants do not put the water through a filter thorough enough to remove all of the waste and chemicals before it reaches the environment. Davis quotes, According to the EPA, 40 percent of all waterways in the US do not meet national water quality standards, due in large part, to leaking sewer systems (Davis).
Another one of the biggest contributors are nitrates. This is because nitrates are elements in many other harmful pollutants such as pesticides and fertilizers. In addition to this, home purification systems do not work to filter out nitrates, and even boiling the water increases their affect. The EPA marks it mostly harmless so long as it is 10mg/L in drinking water, but higher rates have been known to harm infants under six months. Some interesting research comes from S.M. Rhind’s academic journal “Effects of environmental pollutants on the reproduction and welfare of ruminants”. In this journal, Rhind looks into the health risks that come from groundwater pollution. Nitrates that find their way into the earth from pesticides, sewage leaks, and toxic metals, have often been speculated to affect the reproduction system in animals. Rhind proved this theory somewhat true with his experiments on ruminants, or sheep. The nitrates attack the endocrine system, which does play a part in reproduction. However, his experiment also included sewer sludge in the diet of the sheep, and Rhind stresses the need for further, more detailed experiments in the future. He quotes, In these studies, the concentrations of chemicals to which animals were exposed, and the specific mixture of chemicals involved, were not comprehensively defined because this would have been logistically impossible (Rhind).
Toxic metals such a lead and barium also play a large role in groundwater pollution. Many of these metals are natural, and in fact healthy to drink, but others can provide serious health risks. Paul Tchnounwou, a researcher for the National Center for Biotechnology Information, NCBI, gives just a few examples of the effects of extended exposure to these toxic metals when he quotes, These metals are systemic toxicants known to induce adverse health effects in humans, including cardiovascular diseases, developmental abnormalities, neurologic and neurobehavioral disorders, diabetes, hearing loss, hematologic and immunologic disorders, and various types of cancer (Tchounwou). Unlike nitrates, toxic metals can be filtered out of water, but it can be expensive and often more beneficial to connect to another source of water.
Among these pollutants lies another man-made threat to the quality of groundwater, the depletion of natural aquifers. Aquifers are deposits underground where large bodies of groundwater are stored. With the growing population of humans, society has recently begun to well up this underground water as opposed to only drinking surface water. However, this habit has made groundwater pollution even more prominent in our society. Payal quotes, Unlike rivers, which flush themselves into the oceans, aquifers become sinks for pollutants, decade after decade-thus further diminishing the amount of clean water they can yield for human use (Sampat). After depleting an aquifer in Ludhiana, India, the groundwater became so polluted that the well water was undrinkable. It can take an estimated 1,400 years before it may return to normal.
A final question to be asked is How do we fix this issue? It seems as though the first place to start is in the sewage systems and septic tanks. The government funding for these things is severely under what it should be, and in turn results in faulty systems that allow waste to slip through the cracks into what was once drinkable water. The next step would be to stop depleting the natural aquifers for drinking water. Finally, taking the time to test the water supply once a month can be a clear indicator of when the drinking water is unhealthy and in need of treatment. By focusing on slowing down the heavy impact humans have on groundwater pollution, we may be able to make the world a better, healthier place to live.
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