Water is life. It covers around 71% of the Earth’s surface, and it is home to over two million species of animals and plants. People cannot survive for longer than a week without it. And yet, water pollution statistics show that we continue to contaminate bodies of water.

We dump waste in oceans; we pollute rivers with chemicals; we disrupt the natural habitat and eating habits of thousands of marine animals. In short, we destroy the very thing we need to survive.

How devastating are the effects of this environmental issue? And what are the causes of water pollution? Read through these truly shocking statistics and facts to learn more about how water pollution impacts all living things on the planet.

10 Stats and Facts About Water Pollution

  • 80% of the world’s wastewater is released back into the environment. 
  • Agriculture is the biggest source of contamination in US rivers and streams.
  • One of the biggest “dead zones” forms every year in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • 40% of US lakes are not safe for swimming.
  • 18 billion pounds of plastic waste goes into the world’s oceans every year.
  • 100,000 marine mammals die annually as a result of plastic pollution.
  • Around one million seabirds die from plastic pollution, ocean litter statistics reveal.
  • 55 species of marine animals are affected by ocean noise pollution.
  • Estimates show that around 47% of people in the world will be living in water-stressed areas by 2050.
  • 1.8 billion people around the planet drink water that is contaminated with feces.

What Are the Main Causes for Water Pollution?

1. 80% of the world’s wastewater is released back into the environment.

(UN-Water, UNESCO)

High-income countries, such as the US, Canada, Germany, and Japan, treat around 70% of the wastewater they generate, while low-income countries only treat 8% of industrial and municipal wastewater.

2. 80% of trash in oceans comes from land-based sources.

(California Coastal Commission)

Land-based sources include litter, industrial waste, and improper waste management. Only 20% of all waste in oceans, water pollution stats indicate, is connected to ocean-based sources, such as fishing, cargo, and cruise ships. 

3. Agriculture is the biggest source of contamination in US rivers and streams.

(FAO)

Factory farming is the second biggest source of contamination in wetlands and the third in lakes. It is also the leading cause of nitrogen groundwater pollution in China, and it currently threatens 38% of European bodies of water.

4. Nutrient pollution is one of the most widespread types of water pollution in the world.

(EPA)

According to water pollution statistics, this issue is caused by high amounts of nutrients (such as phosphorus and nitrogen) in the water, usually as runoff from farms. Nutrient pollution fuels algae bloom, i.e., dense plant growth, which in turn damages and can even cause the death of marine life. It also leads to the creation of so-called “dead zones.”

5. There are around 500 “dead zones” where no living organism can live and grow.

(UNESCO, NRDC)

These dead zones cover areas of 245,000 km² across the planet, or roughly the size of the UK, water pollution facts tell us. Around 200 of these zones are believed to be found in the US and are primarily caused by agricultural pollution, untreated wastewater, and airborne nitrogen.

6. One of the biggest “dead zones” forms every year in the Gulf of Mexico.

(DoSomething) (Britannica)

The Mississippi River annually carries around 1.5 million tons of nitrogen pollution into the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in the formation of a “dead zone” nearly the size of New Jersey, or around 8,776 square miles, facts about water pollution indicate.

7. Oil spills only account for 12% of oil entering seas every year.

(WWF)

Contrary to popular belief, the majority of oil slicks are not caused by oil ships and marine transport. 36% of oil in the water actually comes from drains and rivers in the form of runoff and urban or industrial waste.

8. Radioactive waste is another cause of water pollution.

(NRDC, CNN)

Accidently released or improperly handled radioactive waste can cause significant damage to aquatic life and people’s health, as well as financial damage.

What’s more, facts about pollution in the ocean suggest that radioactive elements can remain in the water for years. Recently, traces of radioactive carbon from nuclear tests carried out in the 1950s were found in the muscle tissues of creatures that live in the deepest trenches of the Pacific Ocean.

9. Ocean noise also pollutes the water.

(NRDC)

Not all forms of pollution are visible. All the vessels in seas and oceans, such as ships and tankers, emit high-intensity sounds that injure marine life and disrupt their natural habitat, as well as threaten their survival.

Water Pollution Statistics in the US

10. 40% of US lakes are not safe for swimming.

