The contamination of groundwater is a serious environmental issue that can have long-lasting effects on the health and sustainability of the community. Groundwater is an excellent resource for drinking water, irrigation, and industrial uses.
According to data, groundwater supplies 38% of the total drinking water in the USA and almost 50% worldwide. Moreover, 70% of the total groundwater withdrawn worldwide in an annum is used in agriculture. The number increases to 90% in some arid countries.
It’s also an essential part of our ecosystem that supports many species of plants and animals. Data shows that 17% of the total endangered species rely on groundwater for survival. Different contaminants can seep into groundwater, like industrial chemicals and agricultural runoff.
While this problem has been going on for decades, it has only recently been recognized as a widespread issue affecting millions of Americans across the country. This article discusses what causes groundwater contamination so that you can take necessary measures to prevent it.
What Is Groundwater?
Groundwater is water that flows through the ground. If you’re near a river, you can see and feel that water as it passes through the rocks and soil. But most people don’t think about groundwater as it runs below the ground surface.
In most places, groundwater exists below the surface of the earth at depths ranging from less than 1 meter to several hundred meters below ground level. Groundwater is a major drinking water source for humans and other animals, whether from wells or springs.
In the United States, groundwater supplies 35 percent of all drinking water. It’s also used for irrigation, industry, sanitation, and land reclamation projects like building dams or reservoirs.
The Impact of Groundwater Contamination
The impact of groundwater contamination is extensive and can affect human health, the environment, the economy, and the quality of life. The chances of groundwater contamination have increased over the years due to industrialization. More than a third of the groundwater in the U.S. is vulnerable to surface contamination.
People who consume contaminated water may experience various health effects, including skin rashes, gastrointestinal illnesses, cancer, or even death. An example is the water contamination at Camp Lejeune, leading to multiple health problems among veterans and their families.
The health effects of contaminated water exposure at Camp Lejeune were so severe that millions of veterans filed a lawsuit for the damages they faced. To support their cause, President Biden signed the Camp Lejeune Justice Act and made it a part of the PACT Act.
The Camp Lejeune Justice Act provides compensation to affected veterans and their families. It simplifies proving the connection between water contamination exposure and health impact. This allows veterans and their loved ones to get justice and the compensation they deserve for their service to the nation. There are many such instances as Camp Lejeune where exposure to contaminated water led to numerous medical conditions.
Groundwater contamination also poses potential threats to crops and livestock because it can lead to the production of food that contains harmful bacteria or chemicals. Humans or livestock feeding on these crops can also face health hazards.
How Does Water Get Contaminated?
Groundwater contamination can occur naturally or as a result of human activity. Natural groundwater processes include rainfall, snowmelt, and runoff from the surface into the ground. Agricultural and industrial activities can also contaminate groundwater by introducing chemicals or other pollutants. These contaminants include:
- Agricultural fertilizers and pesticides
- Gasoline, oil, diesel fuel, and other hydrocarbons
- Plastics, etc.
What Are Common Causes of Groundwater Contamination?
Groundwater contamination can be caused by various sources, including poor waste disposal methods, natural disturbances, and drilling for oil and gas.
Poor Disposal Methods
The following are some of the leading causes of groundwater contamination:
- Dumping of toxic waste. This includes illegal dumping, landfills that do not have proper liners or leachate collection systems, and improperly discarded pharmaceuticals.
- Leaking of toxic chemicals. This can happen when there is a pipeline rupture in an urban area. For example, it’s common for factories to leak contaminants into water supplies if they don’t have sufficient containment measures to prevent this from happening.
- Poor waste material management at industrial sites (for example, chemical spills) and households (for example, improper disposal).
- Wastewater treatment plants are not properly maintained, leading to the discharge of untreated sewage.
Due to poor disposal, many contaminants remain in the environment for thousands of years. These contaminants are called forever chemicals. As groundwater is the primary source of drinking water, a significant portion of the U.S. population likely ingests “forever chemicals” in their drinking water. Scientists believe many of these chemicals are carcinogens and will remain in the environment for thousands of years.
Oil and Gas Drilling
Oil and gas drilling is a common cause of groundwater contamination. Extracting oil and gas can disturb the soil, causing chemicals to leak into groundwater. It can also release contaminants already in the ground, such as radioactive material or waste from abandoned mines.
Oil and gas drilling companies try to prevent groundwater contamination by using hydraulic fracturing or fracking, which involves pumping chemicals and water deep underground at high pressure to fracture rocks and release fossil fuels trapped inside.
In recent years there has been growing concern about whether fracking causes health problems for people living near wells where it’s done. Some research suggests oil and gas drilling can lead to exposure to shale-gas development (SGD). SGD in groundwater can negatively impact health and wellness.
Natural disturbance can be caused by fire, flood, or earthquake. Natural disturbance can cause soil erosion, which leads to sedimentation. Sedimentation is when soil becomes trapped in the water table that feeds into the aquifer. This can occur after a natural disaster such as a flood or an earthquake that disturbs the soil and causes it to flow into streams, lakes, and oceans, where it settles in large quantities on the bottom of these bodies of water.
When sediment gets trapped in groundwater sources like this, it blocks access to clean drinking water for people who rely on them as their primary source of hydration. Sediment also increases turbidity levels within these bodies of water, making any remaining potable water present harder for people to access, which means they may have no choice but to drink contaminated water instead.
Sedimentation isn’t just bad news for humans. Natural disturbances like floods also affect wildlife negatively because all these things disrupt local ecosystems. Organic contaminants can be stored on sediments and slow down groundwater restoration. This can reduce groundwater levels and increase the chances of contamination.
Groundwater contamination is caused by a wide range of pollutants, which can come from many different sources. Understanding the causes and effects of groundwater contamination is key in ensuring that further damage is prevented. By using fewer chemicals and recycling more water, everyone can help reduce the amount of pollution entering our aquifers and rivers.