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What is fresh water contamination?

Water is a universal solvent. As such, it is capable of dissolving a wide variety of foreign compounds, ranging from chemicals to microorganisms. Contaminants which cannot be dissolved can remain suspended in water, frequently invisible to the naked eye.

Fresh water contamination occurs when foreign compounds, usually chemicals, faeces or carcasses of dead animals, enter into water stores such as groundwater, reservoirs, aquifers, lakes and rivers.

Why does water contamination matter?

Contaminated water is a major health safety issue as the presence of foreign organisms can cause diseases such as Salmonella, Vibrio and Shigella. Certain types of bacteria can also gestate in the body and cause infections. Animal carcasses, meanwhile, can be home to dozens of viruses dangerous to humans, such as coxsackievirus (which can cause hand, foot, and mouth disease) and rotavirus (which is the cause of gastroenteritis among infants and young children).

In other words, consuming contaminated water can cause illness and even death.

Pontsticill Reservoir in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales

What are the major causes of water contamination?

The national water supply is always chemically treated to kill hazardous foreign contaminants. However, water supply can still be contaminated thereafter in water reservoirs and treatment plants.

Some of the most common way contaminations can occur is:

  1. Faeces droppings from birds

  2. Small animals or rodents drowning in the reservoir

  3. Degradation of reservoir walls or water supply pipelines

  4. Pollution from sites neighbouring aquifers and groundwater stores

  5. Antiquated sewage treatment plants

  6. Sewage pollution in rivers

  7. Soil pollution from septic tanks

  8. Acts of sabotage

Frequency of Water Contamination

UK water supplies are religiously subjected to tests, so water companies are usually able to quickly alert the public of any contamination issue. However, there still exists gaps in testing and monitoring, and water contamination is sadly, a rather frequent affair across the country.

For instance, 300,000 families in Lancashire were exposed to the microbial parasite cryptosporidium in 2017. The parasite, which originates from either a dead animal carcass or animal faeces, can cause diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting. The water company, United Utilities, pleaded guilty to polluting the public water supply and ended up spending over £25 million to remedy the issue.

However, just as many other times, existing safeguards manage to prevent a public health issue. One example was in Clevedon, Bristol, when Bristol Water found the parasite Cryptosporidium in its treatment plant. Their quick announcement definitely helped to prevent illnesses among the population.

Groundwater Contamination: Why Does It Matter?

How to I protect my family from water contamination?

While it is always a good idea to follow the Do Not Use, Do Not Drink or Boil Water advisory from water companies, make it a point to be proactive and boil the drinking water in your home. This will protect your family from any form of contaminant in the water, be it bacteria or virus. However, please make sure that the water boils for at least one minute to ensure all microorganisms are killed. If you are living in high altitude areas, extend the boiling time to two or three minutes.

In addition, consider investing in a high quality water filter. Water filters are useful to filter away chemicals used to treat water. Some water companies are known to use far too much chlorine to purify water, and long term exposure to high chemical content is never a good thing.

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