Water Pollution

The tragic story of a 6 year old girl, who, in 1957, died within days of contracting water-borne polio, after swimming from a sewage-contaminated beach, prompted me to look at the whole picture of water pollution and its effects on the boating community.

Fortunately since then many things have improved:-

  • 1975 The European Bathing Water Directive was introduced.
  • 1989 The water industry in England and Wales was privatised.
  • 1991 The Water Resources Act introduced new ways to manage sewage discharge.
  • 1992 The Environmental Protection Agency came into power in the Republic of Ireland.
  • 1996 The Environmental Agency came into power in England, Wales and Scotland.
  • 1999 The Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive set minimum standards on treatment of waste water from homes and industry.
  • 2002 – 2011 DEFRA statistics showed improved quality of UK bathing water.
  • 2003 The European Water Framework Directive was introduced which aimed for good status for all ground and surface waters.
  • 2006 The Revised Bathing Water Directive introduced more stringent quality standards, with emphasis on beach management.
  • 2010 Evidence showed otter population had recovered from the brink of extinction and fish stocks had risen as river water quality improved.

In spite of these improvements our water quality is still a cause of concern.

What Is Water Pollution?

It is the contamination of lakes, rivers, seas and oceans, aquifers and groundwater by pollutants which are discharged directly or indirectly into the bodies of water without adequate treatment to remove harmful substances. It can affect plants, animals and organisms living in or near these waters, as well as humans who have close contact with the water. Globally it has been suggested that it is the leading cause of deaths and diseases, notably in the developing countries, where there is a lack of access to proper toilet facilities and safe drinking water. Surprisingly even in the US, in the most recent national report, 45 percent of assessed streams, 47 percent of lakes and 32 percent or bays and estuaries were classified as polluted. The term "pollution" is applied when the water is so impaired by contaminants that it can no longer support human use, in ways such as drinking water, and/or loses its ability to support life such as its fish stock.

Where Does It Originate?

Contamination can enter a waterway from a pipe or ditch. This might include discharges from sewage treatment plants, factories, farmyards, or storm drains. One of the biggest problems occurs when heavy rains cause sewers to overflow, allowing untreated waste to flow into rivers and the sea. This is now one of the worst causes of water contamination in the British Isles. Pollution may also build up slowly as a result of compounds leaching out from agricultural land which has been fertilized. Another source of contamination is a spillage or ongoing release of chemical substances into the soil which may enter the aquifer below and subsequently run into a watercourse. Even small amounts of pollution can be harmful, such as that caused by litter, plastic bottles and dog excrement left by or in canals, rivers, streams and on beaches.

We must not rule out the effects of radioactive contamination, which is the deposition of radioactive substances on surfaces and in solids, liquids or gases. These could contaminate our water following an atmospheric nuclear weapon discharge, a nuclear reactor containment breach and any spillage of radioactive material. Recently there has been much publicity about the danger of Hydraulic Fracturing or "Fracking" – a controversial technique used to exploit unconventional sources of gas. The risks of the process involve possible leakage of methane into the atmosphere and local water and of toxic chemicals from the fracking fluid contaminating drinking water and agricultural land.

What Can Pollution Do?

The affects of pollution to the water are varied:-

  • Oxygen depletion – This could be the result of natural materials such as plant matter (leaves and grass), or man-made chemicals. It will affect plant growth and fish stocks.
  • Turbidity (cloudiness) – This can block the light, which may affect plant growth and clog the gills of some fish.
  • Toxicity – Many of the chemical substances entering the water can produce diseases (sometimes life-threatening), in humans and animals. They can also increase the water's acidity, electrical conductivity, temperature and oxygen content.
  • Sewage pollution – This can cause gastroenteritis, E coli, Weils disease (Leptospirosis), hepatitis A and meningiti.
  • Radioactive contamination – This can have psychological as well as physical consequences. In 2005 a study of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Ukraine stressed the mental health impact. The possibilities of cancers and birth defects are just two of the consequences feared by those caught up in this sort of pollution.

