At WiseGEEK, we're committed to delivering accurate, trustworthy information. Our expert-authored content is rigorously fact-checked and sourced from credible authorities. Discover how we uphold the highest standards in providing you with reliable knowledge.
Water contamination is the term used to describe hazardous materials of any kind that are polluting a source of water. This could include both biological and chemical substances, and the water source may be ponds, lakes, seas, oceans, or reservoirs used for drinking and bathing by humans. The most common types of water contamination are chemical runoff from homes and businesses and sometimes human or animal waste materials.
In industrialized nations, water contamination is much less common than in third world and developing countries. That’s because sophisticated water purification systems are in place to clean waste materials from the water, disinfect it using chemicals, and then purify it so that it is safe for consumption. Areas that do not have these technologies may encounter contaminated water due to animal wastes entering the water supply or household chemicals running from the ground into underground wells.
Most sources of water contamination in the industrialized world come from chemical pollution, either from the dumping of chemicals onto the ground or down drains, or through accidental spills. Oil spills, for instance, may occur from wells or ships and can contaminate water for miles from the spill site. Industrial plants may also dump wastes into water, although this is less common due to tighter government regulations regarding disposing of hazardous materials.
Any harmful material that enters water could be considered a form of water contamination. Drinking polluted water has been linked to gastrointestinal upset, the spread of certain illnesses, and sometimes death in severe cases. Parasites may also be present in unclean water supplies. When visiting developing countries, it is encouraged that tourists bring bottled water from another location to avoid drinking from the local supplies.
Anyone who believes water contamination may be an issue in his or her area, or who witnesses water being polluted, should contact the local environmental agency. Humans and animals should avoid the contact with the contaminated water, including for use in bathing or watering plants. Generally, if water in a particular area is temporarily unsafe for drinking, an advisory will be sent out to the public.
To avoid water contamination that occurs due to runoff into storm drains on streets or sidewalks, it is important to dispose of hazardous materials in the proper way. Household cleaners should not be poured down drains unless designed specifically for that purpose, as in the case of toilet or shower cleaners. Motor oil, dead batteries, and acids should be taken to the proper facilities for disposal. They can be found by contacting the local environmental agency or a retailer who sells the product in question.