Understanding Pollution: How Sewage Changed Human Civilization and Water

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Water:  the single most important biological component of life.  Without it plants would not grow, animals would not survive, and humanity would be wiped from existence.  Despite the importance of water to humanity’s survival water pollution is one of the most common forms of pollution on the planet.  Since the times of the Romans the oceans of the world have been used as a dumping ground for mankind’s waste.[i]  Three of the most common causes of water pollution throughout human history have been marine dumping, industrial pollution, and the disposal of sewage and waste water.  If something isn’t done then soon the oceans and rivers of the world will be no better than our local sewer lines.  But, in order to fix a problem, you first have to understand it.

Marine dumping is one of the oldest forms of water pollution on the planet.  Human civilization grew up around sources of water for obvious reasons: irrigation, a source of drinking water, and sadly a place to dispose of water.  According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development marine dumping is “the deliberate disposal of hazardous wastes at sea from vessels, aircraft, platforms or other human—made structures. It includes ocean incineration and disposal into the seabed and sub-seabed.”[ii]  Each item discarded at sea requires time to fully degrade.  Cardboard takes a mere two weeks to degrade in water, Styrofoam takes eighty years to fully degrade, and glass takes so long to degrade that the exact time necessary is unknown.[iii]  These are just a few of the more common items dumped into our oceans, rivers, and lakes that destroy marine ecosystems, and pollute the water that is so vital to human existence.

water pollution 1a

As mankind’s population grew throughout history cities sprung up as focal points of the population booms.  As more and more people were packed tightly together, a problem was discovered:  What to do with all of the human waste?  Thus were sewer systems created.  Sewage is “the term used for wastewater that often contains feces, urine, and laundry waste.”[iv]  That list would also include such items as toilet paper, make up removal cotton pads and tampons. In developed nations sewage is quickly pumped away through sewer lines to water treatment plants where it is purified.  To quickly sum up the process; the water is first screened to separate out large objects, for example diapers.  It is then sent to primary treatment where solid human waste is removed from the water.  Oxygen is then pumped into the water to encourage the breakdown of any remaining bacteria, and finally the sewage is left to sit in a tank where the water will float upward, and any remaining waste sinks[v].  Despite all this treatment, even today sewage can carry viruses and diseases transmitted by human waste[vi].  In the developing world however, it is a different story.  According to the Caribbean Environment Programme, 1.2 billion people lack access to any type of sanitation facilities.  A further 2.5 billion have access to only basic sanitation facilities.[vii]  That is roughly half the world’s population whose sewage is not treated.  That waste water is mixed into rivers, lakes, and oceans polluting the most basic of human biological necessities.  Think for a moment about all the people in the world who do not have hot and cold running water, and are forced to bathe and cook with that water…Nasty thought isn’t it?

water pollution 1b

As mankind has moved throughout the ages technology has expanded with us.  With the advent of the industrial age mankind found the ability to produce on a massive scale.  However, with this increase in production came an increase in waste.  In the United States industry accounts for more than half of all water pollution, and almost all of the truly dangerous pollutants.  Over 350,000 manufacturing facilities use clean water to carry away the wastes they have created. In 1996 the Environmental Protection Agency reported that 40% of the nation’s water had been polluted to the point of unsafe use for drinking, fishing and swimming.[viii]  That is only the United States.  Now, imagine the impact that industrial pollution is having on water supplies worldwide, in both the developed world which does have some regulatory bodies, and in the undeveloped world where there is little or no regulation.  No one can argue that the clock cannot be turned backwards.  Nor can the benefits that came with the advent of the industrial age be doubted.  People are living longer, travel is more easily accomplished, and a globalized world has been established.  This does not change the basic truth that everything comes with a price, and the price that we are paying for our industry is the slow destruction of our water supplies.

water pollution 1c

More than 3.4 million people die every year due to a lack of clean water.[ix]  That equals out to 9315 deaths daily from a lack of clean water.  Water which covers 70% of the earth’s surface.  That is a terrifying thought.  The world’s population is expanding every day, and every day clean water is needed to fuel that growth.  Clean water is sadly a finite resource, and we destroy a little more every day through our pollution of the world’s seas, rivers, and lakes.  Something must be done, but like all great problems the solution is not simple.  It will require people to come together, and strive and sacrifice to find a solution.  That solution begins with every person who is willing to do a google search on ways to help the world overcome the water crisis that will soon consume us all.

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About the Author

Dom resizeDominick Principe is a graduate of Rowan University with dual Bachelor Degrees in Elementary Education and Writing Arts.  He is a prolific reader who devours any book put before him, and feels that life is one great long book without an end.  He fills his hours constantly exploring new information, and seeking to educate himself in the ways of the world.  He puts all of that knowledge and his passion for learning to good use teaching English as a second language to students of all ages.  When his nose isn’t buried in a book, or in class teaching, then he can generally be found typing away at his computer working on some random piece of writing that he was inspired to do.

[i] “Marine Pollution — National Geographic.” National Geographic. National Geographic. Web. 2 Nov. 2014. <http://ocean.nationalgeographic.com/ocean/critical-issues-marine-pollution/&gt;.

[ii] “OECD Glossary of Statistical Terms – Ocean Dumping Definition.” OECD Glossary of Statistical Terms – Ocean Dumping Definition. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Web. 2 Nov. 2014. <http://stats.oecd.org/glossary/detail.asp?ID=1882&gt;.

[iii] “Marine Dumping « Water Pollution Guide.” Marine Dumping « Water Pollution Guide. The Guides Network. Web. 2 Nov. 2014. <http://www.water-pollution.org.uk/marine.html&gt;.

[iv] “Sewage and Wastewater « Water Pollution Guide.” Sewage and Wastewater « Water Pollution Guide. The Guides Network. Web. 2 Nov. 2014. <http://www.water-pollution.org.uk/sewageandwastewater.html&gt;.

[v] “Step by Step Process of How Wastewater (sewage) Is Treated for Disposal.” Step by Step Process of How Wastewater (sewage) Is Treated for Disposal. Eschool Today. Web. 2 Nov. 2014. <http://eschooltoday.com/pollution/water-pollution/sewage-treatment-process-for-kids.html&gt;.

[vi] [vi] “Sewage and Wastewater « Water Pollution Guide.” Sewage and Wastewater « Water Pollution Guide. The Guides Network. Web. 2 Nov. 2014. <http://www.water-pollution.org.uk/sewageandwastewater.html&gt;.


[vii] “The Caribbean Environment Programme.” Wastewater, Sewage and Sanitation. Caribbean Environment Programme. Web. 2 Nov. 2014. <http://www.cep.unep.org/publications-and-resources/marine-and-coastal-issues-links/wastewater-sewage-and-sanitation&gt;.

[viii] “Water Pollution.” Infoplease. Infoplease. Web. 2 Nov. 2014. <http://www.infoplease.com/encyclopedia/science/water-pollution-industrial-pollution.html&gt;.

[ix] “Water.org.” Waterorg. Water.org. Web. 2 Nov. 2014. <http://water.org/water-crisis/water-facts/water/&gt;.


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