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5 Facts About Water Pollution (And 6 Ways You Can Help)

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You can help turn the tide on the pollution of our water sources. Here’s how.


Judging from all the photos in my Facebook feed of various friends basking on the beach, paddling on rivers, or fishing on lakes, it must be spring break season.


Where I live, in Atlanta, I consider myself lucky: I’m 20 minutes from the Chattahoochee River, which is a great place to kayak, less than an hour away from countless lakes where I can swim or paddleboard, five hours from the Atlantic Ocean, and six hours from Gulf Coast beaches. But even as I’m enjoying one of these bodies of water, I can’t help but think about how so many of our waterways are dangerously polluted. Take a look at some of these sobering facts about water pollution — they’ll make you think twice about tossing a cigarette butt next time you’re on the beach.


  1. Among the ten most commonly found types of trash in the ocean are cigarette butts and filters, food wrappers, plastic beverage bottles, and plastic bags.
  2. One of the largest causes of water pollution is industrial waste — in other words, chemicals from factories that are often dumped right into rivers or canals.
  3. The three most polluted rivers in the United States are the Ohio River, the Mississippi River, and the New River. And the organization responsible for the second largest amount of toxic chemical discharges is our own Department of Defense.
  4. Fish farming, or aquaculture, contributes to pollution because of the high concentrations of waste and the uneaten pellet fish food, which smothers plant life.
  5. The Environmental Protection Agency has deemed about 40 percent of the lakes in America as too polluted for fishing or swimming. You can check the water quality at a number of vacation beaches in a report from the National Resources Defense Council, although the most recent report is from 2014.

While it might seem that we as individuals don’t have much power to improve the water quality of the oceans, rivers, and lakes, every little bit counts. Here are a few things that you can start doing today that can help make our water cleaner for generations to come:

  1. Pick up after yourself when visiting the beach or boating on the water. And pick up after others: If you’re going for a walk on the beach, bring along a bag to collect trash that others have left behind.
  2. Cut down on your use of disposable, single-use products. Straws, bottles, plastic utensils, and other disposables are among the most commonly found trash in the oceans, and by limiting your use of these altogether, you’re lessening the likelihood that they’ll find their way into our waterways.
  3. When shopping for fish or ordering it in a restaurant, consult a list of sustainable seafood such as the one from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch to make sure that the fish you eat is raised or caught with methods that don’t adversely impact the environment.
  4. Don’t use the toilet as a trash can. Tissues, wrappers, and other trash — even “flushable wipes” — should be thrown in the trash can, recycled, or composted. And avoid pouring fats, chemicals, or medications down the toilet or sink drain.
  5. Keep your car well maintained by having it checked regularly for leaks. Otherwise, oil, coolant, and other chemicals could leak from the car and end up in runoff that makes its way to lakes and oceans. And when your car needs a wash, it’s better to head to a car wash than DIYing the job. These commercial facilities are required to drain their chemical-laden runoff into sewer systems, where it is treated, and many of these facilities also recycle their water.
  6. Recycle! Recycling allows new products to be made with recycled content, which uses less water than making the same products from scratch. By reducing the amount of products that need to be made from scratch, you can help reduce the amount of industrial water pollution that’s created.


Are you doing your part to help keep our oceans, rivers, and lakes pristine? Share your accomplishments in the comments below!

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About the Author
Jessica Harlan
Jessica Harlan
I love finding new ways to green my family's life as painlessly as possible, and sharing those ideas with folks who want to do the same. more