Towns and municipalities are also major sources of water pollution. In many public water systems, pollution exceeds safe levels. One reason for this is that much groundwater has been contaminated by wastes pumped underground for disposal or by seepage from surface water. When contamination reaches underground water tables, it is difficult to correct and spreads over wide areas. In addition, many U.S. communities discharge untreated or only partially treated sewage into the waterways, threatening the health of their own and neighboring populations.
Along with domestic wastes, sewage carries industrial contaminants and a growing tonnage of paper and plastic refuse (see solid waste). Although thorough sewage treatment would destroy most disease-causing bacteria, the problem of the spread of viruses and viral illness remains. Additionally, most sewage treatment does not remove phosphorus compounds, contributed principally by detergents, which cause eutrophication of lakes and ponds. Excreted drugs and household chemicals also are not removed by present municipal treatment facilites, and can be recycled into the drinking water supply.
Rain drainage is another major polluting agent because it carries such substances as highway debris (including oil and chemicals from automobile exhausts), sediments from highway and building construction, and acids and radioactive wastes from mining operations into freshwater systems as well as into the ocean. Also transported by rain runoff and by irrigation return-flow are animal wastes from farms and feedlots, a widespread source of pollutants impairing rivers and streams, groundwater, and even some coastal waters. Antibiotics, hormones, and other chemicals used to raise livestock are components of such animal wastes. Pesticide and fertilizer residues from farms also contribute to water pollution via rain drainage.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.