(DoSomething)

Thanks to the 1.2 trillion gallons of untreated wastewater dumped into streams and rivers every year in the US, almost half of American lakes are deemed unsafe for humans, aquatic life, or fishing.

11. Harmful contaminants were found in the tap water of almost every US state.

(NRDC) 

There had been over 80,000 reported violations of the Safe Drinking Act in the USA, a 2015 analysis of water pollution rates revealed. 18,000 of these water systems serve around 77 million people.

(E&E News)

The cost-cutting move in 2014 to switch to a new drinking water source in Flint, Michigan, resulted in one of the biggest water crises in the country and an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that killed 12 and made dozens sick.

13. Ohio river pollution facts indicate that it is the most polluted river in the USA.

(EPA, The Earth Project)

The Ohio River, which passes through six states, contains around 23 million pounds of toxic waste, 92% of which is nitrate compounds. The Mississippi River and the Tennessee River are ranked second and third on the list of most polluted US rivers.

14. Over half of the trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from land-based sources in North America and Asia, stats on water pollution report.

(World Economic Forum, National Geographic, National Geographic)

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, one of the biggest trash sites on the planet, located between Hawaii, California, and Japan, is reported to contain 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic. The plastic debris in the GPGP is believed to weigh more than 80,000 tons and cover an area three-times bigger than France. In addition to plastic, the GPGP contains abandoned fishing gear (46%) and debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami (20%). 

Plastic Pollution Statistics

15. Almost 50% of plastic has been manufactured since 2000.

(National Geographic, DW)

50% of plastic is produced in Asia, with China accounting for 29% of all plastic produced in the world. People have so far manufactured over 8.3 billion tons of plastic, 6.3 billion of which is waste.

16. 18 billion pounds of plastic waste go into the world’s oceans every year.

(National Geographic)

This astonishing amount of waste comes from coastal regions, water pollution statistics from 2018 indicate, and it’s the equivalent of five grocery bags of plastic trash per foot of coastline around the world.

17. Europe has a plastic recycling rate of 30%, which is the highest in the world. 

(National Geographic)

China may be the largest manufacturer of plastic, but it recycles a quarter of the plastic it produces. The USA, on the other hand, recycles only 9% of plastic waste. Globally, less than a fifth of all plastic is recycled.

18. In regards to the plastic pollution in the ocean, facts reveal that the majority of the plastic debris sinks to the bottom. 

(Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology)

According to the studies in the North Sea, 70% of all plastic debris sinks to the bottom of oceans, 15% floats on the surface, and another 15% washes up on shore.

19. In some of the most polluted areas of oceans, there is six times more plastic than plankton.

(Plastic Oceans International, Center for Biological Diversity, SEE Turtles)

Actually, for every 2.2 pounds of plankton, there are 13.2 pounds of plastic. An even more disturbing water pollution statistic shows that if we continue dumping plastic in the ocean, the amount of waste will outweigh all the fish in the sea by 2050.

20. 90% of all plastic waste in oceans comes from just 10 rivers.

(UNEP)

Eight of the 10 rivers most responsible for ocean pollution are in Asia, and two are found in Africa. The Yangtze River — which carries 1,469,481 tons of plastic waste — is one of the biggest contributors to pollution in oceans. Yangtze River pollution facts reveal that 11 provinces located on the river are water-stressed due to industrial waste. 

Plastic Pollution and Animals Statistics

21. 100,000 marine mammals die annually as a result of plastic pollution.

(WWF, Annual Reviews)

233 marine species have eaten plastic. This includes 100% of marine turtles, 36% of seals, and 59% of whales. Plastic ingestion has also affected 92 species of fish and six species of invertebrates living in oceans.

22. Ingesting over 200 pieces of plastic equals certain death.

(BBC)

Marine pollution facts show that there’s a 22% chance of death if a sea turtle eats just one piece of plastic while consuming 14 pieces of plastic increases the chances of mortality by 50%.

Younger turtles are more likely to eat plastic — 23% of juveniles and 54% of post-hatchling turtles have ingested plastic compared to 16% of adult turtles. In fact, 90% of juvenile green sea turtles on the Brazilian coast have eaten plastic.

