Water is supposed to purify: Taking a shower, washing your face, and staying properly hydrated promote good hygiene andÂ health. But sometimes water is the one that gets dirty. That’s why since 1972, whenÂ The Clean Water ActÂ was passed, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has regulated both water pollution and quality standards in an attempt to keep our H2O clean.
And since summer is prime time for swimming, you may be wondering just exactly how clean the water you jump in really is. To fully understand that, you need to understand how water pollution is gauged ” and how dangerous it is.
The effects of swimming in polluted water can range from mild to severe depending on the toxin or pathogen, the length of exposure, and concentration of pollutant, Rachel Silverstein, PhD, Executive Director and Waterkeeper of Miami Waterkeeper, tells Yahoo Health. You could get sick from ingesting dirty water, getting it in your eyes, or by simply letting it come into contact with your skin.
Illness could include symptoms such as intestinal upset, infections, respiratory issues, rashes, flu-like symptoms, and in some extreme cases, death, Silverstein says.‹ The best thing to do? Avoid polluted water ” and especially if you have open cuts or sores, she says. (But if you do think you’ve come into contact with contaminated water, rinse it off with soap and clean water and take a proper shower as soon as you can. And make sure to see a doctor if you start to feel sick.)
Understanding the Different Types of Pollution
Water pollution is broken up into two categories: point and nonpoint pollution, Monica Lee, a spokesperson for the EPA, explains to Yahoo Health. Think ofÂ point sourcesÂ as single sources like pipes or ditches going directly into the water.
Meanwhile, nonpoint pollution comes from sources like rainfall or snowmelt, she says. As the runoff moves, it picks up and carries away natural and human-made pollutants, depositing them into lakes, rivers, wetlands, coastal waters, and even underground sources of drinking water.
Sources of nonpoint pollution can be harder to track ” and thus, even more damaging to our water sources. The main threats to our water are fertilizer runoff (i.e.Â golf courses), farms (fertilizer, manure, pesticides, bacteria), energy-producing industries (i.e. coal or nuclear plants), chemical inputs from industry, storm water (fuel, oil, feces), septic tanks, and sewage spills, among others, says Silverstein. Sewage and other fertilizer pollution can also lead to toxic algae blooms and may promote growth of pathogens (bacteria and viruses) in ponds, lakes, oceans, and rivers, she says.
When a body of water is considered clean, it’s not justÂ absent of these pollutants ” it also has an intact ecosystem that can deal with low levels of pollution through absorption by plants and filtration through sandy bottoms or porous rock, she says. Wetlands can reduce nutrient pollution from sewage or fertilizer runoff, too, since aquatic plants absorb the nutrients as they grow, thereby cleaning the water. That’s why in places like Arizona, wetlands are used in conjunction with industrial sewage treatments to help clean the water naturallyÂ andÂ provide habitat for wildlife.
There’s no hard and fast rule as to which bodies of water are better or worse when it comes to pollution. It’s all very site-specific, Steve Fleischli, the Water Program Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), tells Yahoo Health. Some states also do a better job than others at posting about dirty beaches, closing bodies of water, and collecting samples. The NRDC’s annualÂ Testing the Water ReportÂ keeps track of where states rank in terms of contamination, how often they close contaminated beaches, and how much they prioritize water testing.
But considering location, size, and pollution sources can help you understand what could be going on in your local watering hole.
How Dirty Are Oceans?
Runoff ” particularly from urban or agricultural areas ” is one of the biggest sources of pollution of oceans, according to theÂ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. When it rains, pollution from city streets or agricultural areas can make its way toward the water. So if there are no large agriculture sources or urban outputs near the area, you’re more likely to see clean water in nearby rivers, lakes, and oceans.
Of course, there are exceptions. Take Venice Beach in California. Fleischli says it’s a fairly clean beach even though it’s in an urban area. That could be because the area of land that drains to this beach is small. (The larger the area that drains to a beach, the dirtier it is.)
Sewage overflows ” either from aging systems, leaking pipes, or malfunctioning plants or pumps ” can also pollute ocean, bay, and Great Lakes beaches. A malfunctioning wastewater plant can quickly spill millions of gallons of partially treated sewage into coastal waters and result in no-swimming advisories along miles of beaches, according to the NRDC.
By Cassie Shortsleeve