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picture of Algal bloom
Algal Bloom in River in Sichuan, China Algal blooms can present problems for ecosystems and human society. Source: Felix Andrews via Wikimedia Commons

photograph of harmful algal bloom
Harmful Algal Bloom Harmful algal bloom with deep red color. Source: Kai Schumann via National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Aquatic Dead Zones Zones of hypoxia shown as red circles. Black dots show hypoxia zones of unknown size, brown shading shows population density, and blue shading shows density of particulate organic carbon, an indicator of organic productivity. Source: Robert Simmon&Jesse Allen at NASA Earth Observatory via Wikimedia Commons

Pathogens are disease-causing microorganisms, e.g., viruses, bacteria, parasitic worms, and protozoa, which cause a variety of intestinal diseases such as dysentery, typhoid fever, hepatitis, and cholera. Pathogens are the major cause of the water pollution crisis discussed at the beginning of this section. Unfortunately nearly a billion people around the world are exposed to waterborne pathogen pollution daily and around 1.5 million children mainly in underdeveloped countries die every year of waterborne diseases from pathogens (see Figure Deaths by Country from Diarrhea Caused by Unsafe Water, Unimproved Sanitation, and Poor Hygiene in Children Less than 5 Years Old, 2004 ). Pathogens enter water primarily from human and animal fecal waste due to inadequate sewage treatment. In many underdeveloped countries, sewage is discharged into local waters either untreated or after only rudimentary treatment. In developed countries untreated sewage discharge can occur from overflows of combined sewer systems, poorly managed livestock factory farms, and leaky or broken sewage collection systems (see Figure Overflowing Sanitary Sewer ). Water with pathogens can be remediated by adding chlorine or ozone, by boiling, or by treating the sewage in the first place.

Image of Overflowing Sanitary Sewer
Overflowing Sanitary Sewer A manhole cover blown off by a June 2006 sanitary sewer overflow in Rhode Island. Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency via Wikimedia Commons

Oil spills are another kind of organic pollution. Oil spills can result from supertanker accidents such as the Exxon Valdez in 1989, which spilled 10 million gallons of oil into the rich ecosystem of offshore south Alaska and killed massive numbers of animals. The largest marine oil spill was the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which began with a natural gas explosion (see Figure Deepwater Horizon Explosion ) at an oil well 65 km offshore of Louisiana and flowed for 3 months in 2010, releasing an estimated 200 million gallons of oil. The worst oil spill ever occurred during the Persian Gulf war of 1991, when Iraq deliberately dumped approximately 200 million gallons of oil in offshore Kuwait and set more than 700 oil well fires that released enormous clouds of smoke and acid rain for over nine months. During an oil spill on water, oil floats to the surface because it is less dense than water, and the lightest hydrocarbons evaporate, decreasing the size of the spill but polluting the air. Then, bacteria begin to decompose the remaining oil, in a process that can take many years. After several months only about 15% of the original volume may remain, but it is in thick asphalt lumps, a form that is particularly harmful to birds, fish, and shellfish. Cleanup operations can include skimmer ships that vacuum oil from the water surface (effective only for small spills), controlled burning (works only in early stages before the light, ignitable part evaporates but also pollutes the air), dispersants (detergents that break up oil to accelerate its decomposition, but some dispersants may be toxic to the ecosystem), and bioremediation (adding microorganisms that specialize in quickly decomposing oil, but this can disrupt the natural ecosystem).

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Source:  OpenStax, Sustainability: a comprehensive foundation. OpenStax CNX. Nov 11, 2013 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11325/1.43
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