23. Around one million seabirds die from ocean litter, statistics reveal.

(Ocean Crusaders, Center for Biological Diversity)

Around 60% of all seabird species have eaten plastic — a number said to increase to 99% by 2050. Fish in the North Pacific, on the other hand, are said to eat 12,000 to 24,000 tons of plastic annually, which not only harms them but may also kill animals higher up the food chain, too.

24. Plastic pollution also damages coral reefs.

(UMass) (WWF)

Home to 25% of all marine life on the planet, coral reefs are mostly damaged by coral “bleaching,” but by plastic pollution as well, coral reef pollution facts show. A study of 338 corals exposed to plastic waste and fishing gear found that 69% were physically damaged, and 62% of those damaged had fresh tissue loss.

Plastic also puts the coral at risk of diseases. For instance, coral that comes into contact with plastic is 17% more likely to develop “white syndrome.” This deadly disease has killed 95% of Acropora coral in the Florida Reef.

Other Causes of Water Pollution and Their Effect on Marine Life

25. Around 344 species become entangled in marine debris, statistics on marine pollution reveal.

(Annual Reviews)

These species include 100% of sea turtles, 67% of seals, and 31% of whales. Entanglement, usually in the form of ropes or netting, i.e., discarded fishing gear, also affects a quarter of seabirds, 89 species of fish, and 92 species of invertebrates.

26. Fishing gear in the oceans accounts for 10% of all marine debris.

(UN, World Animal Protection)

There are around 640,000 tons of fishing gear abandoned in oceans every year, continuing to trap turtles, fish, and other marine life, ocean water pollution facts inform. For example, when 870 nets were recovered off the coast of Washington State, over 32,000 marine animals were found, including more than 500 birds and other mammals.

27. Ghost fishing is one of the main reasons for the decline of the Hawaiian monk seal population.

(National Wildlife Federation, World Animal Protection)

Hawaiian monk seals are an endangered species as there are only 1,100 living in the wild, while the population on the Hawaiian Islands is declining at a rate of 4% a year. According to statistics on water pollution and marine mammals, every year, four to 78% of Hawaiian monk seals get entangled in ghost gear in the north-west Hawaiian Islands alone.

28. 55 species of marine animals are affected by ocean noise pollution.

(Marine Insight, OceanCare)

The effects of ocean noise pollution on marine animals can be disastrous. In addition to forcing animals to move from their natural habitat, noise pollution also leads to vascular damage to the brain and other organs, as well as strandings of whales and dolphins, which are more frequent following naval sonar maneuvers.

29. Great Barrier Reef pollution facts reveal that agricultural pollution is one of its main threats. 

(WWF)

Nitrogen runoff from farms results in algal bloom that feeds juvenile crown-of-thorns starfish (also called coral-killers), causing them to multiply. The increasing population of starfish is responsible for more than 40% of coral loss on the Great Barrier Reef.

What Are the Effects of Water Pollution on People?

30. Estimates show that around 47% of people in the world will be living in water-stressed areas by 2050.

(GlobeWater)

That’s almost half of the global population struggling to find safe drinking water, pollution facts and predictions show.

31. 1.8 billion people around the planet drink water that is contaminated with feces.

(UN-Water, WHO)

Drinking water contaminated with fecal matter isn’t just disgusting; it also results in diseases such as cholera, dysentery, polio, and typhoid. Every year, water-related diseases kill 3.4 million people, the majority of whom are children.

32. Around 829.000 people die from diarrhea annually.

(WHO)

This is a shockingly large number for a disease that is easily preventable. Estimates and statistics of water pollution reveal that the deaths of 297,000 children under the age of five could have been prevented if proper sanitation conditions had been established.

However, in areas where people don’t have access to safe drinking water and sanitation, hygiene doesn’t top the list of priorities.

33. High levels of nitrates in the water are the most common cause of “blue baby syndrome.”

(Medical News Today)

Other causes account for this condition; however, unsafe tap water is one of the most common, water pollution statistics indicate. The blue baby syndrome could be a life-threatening condition and cause long-term health issues if left untreated. 

