Groundwater contamination occurs when man-made products such as gasoline, oil, road salts and chemicals get into the groundwater and cause it to become unsafe and unfit for human use. Some of the major sources of these products, called contaminants, are storage tanks, septic systems, hazardous waste sites, landfills, and the widespread use of road salts, fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 40% of people living in the United States use groundwater for drinking, cooking, cleaning, showering, and all other types of activities. 97% of people living in rural areas of the nation use groundwater, and 30-40% of water used agriculturally (for farming) is from the ground.
Unfortunately, groundwater is susceptible to pollutants. Groundwater is generally a safe source of drinking water, however, there are concerns that contamination may increase as toxins dumped on the ground in the past make their way into groundwater supplies.
There are 6 common types of groundwater pollutants; pesticides, uranium, nitrates, fecal matter, TCE, and benzene.
Pesticides are used to kill pests such as insects on farm fields. Pesticides can seep into the groundwater and cause kidney and liver damage and cancer in humans who drink the water. Over 2.5 billion pounds of pesticides are used in the United States.
Uranium is a radioactive element used in nuclear power plants. It also exists naturally in small concentrations in the ground. Too much uranium can cause cancer and other illnesses.
Nitrates are chemicals present in most fertilizers. Nitrates can contaminate the groundwater, causing serious illness in young children. Over 115 million tons of fertilizer are used in the United States.
Human waste contains bacteria that can contaminate groundwater. Fecal coliforms can cause stomach illnesses and diarrhea and if they are present, other pathogens may be there also.
TCE is an example of a chemical solvent. TCE is used in industries to clean parts and materials. Too much of it in the groundwater can cause cancer in humans.
Benzene contamination can come from leaking fuel tanks and industrial waste. Too much of it can cause cancer, nerve, lung and kidney damage, and blood disorders.
Groundwater contamination is a major global problem. It has been suggested that it 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 700 million Indians have no access to a proper toilet, and 1,000 Indian children die of diarrheal sickness every day. Some 90% of China’s cities suffer from some degree of water pollution, and nearly 500 million people lack access to safe drinking water. In addition to the acute problems of water pollution in developing countries, industrialized countries continue to struggle with pollution problems as well. In the most recent national report on water quality in the United States, 45 percent of assessed stream miles, 47 percent of assessed lake acres, and 32 percent of assessed bay and estuarine square miles were classified as polluted.
Drinking contaminated groundwater can have serious health effects. Diseases such as hepatitis and dysentery may be caused by contamination from septic tank waste. Poisoning may be caused by toxins that have leached into well water supplies. Wildlife can also be harmed by contaminated groundwater. Other long term effects such as certain types of cancer may also result from exposure to polluted water.