Causes of water pollution

There are several classes of common water pol-lutants. These are  disease-causing agents (pathogens) which include bacteria, viruses, protozoa and parasitic worms that enter water from domestic sewage and untreated human and animal wastes.

Human wastes contain concen-trated populations of coliform bacteria such as Escherichia coli and Streptococcus faecalis. These bacteria normally grow in the large intestine of humans where they are responsible for some food digestion and for the production of vitamin K. These bacteria are not harmful in low numbers.

Large amounts of human waste in water, increases the number of these bacteria which cause gastrointestinal diseases. Other potentially harmful bacteria from human wastes may also be present in smaller numbers. Thus the greater the amount of wastes in the water the greater are the chances of contracting diseases from them.

Another category of water pollutants is  oxygen depleting wastes. These are organic wastes that can be decomposed by aerobic (oxygen requiring) bacteria. Large populations of bacteria use up the oxygen present in water to degrade these wastes. In the process this degrades water quality.

The amount of oxygen required to break down a certain amount of organic matter is called the biological oxygen demand (BOD). The amount of BOD in the water is an indicator of the level of pollution. If too much organic matter is added to the water all the available oxygen is used up. This causes fish and other forms of oxygen dependent aquatic life to die. Thus anaerobic bacteria (those that do not require oxygen) begin to break down the wastes. Their anaerobic respiration produces chemicals that have a foul odour and an unpleasant taste that is harmful to human health.

A third class of pollutants are inorganic plant nutrients. These are water soluble nitrates and phosphates that cause excessive growth of algae and other aquatic plants. The excessive growth of algae and aquatic plants due to added nutrients is called eutrophication. They may interfere with the use of the water by clogging water intake pipes, changing the taste and odour of water and cause a buildup of organic matter. As the organic matter decays, oxygen levels decrease and fish and other aquatic species die.

The quantity of fertilizers applied in a field is often many times more than is actually required by the plants. The chemicals in fertilizers and pesticides pollute soil and water. While excess fertilizers cause eutrophication, pesticides cause bioaccumulation and biomagnification.

Pesticides which enter water bodies are introduced into the aquatic food chain. They are then absorbed by the phytoplanktons and aquatic plants. These plants are eaten by the herbivorous fish which are in turn eaten by the carnivorous fish which are in turn eaten by the waterbirds. At each link in the food chain these chemicals which do not pass out of the body are accumulated and increasingly concentrated resulting in biomagnification of these harmful substances.

One of the effects of accumulation of high levels of pesticides such as DDT is that birds lay eggs with shells that are much thinner than normal. This results in the premature breaking of these eggs, killing the chicks inside. Birds of prey such as hawks, eagles and other fish eating birds are affected by such pollution. Al-though DDT has been banned in India for agricultural use and is to be used only for malaria eradication, it is still used in the fields as it is cheap.

A fourth class of water pollutants is  water soluble inorganic chemicals which are acids, salts and compounds of toxic metals such as mercury and lead. High levels of these chemicals can make the water unfit to drink, harm

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