34. People who frequently eat fish from the Columbia River are 50 times more at risk of getting cancer.

(Columbia Riverkeeper)

High levels of cancer-causing chemicals are found in certain species of fish in the Columbia River. This phenomenon is caused by wastewater treatment plants that release over 100 toxic materials into the river, Columbia River pollution facts reveal.

35. Water pollution has financial implications, as well.

(NRDC, Scientific American)

For instance, the cleanup of 56 million gallons of radioactive water at the Hanford nuclear weapons production site will last until 2060 and cost the country over $100 billion. Japan puts cleanup costs for the Fukushima disaster between $470 and $660 billion. There are around one million tons of radioactive water kept in limited storage at the moment, the discharge of which could cause further contamination of groundwater.

36. Unsurprisingly, economic growth is linked to water pollution.

(World Bank)

According to a report on water pollution statistics in 2019, heavily polluted rivers lead to a decline of 0.82 percentage points in the GDP of countries located in downstream regions. In other words, water pollution reduces GDP growth by a third for countries in these regions. Seeing as how water and pollution flow downstream, it’s expected that the negative effects will be concentrated further down the river from the source of pollution.

FAQ

37. How many animals are killed by water pollution every year?

It is estimated that 100 million animals die each year as a result of water pollution, and 1,000 species of marine animals are affected by ocean contamination. However, these are rough estimates as it is nearly impossible to calculate the exact number of animals killed as a result of water pollution. Whether it’s because of plastic or other waste, noise pollution, or chemical contamination, it’s a fact that water pollution negatively impacts millions of animals across the world.

38. What causes the most pollution?

There are two main causes of water pollution: point and nonpoint. The former refers to pollutants that belong to just one source, such as factory emissions, while the latter refers to contaminants coming from multiple sources.

Some of the leading causes of water pollution include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Industrial waste
  • Burning of fossil fuels
  • Wastewater and sewage
  • Marine dumping
  • Oil leakage
  • Mining activities
  • Use of chemicals and pesticides
  • Urban development
  • Global warming.

39. What are some of the harmful effects of water pollution?

Drinking unsafe water puts people at risk of many diseases such as diarrhea, cholera, salmonella, dysentery, typhoid, and parasitic infections. In addition to human health, contaminated water damages the environment and the lives of all plants and animals. For instance, the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico affected more than 82,000 birds and 25,900 marine animals, as well as an unknown number of fish and other invertebrates. 

40. How can we stop pollution?

There’s no magical solution that will prevent the contamination of bodies of water around the globe; however, we can each do our part and help reduce water pollution levels. Here are a few simple things anyone can do to contribute:

  • Conserve water;
  • Recycle;
  • Use less plastic;
  • Do not dispose of medicine, cleaning chemicals, or oil down the sink;
  • Avoid using pesticides;
  • Try to use eco-friendly detergents;
  • Do not litter, or at least clean it up;
  • Plant some trees.

41. Where is the source of most water pollution?

Citarum River in Indonesia is believed to be the most heavily polluted river in the world, with over 500 factories dumping waste in the water. Others on the list of polluted rivers include the Riachuelo River in Argentina and Lake Karachay in Russia, the biggest radioactive body of water in the world. Chinese Lake Tai and Yamuna River in India also receive billions of liters of contaminated water resulting in Yamuna River being declared ecologically dead and Lake Tai turning completely green.

According to Ganges River pollution statistics, India’s sacred river is also one of the most polluted in the world. It supplies 40% of the Indian population with water, even though around 89 million liters of sewage water is released into the river daily. Other causes of water pollution in the river include pesticide and fertilizer runoff from farms, plastic waste, and a large number of dead animal and human bodies dumped in the river. 

42. Which country causes the most pollution? 

China is the most polluted country in the world, accounting for 30% of global pollution. The US is second with 15%, followed by India (7%), and Russia (5%). 

Final Thoughts

Water pollution is one of the most serious environmental issues affecting all creatures, no matter how big or small. Contaminated water kills more people every year than war and violence combined, while ocean pollution is responsible for the death of thousands of marine animals. 

According to water pollution statistics, millions of people do not have access to basic drinking-water services or use a contaminated water source. The reality is that if we do not start cleaning up the mess we made, we are facing a future of low-quality water, outbreaks of water-related diseases and the extinction of marine life.

Sources

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