14.3 Water Pollution

Water is essential for life. Without water there would be no life. We usually take water as granted for its purity, but we must ensure the quality of water. Pollution of water originates from human activities. Through different paths, pollution reaches surface or ground water.

Easily identified source or place of pollution is called as point source. e.g., municipal and industrial discharge pipes where pollutants enter the water-source.

Non point sources of pollution are those where a source of pollution cannot be easily identified, e.g., agricultural run off (from farm, animals and crop-lands), acid rain, storm-water drainage (from streets, parking lots and lawns), etc. Table 14.1 lists the major water pollutants and their sources.

14.3.1 Causes of Water Pollution

(i)Pathogens: The most serious water pollutants are the disease causing agents called pathogens. Pathogens include bacteria and other organisms that enter water from domestic sewage and animal excreta. Human excreta contain bacteria such as Escherichia coli and Streptococcus faecalis which cause gastrointestinal diseases.

(ii)Organic wastes: The other major water pollutant is organic matter such as leaves, grass, trash etc. They pollute water as a consequence of run off. Excessive phytoplankton growth within water is also a cause of water pollution. These wastes are biodegradable.

The large population of bacteria decomposes organic matter present in water. They consume oxygen dissolved in water. The amount of oxygen that water can hold in the solution is limited. In cold water, dissolved oxygen (DO) can reach a concentration up to 10 ppm (parts per million), whereas oxygen in air is about 200,000 ppm.

That is why even a moderate amount of organic matter when decomposes in water can deplete the water of its dissolved oxygen. The concentration of dissolved oxygen in water is very important for aquatic life . If the concentration of dissolved oxygen of water is below 6 ppm, the growth of fish gets inhibited.

Oxygen reaches water either through atmosphere or from the process of photosynthesis carried out by many aquatic green plants during day light.

However, during night, photosynthesis stops but the plants continue to respire, resulting in reduction of dissolved oxygen. The dissolved oxygen is also used by microorganisms to oxidise organic matter. If too much of organic matter is added to water, all the available oxygen is used up.

This causes oxygen dependent aquatic life to die. Thus, anaerobic bacteria (which do not require oxygen) begin to break down the organic waste and produce chemicals that have a foul smell and are harmful to human health. Aerobic (oxygen requiring) bacteria degrade these organic wastes and keep the water depleted in dissolved oxygen.

Thus, the amount of oxygen required by bacteria to break down the organic matter present in a certain volume of a sample of water, is called Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD).

The amount of BOD in the water is a measure of the amount of organic material in the water, in terms of how much oxygen will be required to break it down biologically. Clean water would have BOD value of less than 5 ppm whereas highly polluted water could have a BOD value of 17 ppm or more.

(iii)Chemical Pollutants: As we know that water is an excellent solvent, water soluble inorganic chemicals that include heavy metals such as cadmium, mercury, nickel etc constitute an important class of pollutants. All these metals are dangerous to humans because our body cannot excrete them.

Over the time, it crosses the tolerance limit. These metals then can damage kidneys, central nervous system, liver etc. Acids (like sulphuric acid) from mine drainage and salts from many different sources including raw salt used to melt snow and ice in the colder climates (sodium and calcium chloride) are water soluble chemical pollutants.

The organic chemicals are another group of substances that are found in polluted water. Petroleum products pollute many sources of water e.g., major oil spills in oceans. Other organic substances with serious impacts are the pesticides that drift down from sprays or runoff from lands.

Various industrial chemicals like polychlorinated biphenyls, (PCBs) which are used as cleansing solvent, detergents and fertilizers add to the list of water pollutants. PCBs are suspected to be carcinogenic. Nowadays most of the detergents available are biodegradable.

However, their use can create other problems. The bacteria responsible for degrading biodegradable detergent feed on it and grow rapidly. While growing, they may use up all the oxygen dissolved in water. The lack of oxygen kills all other forms of aquatic life such as fish and plants.

Fertilizers contain phosphates as additives. The addition of phosphates in water enhances algae growth. Such profuse growth of algae, covers the water surface and reduces the oxygen concentration in water. This leads to anaerobic conditions, commonly with accumulation of abnoxious decay and animal death.

Thus, bloom-infested water inhibits the growth of other living organisms in the water body. This process in which nutrient enriched water bodies support a dense plant population, which kills animal life by depriving it of oxygen and results in subsequent loss of biodiversity is known as Eutrophication.

 

14.3.2 International Standards for Drinking Water

The International Standards for drinking water are given below and they must be followed. Fluoride: For drinking purposes, water should be tested for fluoride ion concentration.

Its deficiency in drinking water is harmful to man and causes diseases such as tooth decay etc. Soluble fluoride is often added to drinking water to bring its concentration upto 1 ppm or 1 mg dm–3.

The F– ions make the enamel on teeth much harder by converting hydroxyapatite, [3(Ca3(PO4)2.Ca(OH)2], the enamel on the surface of the teeth, into much harder fluorapatite, [3(Ca3(PO4)2.CaF2].

However, F ion concentration above 2 ppm causes brown mottling of teeth. At the same time, excess fluoride (over 10 ppm) causes harmful effect to bones and teeth, as reported from some parts of Rajasthan.

Lead: Drinking water gets contaminated with lead when lead pipes are used for transportation of water. The prescribed upper limit concentration of lead in drinking water is about 50 ppb. Lead can damage kidney, liver, reproductive system etc.

Sulphate: Excessive sulphate (>500 ppm) in drinking water causes laxative effect, otherwise at moderate levels it is harmless.

Nitrate: The maximum limit of nitrate in drinking water is 50 ppm. Excess nitrate in drinking water can cause disease such as methemoglobinemia (‘blue baby’ syndrome).

Other metals: The maximum concentration of some common metals recommended in drinking water are given in Table.

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