Dirty drinking water is a problem that can have catastrophic effects in third world countries, where serious diseases can spread rapidly in regions with insufficient healthcare provision. Concerns about the quality of drinking water have also been raised in the Western world where modern analytical methods allow us to detect many strains of impurities in the water supplies we use for washing and drinking.
Types of contamination
Drinking water taken from lakes and rivers can become contaminated either at the source, when treated or during the distribution process into homes. Typical forms of contamination that can occur at source include the effects of acid rain, run off from storm water, industrial waste and pollution through pesticides. Groundwater sources of drinking water, such as water wells, can also become contaminated from farming chemicals, pathogens and harmful household products. Groundwater sources also lack exposure to sunlight, which can help inhibit the harmful effects of contaminated drinking water.
The identification of contaminants in drinking water does not necessarily mean that ingestion will lead to any symptoms. The equipment used to detect such impurities is very sophisticated and can detect impurities that the human body is more than capable of processing. Higher levels of contaminants in drinking water, however, can lead to vomiting, skin rashes, lung problems and nausea. Prolonged exposure to contaminants in dirty drinking water over several years can lead to more serious problems such as liver and kidney diseases, immune system problems and various forms of cancer.
According to the World Health Organization, there are between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths from cholera each year. The disease usually flourishes in underdeveloped countries in areas where living conditions are claustrophobic and sanitation facilities are wanting, such as poorer Third World countries and refugee camps. Cholera can be contracted by ingesting food or drinking water contaminated with a bacterium known as Vibrio cholera. According to the WHO, eighty percent of cholera cases can be treated and cured using rehydration salts and appropriate antibiotics.
Guinea worm disease
Guinea worm disease, also known as Dracunculiasis, is contracted from drinking water infected with larvae. These larvae can develop into adult worms almost a metre long. They inhabit the human body for a year before emerging, leaving crippling ulcers on the body. According to the Centre for Disease Control, there were over 1,000 cases of Guinea worm disease reported in African countries, including Mali and Ethiopia, in 2011.
Typhoid fever is a potentially fatal infection initiated by the bacteria Salmonella typhi. It can be contracted from ingesting even tiny amounts of contaminated food or drinking water or through contact with faeces or urine from an infected person. Typhoid is most common in developing countries in Southern Asia, where it usually affects young adults and children, whose immune systems are not yet fully developed. According to the NHS website, typhoid fever is relatively rare in the U.K. with around 350 new contractions a year as of 2012.
- NHS: Conditions:Typhoid Fever
- Centers For Disease Control and Prevention: Parasites - Dracunculiasis
- World Health Organization: Ten Facts on Cholera
- North Carolina Co-Operative Extension Service: Water Quality and Waste Management: Harmful Effects of Water Contaminants
- Unicef: Water, Sanitation and Hygiene