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10 Freshwater Pollution

10 Freshwater Pollution

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Published by Manan Bhatt

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Published by: Manan Bhatt on Nov 23, 2008
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Biology of Freshwater Pollution
Pollution can be defined as “The introduction by Man into the environment of substancesor energy harmful to plant or animal life, or which damage amenity or structure”. ThisFactsheet concentrates on the biological effects of common types of freshwater pollution.1. Organic Pollution
Organic pollution includes sewage waste, silageeffluent (silage is rotted grass used to feed cattlein winter), Paper mill waste and dairy wastes.Organic pollution consists of organic (carbon-containing) compounds which can be brokendown (oxidised) by microorganisms.Consequently, this type of pollution alwaysresults in an increased demand for oxygen in thewater. One measure of this is given by theBiochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD).The BOD tells us how much oxygen is needed bythe organisms in the water for organicdecomposition, hence it is an index of waterquality.The lower the BOD, the less organic pollutionthere is in it.Fig 1 shows the biological effects of an organiceffluent (eg. sewage) on a river and the changeswhich occur downstream of the pollution incident.1.Bacterial populations increase because theorganic matter contains and provides foodfor bacteria2.Bacteria use up oxygen to break downorganic matter therefore creating high BOD3.Oxygen levels therefore fall rapidly4.The population of fish and clean waterinvertabrates decreases rapidly becauseof declining oxygen levels (bacterialactivity) and due to the release of toxinsfrom the organic effluent.5.Species such as sludgeworms (genusTubificidae) increase in number becauseorganic matter provides plentiful food anda tunnelling medium.6.Bacterial population decreases as organicmatter is used up and protozoa begin to feedon the bacteria.7.Protozoan population increases accordingly.8.Sewage fungus population increases and thendecreases as organic matter is used up. Largerplants (macrophytes) decline because of thesmothering effect of silt or sewage fungus.9. Algal population decreases initially becauseof declining light penetration due to sedimentand because oxygen concentration declinesdue to bacterial activity. However, thedecomposition of organic matter releasesnutrients and allows more light to penetrate,therefore algal population increases.
2. Nitrates in Drinking Water
Nitrate concentrations in freshwater havedramatically increased since 1945 because of the increasing use of nitrogenous fertilisers.Nitrates are very soluble and therefore leachinglosses can be high. The nitrate may move downthrough the soil horizons into groundwaterreserves, which later become part of the watersupply. Large areas of the UK receive drinkingwater which regularly exceeds the World HealthOrganisation’s (WHO) 50mg per litre limit.Once ingested, nitrates may be converted tonitrites which can then combine with infanthaemoglobin, reducing normal oxygentransport. This is known as “blue babysyndrome” or methaemoglobinaemia.High nitrate concentrations may also lead to theproduction of nitrosamines in the body, someof which are known carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals).
B io F actsheet
January 1998Number 10
Figure 1: Biological effects of an organic effluent
SludgewormsOxygenBODAlgaeSewagefungusClean water faunaDistance downstreamBacteriaProtozoaEffluent
This is a very straightforward topic which often comes up as a prose (essay- style) question.
Acidification of Fresh Water
Since carbon dioxide dissolves in atmosphericmoisture to form carbonic acid, rain is naturallyacidic (pH 5.6). Fossil fuel combustion in powerstations and vehicles releases acidic gases whichintensify and accelerate the process of acidification(Figure 2).Acid rain is a misnomer. Acid deposition is a moreaccurate term since it includes dry deposition eg.sulphur which falls relatively near to the pollutionsource and wet deposition which can be carriedthousands of miles before being deposited i.e. itis a trans-boundary pollutant.Acid rain affects fresh water ecosystems bothdirectly and indirectly. Sudden changes in waterpH, as may result from the rapid influx of a snowmelt, may be lethal to invertebrates and fish.More seriously, when the pH of acidified soilsfalls below 4.2, aluminium becomes soluble andmay enter aquatic ecosystems. High aluminiumconcentrations:1. Adversely affect the ability of fish gills toregulate cations such as sodium. The resultingosmotic imbalance can be fatal.2. Causes excess mucus production which leadsto clogging of the gills and suffocation.3. Interferes with calcification of the skeletons of fish fry and therefore recruitment (the percentageof young fish which develop into adults) decreasesand the population decreases.Even gradual acidification will have serious effectson species diversity. A typical progression isshown in Table 2.
Eutrophication is the enrichment of fresh water by excess nutrients, usually nitrogen andphosphorus. It is a natural process which humans have greatly accelerated. The nutrient statusof lakes increases naturally as sediment constantly reaches it in streams or through direct soilerosion. Thus an oligotrophic (low nutrient, low productivity) lake will inevitably change intoa eutrophic one. Accelerated eutrophication has occurred as a result of the following:1.Increased use of phosphate-containing detergents2.Increased leaching and run-off from agricultural land3.Drainage or washings from intensive animal units4.Bank erosion caused by the swash of boats5.Increased soil erosion eg. as a result of deforestationWhereas nitrates are very soluble, phosphates are not and so it usually enters the water as a resultof erosion from land. It is, however, a common limiting factor in fresh water and it is usuallythe extra phosphorus which results in the excess growth of plants so characteristic of eutrophication.1.With low levels of nutrient input, plant species diversity and abundance may increase.Faunal diversity may also increase because more plants means more food.2.Microscopic plants (algae) proliferate rapidly causing algal blooms. Although thealgae photosynthesise and therefore release some oxygen into the water, by blanketingthe surface they severely reduce the amount of light which reaches the lower depths andthis reduces the number of larger plants (macrophytes).3.Zooplankton (microscopic fauna) use macrophytes to escape predation by fish so asmacrophyte numbers decrease more zooplankton are eaten so their numbers decrease.4.As zooplankton numbers decrease, less algae are eaten so algal numbers increase further.5.Algae have a high turnover rate (productivity and death rate are both high). Dead algaeare broken down by aerobic bacteria which use up much of the oxygen in the water (highBOD).6.Declining oxygen levels lead to the death of many aerobes (both plants and animals).Many food chains collapse.7.Dead algae and zooplankton increase the turbidity of the water. Detritus forms sediment.
Biology of Freshwater Pollution
Bio Factsheet
6.0Crustaceans and molluscs die5.8Salmon, roach and trout die5.5Whitefish die5.0Perch and pike die4.5Eels die
Table 2: Sensitivities of aquaticorganisms to lowered pH
Figure 2: Formation of Acid Rain
1. NO
fromvehicles2. NO, NO
, SO
emitted as aresult of combustion processespower stations3. drydeposition of acidic particles5. wetdeposition4.sulphur dioxide
sulphurous + sulphuricacid acidnitrogen dioxide
nitrous + nitricacid acid
may be thousands of miles

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