How Industrial Pollution Affects Global Waters

Water is the most valuable and necessary resource for life, and yet one of the most polluted resources in the world.

Millions of people across the world go without safe drinking water, largely due to industrial activities.

This article explains how industrial pollution contributes to global water quality.

Sources of Water Pollution

Water is the most vital resource to human survival, and also one of the most heavily impacted by pollution. As a universal solvent, water can dissolve almost any liquid substance, making it extremely susceptible to contaminants. There are several primary causes of water pollution, including:

  • Marine dumping
  • Agriculture
  • Oil spills and leaks
  • Sewage waste
  • Industrial waste

Marine Dumping

Marine dumping occurs when municipal, commercial, and industrial waste is disposed of in the ocean as a fast and inexpensive form of waste management. While illegal in the United States, many countries still use this as a method of waste removal. The United States criminalized marine dumping in 1972; however, millions of tons of waste were dumped annually before government intervention, much of which still remains today.

Many countries, primarily in China, Indonesia, and the Phillippines, have criminalized marine dumping in an effort to minimize oceanic pollution. However, these countries lack substantial enforcement practices which results in millions of tons of cumulative waste per year. Marine pollution is primarily made up of plastics that can take centuries to break down, and result in microscopic contaminants that further pollute waters and severely harm aquatic life.


Agricultural waste derives from pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and manure that run off from crops and livestock pastures. Despite encouraging plant growth, fertilizer is as harmful to waterways as herbicides, especially in freshwater systems. Fertilizers, particularly those containing nitrogen and phosphorus, can substantially increase the growth of algae, resulting in massive blooms that overtake waterbodies. This process is known as eutrophication, and leads to algal blooms that block sunlight from lower levels of the water bodies, effectively suffocating all other aquatic plant life.

In the United States, nearly 46% of freshwater systems are contaminated with excess nutrients, primarily due to agricultural runoff. Many of these are streams that transport the agricultural pollution to lakes, oceans, and groundwater, further worsening the effects of eutrophication.

Oils spills and leaks

Oil spills and leaks are extremely influential on the stability of marine ecosystems and wildlife. Caused by off-shore drilling and oil transportation mishaps, oil spills have dire effects on marine life. Crude oil can be deadly to fish, birds, and other animals exposed to it, and can create long-lasting stressors on corals and other sensitive marine habitats when mixed in with the water column. These impacts are substantially difficult to reverse, and can spread long distances when not immediately contained.

Oil spills have dramatically reduced since 1970 as a result of strict regulations and safety precautions. However, an average of 1,000 tonnes are still being spilled annually, resulting in significant impacts on marine life. This affects human health as well, by making fish and shellfish exposed to oil unsafe for human consumption.

Sewage Waste

Sewage waste is a major issue in many countries that lack proper wastewater treatment facilities. In most developed countries, including the United States, sewage and wastewater are transported to facilities that remove harmful bacteria and pathogens from the water before releasing it back into local waterways to resupply natural and manmade water reserves.

Areas that lack adequate wastewater treatment plants often drain their waste directly into nearby streams and rivers. This results in significant pollutants in drinking water and cause outbreaks of diseases, including:

  • Cholera
  • Typhus
  • Diahorrea
  • Rotavirus

These diseases cause approximately 297,000 deaths per year. In addition, fecal bacteria and other pathogens can be extremely difficult to control when released into waterways, leading to large numbers of people being affected by contamination.

Industrial waste

Industrial pollution is the leading cause of water contamination and consumption worldwide. Industries affect large amounts of water, both through consumption and contamination, for purposes including:

  • Chemical processing
  • Resource production and harvesting
  • Waste disposal

These processes consume and contaminate water on mass scales when not properly managed, leading to millions lacking access to clean drinking water.

Read more: How Supply Chains Impact the Environment and Human Health

Global Effects of Industrial Pollution in Wastewater

Industrial pollution is the leading cause of water pollution and scarcity across the planet. Despite being one of the most prevalent resources around us, less than 1% of freshwater on earth is accessible as drinking water. And while water is a renewable resource, heavy industrial usage directs potential drinking water away from people faster than it can regenerate, creating mass water scarcity. Solid and chemical waste contaminate water systems, further reducing potential drinking water and spreading contaminants into other regions through streams, rivers, and seepage.

Water Consumption

Approximately 19% of all water consumption on the planet is directed towards industrial usage. The majority of this is dedicated to agricultural purposes, both for growing food as well as manufacturing resources like cotton and timber.

This extreme water consumption can result in water deserts, where the heavy usage of freshwater limits the availability of drinking water. In 2020, 6% of the world’s population lacked access to clean drinking water, due largely to industrial water consumption.

While this water consumption is heavily localized to areas near factories, the number of people who lack drinking water is growing annually, creating a worldwide water scarcity crisis. Approximately 2.7 billion people face water scarcity for at least one month of the year.  Even in the United States, droughts cause major water shortages and are heavily accentuated by industrial and agricultural use.

Chemical Waste

In addition to water consumption, industrial pollution drastically reduces the availability of clean drinking water through chemical waste. Improper and illegal disposal of chemicals and byproducts result in contamination of waterways through:

  • Chemical contaminants and heavy metals
  • Microfibers from synthetic clothing

Chemical waste from factories can include extremely harmful substances that dramatically impact both human health and the environment. Some common industrial chemicals include:

  • Lead
  • Mercury
  • Nitrates
  • Phosphates
  • Sulfur
  • Oil

These substances can be extremely harmful to human life. Oftentimes they go undetected, leading to contaminated water being unknowingly used as drinking water.

Many industrial facilities use streams, rivers, and lakes for their waste disposal, oftentimes with minimal precursory waste treatment, if any. By disposing of wastes in waterways, chemical waste can be carried long distances, leaching into the ocean, groundwater, and other waterbodies.

Solid Waste

Solid waste is another major form of industrial pollution, and can further exacerbate chemical waste. The garment industry is a major contributor to solid waste, with clothing made of synthetic fabrics and microfibers that break down during production and the life of the product. 

Many factories also dispose of their byproducts, including unused materials and defective products, in waterways and marine dumping. This solid waste can backup waterways, block the flow of streams and rivers, and further contribute to chemical pollution as the materials break down.

Water pollution is a major threat to environmental stability and human health. Due to the interconnectedness of the earth’s water systems, water pollution is a global issue with widespread impacts. While the majority of water pollution stems from industrial waste, individuals can take personal responsibility by limiting their use of fertilizers and pesticides, purchasing locally grown produce, and limiting consumption of unethically produced goods.

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