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photograph of Deepwater Horizon explosion
Deepwater Horizon Explosion Boats fighting the fire from an explosion at the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in Gulf of Mexico offshore Louisiana on April 20, 2010. Source: United States Coast Guard via Wikimedia Commons

Toxic chemicals involve many different kinds and sources, primarily from industry and mining. General kinds of toxic chemicals include hazardous chemicals , which are a wide variety of synthetic organic and inorganic chemicals such as acids, bases, cyanide, and a class of compounds called persistent organic pollutants that includes DDT (pesticide), dioxin (herbicide by-product), and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, which were used as a liquid insulator in electric transformers). Persistent organic pollutants are long-lived in the environment, accumulate through the food chain (bioaccumulation), and can be toxic. Another category of toxic chemicals includes radioactive materials such as cesium, iodine, uranium, and radon gas, which can result in long-term exposure to radioactivity if it gets into the body. A final group of toxic chemicals is heavy metals such as lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and chromium, which can accumulate through the food chain. Heavy metals are commonly produced by industry and at metallic ore mines. Arsenic and mercury are discussed in more detail below. The US EPA regulates 83 contaminants in drinking water to ensure a safe public water supply. Similarly, at the international level the World Health Organization has drinking water standards for a variety of contaminants.

Arsenic (As) has been famous as an agent of death for many centuries. In large doses arsenic causes cancer and can be fatal. Only recently have scientists recognized that health problems can be caused by drinking small arsenic concentrations in water over a long time. It attacks the central nervous system and can damage the respiratory system, bladder, lungs, liver, and kidneys. It enters the water supply naturally from weathering of As-rich minerals and from human activities such as coal burning and smelting of metallic ores. The worst case of arsenic poisoning occurred in the densely populated impoverished country of Bangladesh, which had experienced 100,000s of deaths from diarrhea and cholera each year from drinking surface water contaminated with pathogens due to improper sewage treatment. In the 1970s the United Nations provided aid for millions of shallow water wells, which resulted in a dramatic drop in pathogenic diseases. Unfortunately, many of the wells produced water naturally rich in arsenic. Tragically, there are an estimated 77 million people (about half of the population) who inadvertently may have been exposed to toxic levels of arsenic in Bangladesh as a result. The World Health Organization has called it the largest mass poisoning of a population in history.

Mercury (Hg) is used in a variety of electrical products, such as dry cell batteries, fluorescent light bulbs, and switches, as well as in the manufacture of paint, paper, vinyl chloride, and fungicides. In the methylmercury form (CH 3 Hg + ) it is highly toxic; ≥ 1 ppb of methylmercury represents water contaminated with mercury. Mercury concentrates in the food chain, especially in fish, in a process caused biomagnification (see Sidebar Biomagnification ). It acts on the central nervous system and can cause loss of sight, feeling, and hearing as well as nervousness, shakiness, and death. Like arsenic, mercury enters the water supply naturally from weathering of Hg-rich minerals and from human activities such as coal burning and metal processing. A famous mercury poisoning case in Minamata, Japan involved methylmercury-rich industrial discharge that caused high Hg levels in fish. People in the local fishing villages ate fish up to three times per day for over 30 years, which resulted in over 2,000 deaths. During that time the responsible company and national government did little to mitigate, help alleviate, or even acknowledge the problem.

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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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