Assessment Of Water

For the last 20 years the Environmental Agency has monitored the water quality of rivers in terms of chemistry, biology and nutrients. The water quality of our beaches is assessed roughly every week during the summer months, testing for bacteria, which can indicate sewage and animal waste. They are then graded in the MCS (Marine Conservation Society) Good Beach Guide and those with excellent quality, not affected by badly treated sewage discharges, will be awarded their gold standard.

In 2015 the new European Water Framework Directive and a revised Bathing Water Directive will use a more sophisticated method to assess the ecological environment and chemistry. These will hopefully encourage environmental regulators and water companies to identify solutions to their pollution problems.

How Is The Boating Community Affected?

Although we spend the bulk of our time on the water rather than in it, polluted water can still be danger. We never know when we will experience a man-overboard situation, or have to go into the water to clear a weed-hatch or a fouled prop. Handling wet ropes and forgetting to wash our hands before eating is one of the primary sources of stomach upsets. Debris is especially dangerous for those using canals, where anything from wooden pallets, road cones, plastic bottles and bags can be found floating along our waterways. My young son once located a discarded motor-bike in the canal, with his sea-searcher magnet, which he then persuaded us to haul out of the water. I've also been towed for miles by a friend's boat, while my husband spent hours cutting barbed wire from the prop, a few inches at a time.

Even the RNLI has to consider the effects of water contamination. It does not affect the types of rescue, but they must nevertheless be aware of the dangers, wearing the right kit such as drysuits and heavy duty boots, which they must decontaminate afterwards and ensure they have the appropriate injections to protect them from water-borne infections. The lifeboats too are just as susceptible as other boats to blockages from rubbish.

What Responsibility Does The Boating Community Have?

We have a responsibility, as boaters, to respect the environment which we are so privileged to enjoy. We should not expect others to clean up their mess unless we take a lead. Most countries have legislation to prevent and punish pollution incidents, although these are difficult to enforce. Many sailing and boating organisations have set down guidelines for managing the environment. But as individual boaters it is important that we know how to behave when we are out on the water.

Since 2006 the Recreational Craft Directive (RCD) has required all new vessels to have provision for a holding tank to be fitted, resulting in the fact that black water (raw sewage) discharges are likely to become less common. Grey water (waste from sinks and showers) however discharges directly into the water. The regulations, applying to ships of 400 gross tonnage engaged in international journeys or ships that carry more than 15 persons, do not apply to smaller pleasure vessels, but best practice would be to return all waste, generated on board, to waste facilities on shore where possible. Be aware that in many countries the direct overboard discharge of sewage is illegal. Holding tanks should only be emptied at a pump out station or more than 3 miles offshore where the waste will be quickly diluted and dispersed by waves and currents. Vessels without holding tanks should avoid the use of toilets in poor tidal flushing areas, such as estuaries, inland waterways and busy anchorages.

Other useful guidelines are:-

  • Use marina and shore facilities wherever possible.
  • Use environmental friendly toilet cleaners on board.
  • Use recycled toilet paper which breaks down more quickly than ordinary paper.
  • Use your holding tank and find out where to empty it from a Pump Out Directory.
  • If using chemical toilets, plan ahead where you empty them. Never empty them over a drain, always into an appropriate sewage system.
  • Never throw rubbish over the side – always take it home with you or deposit it in bins ashore.
  • Take care when refuelling, as spillages can pollute the surrounding water and ground.

One of the most useful environment programmes set up in recent years is the Green Blue, created in 2005 by the British Marine Federation and the RYA for all those who take part in leisure boating or whose business depend on it. They offer advice, help, guidance and money saving tips to those who wish to protect our coasts and inland waters and have excellent guidelines about all environmental issues connected with boating; what environmentally friendly products to buy, where to pump out and what is best code of practice.

We have come a long way in the last few years but one only has to look at certain inner city canals, riverbanks at popular tourist destinations and dirty harbours, to realise that there is room for a great deal more improvement. It is up to us to set an example and show future generations how to care for our beautiful environment.

Author – Dee White

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