WAY is a coalition of stakeholders being innovative leaders encouraging watershed-based planning, restoration and protection in York County, Pennsylvania, and beyond.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

 Putting the Bay’s woes in perspective

It’s easy to feel despondent about the rapidity of the progress of the Bay's cleanup. The harder we work to control pollution, the more intractable it can seem. We move forward with upgrades to major wastewater plants, only to stumble with whole towns on failing septic systems.  Or lawmakers pass legislation to combat a major pollution or public health problem, only to weaken the law later or make exceptions that don’t solve the problem. There is much that remains undone. But compared with a lot of places, our region is so far ahead that even a cynic like me savors the moment.

Brief History of Water Pollution

Pollution is not a new phenomenon. In fact, pollution has been a problem since the appearance of our earliest ancestors[1]. Increasing human populations have opened the door to more bacteria and disease. During the Middle Ages, diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever broke out all across Europe. These epidemics were directly related to unsanitary conditions caused by human and animal wastes, and garbage. In 1347, thebacterium Yersinia pestis, carried by rats and spread by fleas, caused the "Black Death" -- an outbreak of bubonic plague. Unsanitary conditions provided the perfect environment for the deadly bacteria to flourish.

By the 1800s, people began to understand that unsanitary living conditions and water contamination contributed to disease epidemics. This new awareness prompted major cities to take measures to control waste and garbage. In the mid-1850s, Chicago built the first major sewage system in the United States to treat wastewater. Soon, many other U.S. cities followed Chicago's lead.
Map of the layout of sewers in Chicago at the end of 1857. Chicago built one of the first sewage systems in the United States to treat wastewater. (Source: NOAA)

Improved sanitary conditions and less disease were important factors in making cities healthier places to live, and helped encourage people to move to urban areas. As cities became more populated towards the end of the 19th century, industrialized cities across Europe and the United States were experiencing a new kind of pollution: waste from industries and factories. In 1897, a report to the Royal Commission on River Pollution detailed the gross industrial contamination of the Tawe River in Wales, noting that it was polluted by "alkali works, copper works, sulfuric acid liquid, sulfate of iron from tin-plate works, and by slag, cinders and smallcoal"[2].

In the United States, industrial chemicals and wastes, including sulfuric acid, soda ash, muriatic acid, limes, dyes, wood pulp, and animal byproducts from industrial mills contaminated waters in the Northeast.

Water and air pollution in U.S. urban areas continued to increase well into the 20th century. The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, which flows into Lake Erie, became so polluted that the water erupted into flames! The first fire occurred in 1936, when a spark from a blowtorch ignited floating debris and oils. Over the next 30 years, the river caught fire several more times.

captionThe Cuyahoga River on fire in 1952. On the far left you can see firefighters battling the blaze from a bridge. (Source: NOAA)

In 1969, another major fire erupted. This time, with the help of news and magazine coverage, the fire prompted the nation to take immediate action against water pollution. The public response to this event helped create the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (1972), commonly called the Clean Water Act. This legislation provides money to improve sewage treatment plants (STPs) and sets limits on the things that industries and STPs can discharge into the water. The Cuyahoga River fires also provided the motivation to create the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement; establish federal and state environmental protection agencies (Environmental Protection Agency, 2003); and pass the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which prohibits the discharge of oil into navigable rivers.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Earth. Pollution: A brief history

Water pollution is on the rise globally

  • Virtually all goods-producing activities generate pollutants as unwanted by-products.
  • The most important water contaminants created by human activities are microbial pathogens, nutrients, oxygen-consuming materials, heavy metals and persistent organic matter, as well as suspended sediments, nutrients, pesticides and oxygen-consuming substances, much of it from non-point sources.  Heat, which raises the temperature of the receiving water, can also be a pollutant. Pollutants are typically the cause of major water quality degradation around the world.
  • Globally, the most prevalent water quality problem is eutrophication, a result of high-nutrient loads (mainly phosphorus and nitrogen), which substantially impairs beneficial uses of water.
  • Projected food production needs and increasing wastewater effluents associated with an increasing population over the next three decades suggest a 10%-15% increase in the river input of nitrogen loads into coastal ecosystems, continuing the trend observed during 1970-95.
  • More than 80% of sewage in developing countries is discharged untreated, polluting rivers, lakes and coastal areas. 
  • Many industries – some of them known to be heavily polluting (such as leather and chemicals) – are moving from high-income countries to emerging market economies.
  • Despite improvements in some regions, water pollution is on the rise globally. 
  •    Source: United Nations World Water Assessment Program (WWAP)




    Pollution Causes 40 Percent Of Deaths Worldwide

  • About 40 percent of deaths worldwide are caused by water, air and soil pollution, concludes a Cornell researcher. Such environmental degradation, coupled with the growth in world population, are major causes behind the rapid increase in human diseases, which the World Health Organization has recently reported. Both factors contribute to the malnourishment and disease susceptibility of 3.7 billion people, he says.

    Source: Cornell University. "Pollution Causes 40 Percent Of Deaths Worldwide, Study Finds." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 August 2007. .

Water Pollution - What's in the Water

As technology improves, scientists are able to detect more pollutants, and at smaller concentrations, in Earth’s freshwater bodies. Containing traces of contaminants ranging from birth control pills and sunscreen to pesticides and petroleum, our planet's lakes, rivers, streams, and groundwater are often a chemical cocktail.

Beyond synthetic pollution, freshwater is also the end point for biological waste, in the form of human sewage, animal excrement, and rainwater runoff flavored by nutrient-rich fertilizers from yards and farms. These nutrients find their way through river systems into seas, sometimes creating coastal ocean zones void of oxygen—and therefore aquatic life—and making the connection between land and sea painfully obvious. When you dump paint down the drain, it often ends up in the ocean, via freshwater systems.

In the developed world, regulation has restricted industry and agricultural operations from pouring pollutants into lakes, streams, and rivers. Technology has also offered a solution in the form of expensive filtration and treatment plants that make our drinking water safe to consume. Some cities are even promoting "green" infrastructure, such as green roofs and rain gardens, as a way to naturally filter out pollutants. But you may find a different picture in parts of the developing world, where there is less infrastructure—politically, economically, and technically—to deal with the barrage of pollution threats facing freshwater and all of the species that rely on it.
 Fast Facts
  • In developing countries, 70 percent of industrial wastes are dumped untreated into waters, polluting the usable water supply.
  • On average, 99 million pounds (45 million kilograms) of fertilizers and chemicals are used each year.
  • Portland, Oregon, is actively pursing “green roofs” and “green streets” to prevent sewer overflows into the Willamette River. Chicago, Illinois, now has more than 517,000 acres (209,222 hectares) of vegetated roofs—more than any other U.S. city—which are helping to catch storm water, cool the urban environment, and provide opportunities for rooftop gardens.
Source: National Geographic: Freshwater 101