Types of Contamination
Water can be contaminated by various human activities or by existing natural features, like mineral-rich geologic formations. Agricultural activities, industrial operations, landfills, animal operations, and small and large scale sewage treatment processes, among many other things, all can potentially contribute to contamination. As water runs over the land or infiltrates into the ground, it dissolves material left behind by these potential contaminant sources. There are three major groups of contamination: inorganic chemicals, organic chemicals, and biological agents. Small sediments that cloud the water, causing turbidity, are also an issue with some wells but it is not considered contamination. The risks and type of remediation for a contaminant depend on the type of chemicals present.
Point source pollution can be attributed to a single, definable source, while nonpoint source pollution is from multiple dispersed sources. Point sources include waste disposal sites, storage tanks, sewage treatment plants, and chemical spills. Nonpoint sources are dispersed and indiscreet, where the whole of the contribution of pollutants is harmful, but the individual components do not have harmful concentrations of pollutants. A good example of nonpoint pollution are residential areas, where lawn fertilizer on one person’s yard may not contribute much pollution to the system, but the combined effect of many residents using a fertilizer can lead to significant nonpoint pollution. Other nonpoint sources include nutrients (nitrate and phosphate), herbicides, pesticides contributed by farming, nitrate contributed by animal operations, and nitrate contributed by septic systems.
Organic chemicals are common pollutants. They consist of strands and rings of carbon atoms, usually connected by covalent bonds. Other types of atoms, like chlorine, and molecules, like hydroxide (OH-), are attached to the strands and rings. The number and arrangement of atoms will decide how the chemical behaves in the environment, its danger to humans or ecosystems, and where the chemical ends up in the environment. The different arrangements of carbon allow for tens of thousands of organic chemicals, many of which have never been studied for negative effects on human health or the environment. Common organic pollutants are herbicides and pesticides, pharmaceuticals, fuel, and industrial solvents and cleansers.
Organic chemicals include surfactants (cleaning agents) and synthetic hormones associated with pharmaceuticals, which can act as endocrine disruptors. Endocrine disruptors mimic hormones and can cause long-term effects in developing sexual reproduction systems in developing animals. Only very small quantities of endocrine disruptors are needed to cause significant changes in animal populations.
An example of organic chemical contamination is the Love Canal, in Niagara Falls, New York. From 1942 to 1952, the Hooker Chemical Company disposed of over 21,000 tons of chemical waste, including chlorinated hydrocarbons, into a canal and covered it with a thin layer of clay. Chlorinated hydrocarbons are a large group of organic chemicals that have chlorine functional groups, most of which are toxic and carcinogenic to humans. The company sold the land to the New York School Board, who developed it into a neighborhood. After residents began to suffer from serious health ailments and pools of oily fluid started rising into residents’ basements, the neighborhood had to be evacuated. This site became a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund Site, a site with federal funding and oversight to ensure its cleanup.
Inorganic chemicals are another set of chemical pollutants. They can contain carbon atoms, but not in long strands or links. Inorganic contaminants include chloride, arsenic, and nitrate (NO3). Nutrients can be from geologic material, like phosphorus-rich rock, but are most often sourced from fertilizer and animal and human waste. Untreated sewage and agricultural runoff concentrate nitrogen and phosphorus which are essential for the growth of microorganisms. Nutrients like nitrate and phosphate in surface water can promote the growth of microbes, like blue-green algae (cyanobacteria), which in turn use oxygen and create toxins (microcystins and anatoxins) in lakes . This process is known as eutrophication.
Metals are common inorganic contaminants. Lead, mercury, and arsenic are some of the more problematic inorganic groundwater contaminants. Bangladesh has a well-documented case of arsenic contamination from natural geologic material dissolving into the groundwater. Acid mine drainage can also cause significant inorganic contamination. See the Energy and Mineral Resources Chapter for a description of acid mine drainage.
Salt, typically sodium chloride, is a common inorganic contaminant. It can be introduced into groundwater from natural sources, such as evaporite deposits like the Arapien Shale of Utah, or from anthropogenic sources like the salts applied to roads in the winter to keep ice from forming. Salt contamination can also occur from saltwater intrusion, where cones of depression around fresh groundwater pumping near ocean coasts induce the encroachment of saltwater into the freshwater body.
Another common groundwater contaminant is biological, which includes harmful bacteria and viruses. A common bacteria contaminant is Escherichia coli (E. coli). Generally, harmful bacteria are not present in groundwater unless the source of groundwater is closely connected with a contaminated surface source, such as a septic system. Karst is especially susceptible to this form of contamination because water moves relatively quickly through the dissolved conduits of limestone. Bacteria can also be used for remediation (see below).
Remediation is the act of cleaning contamination. Biological remediation usually consists of using specific strains of bacteria to break down a contaminant into safer chemicals. This type of remediation is usually used on organic chemicals but also works on reducing or oxidizing inorganic chemicals like nitrate. Phytoremediation is a type of bioremediation that uses plants to absorb the chemicals over time.
Chemical remediation uses the introduction of chemicals to remove the contaminant or make it less harmful. One example is reactive barriers, a permeable wall in the ground or at a discharge point that chemically reacts with contaminants in the water. Reactive barriers made of limestone can increase the pH of acid mine drainage, making the water less acidic and more basic, which removes dissolved contaminants by precipitation into a solid form.
Physical remediation consists of removing the contaminated water and either treating it (aka pump and treat) with filtration or disposing of it. All of these options are technically complex, expensive, and difficult, with physical remediation typically being the most costly.