When Does Pollution Kill a River?
A river will die when pollution reaches such a level that all the available oxygen is absorbed. This can happen if the oxygen is used up by the presence in the water of an excessive number of waste organisms.
Large amounts of nitrogen or phosphorus make a river’s oxygen-producing plants grow so rapidly that they become overcrowded and die of exhaustion. Then the fish also die because they are deprived of plant food. Finally various forms of bacteria decay and the water becomes putrefied.
All human industrial waste produces pollution. Excessive quantities of chemicals and minerals deposited in rivers will kill the water by destroying its oxygen content. Some rivers flowing through industrial areas have been so changed that it is possible to set fire to them. This happened to the Cuyahoga River in Ohio in 1969.
Water pollution is a major global problem which requires ongoing evaluation and revision of water resource policy at all levels (international down to individual aquifers and wells). It has been suggested that water pollution is the leading worldwide cause of deaths and diseases, and that it accounts for the deaths of more than 14,000 people daily.
An estimated 580 people in India die of water pollution related illness every day. About 90 percent of the water in the cities of China is polluted. As of 2007, half a billion Chinese had no access to safe drinking water.
In addition to the acute problems of water pollution in developing countries, developed countries also continue to struggle with pollution problems. For example, in the most recent national report on water quality in the United States, 44 percent of assessed stream miles, 64 percent of assessed lake acres, and 30 percent of assessed bays and estuarine square miles were classified as polluted.
The head of China’s national development agency said in 2007 that one quarter the length of China’s seven main rivers were so poisoned the water harmed the skin.
Water is typically referred to as polluted when it is impaired by anthropogenic contaminants and either does not support a human use, such as drinking water, or undergoes a marked shift in its ability to support its constituent biotic communities, such as fish. Natural phenomena such as volcanoes, algae blooms, storms, and earthquakes also cause major changes in water quality and the ecological status of water.
The specific contaminants leading to pollution in water include a wide spectrum of chemicals, pathogens, and physical changes such as elevated temperature and discoloration. While many of the chemicals and substances that are regulated may be naturally occurring (calcium, sodium, iron, manganese, etc.) the concentration is often the key in determining what is a natural component of water and what is a contaminant. High concentrations of naturally occurring substances can have negative impacts on aquatic flora and fauna.
Oxygen-depleting substances may be natural materials such as plant matter (e.g. leaves and grass) as well as man-made chemicals. Other natural and anthropogenic substances may cause turbidity (cloudiness) which blocks light and disrupts plant growth, and clogs the gills of some fish species.
Many of the chemical substances are toxic. Pathogens can produce waterborne diseases in either human or animal hosts. Alteration of water’s physical chemistry includes acidity (change in pH), electrical conductivity, temperature, and eutrophication.
Eutrophication is an increase in the concentration of chemical nutrients in an ecosystem to an extent that increases in the primary productivity of the ecosystem. Depending on the degree of eutrophication, subsequent negative environmental effects such as anoxia (oxygen depletion) and severe reductions in water quality may occur, affecting fish and other animal populations.