Nine ways to stop water pollution at home

If you don’t want to drink it, don’t put it down the drain.”

by Kate S. Petersen

The sheer scale of the problem of climate change can feel overwhelming. Massive gyres of trash whirl in our oceans. Our rivers run bright green, clogged with industrial run-off. And our air is sometimes so dangerous we are told to stay inside.

But there are specific things you can do to combat this problem without leaving your own home. And one of the ways is to do with an element we rely on for survival — water.

Water pollution from homes has trickle down effects not just for the environment, but also for human health and well-being. Here's what you need to know, and how to take back the power to change things, one drop at a time.

What is water pollution?

Water pollution can mean two different things, but both are related to one another:

  1. The contamination of water bodies and drinking water with harmful compounds.
  2. Water has too many of certain kinds of nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphate, which cause problems downstream.

Household rubbish can end up in the oceans — and have a profound affect on marine and human life.

Barcroft Media/Barcroft Media/Getty Images

Why does water pollution need to be stopped?

However it happens, the chemicals and other compounds that enter your home may very well end up in rivers, lakes, the ocean, and also water storage systems such as reservoirs, causing ecological destruction and drinking water contamination.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has listed 278 contaminants that have been detected in U.S drinking water in its Tap Water Database.

What is the number 1 source of water pollution coming from US homes?

OK, this is difficult to answer, because it varies depending on region and wastewater monitoring is not comprehensive, Sydney Evans, a science analyst at Environmental Working Group (EWG), tells Inverse.

However, when you step out of the shower or finish watering the garden, that water leaves your home with whatever was added to it — household cleaning products, cosmetics, or weed killer.

It’s easy to think that someone, somewhere will take care of whatever goes down the drain, that when water from your home finally enters an ocean or lake, it’ll just be plain water again. Unfortunately this is not the case.

Leaky pipes and septic systems can also mean waste water goes AWOL. Sewage facilities may also just stop treating waste water during massive storms to stop them from being overwhelmed. This situation in particular is likely to become an increasingly frequent problem as climate change alters weather patterns.

Plus, while water treatment plants intercept some of the bad stuff in waste water — for instance removing human sewage — but not all the water will end up in a treatment plant, and not everything is removed even when it does.

Inverse asked the experts and here are 6 of the top pollutants that come from people’s homes:

  1. Faulty septic systems
  2. Garden fertilizer
  3. Pesticides
  4. PFAS
  5. Cleaning products
  6. Medication

What is the best way to stop water pollution from the home?

Because we can’t rely on water treatment to keep water sources safe, researchers say that stopping pollution at the source is the most important step that we can take.

“It is easy to blame all water contamination on outside sources like industry and agriculture – which are major sources – but homes create their share of pollutants and well,” says Evans.

"If you don’t want to drink it, don’t put it down the drain.”

You can take action that will make a difference, she says. The following is not an exhaustive list, but it is an excellent start.

You can reduce water pollution from your own home in these nine ways:

  1. Choose water friendly cleaning products. This can be a challenge due to faux green product marketing and opaque labels, but there is help available. EWG offers a comprehensive cleaning product guide and the EPA also offers some guidance.
  2. Put unneeded medications in the trash or drop them off at a medication disposal site in your community. Don’t flush them down the toilet.
  3. Avoid toiletries with microplastics, PFAFS, and other endocrine disrupters.
  4. Don’t let grass clippings and leaves from your place get into storm drains. Rake up the material and compost or trash it.
  5. Choose alternatives to fertilizer, weed killers, or pesticides. Try composting, manual removal of weeds, or beneficial predatory insects to tame pests. If you must use these chemicals, follow the instructions on the bottle, and avoid putting them on the sidewalk or other non-porous surfaces.
  6. If you have a septic tank, make sure it is drained regularly and in good working order.
  7. If you have pets, don’t wash their poop into the gutter — pick it up and put it in the trash. Same goes for soiled litter — stick it in the garbage can.
  8. If you have a car, you can use kitty litter to clean up any drips or leaks — and then trash it.
  9. Take any leftover paint or other obviously toxic substances to a disposal site. Those should never go down the drain.

What are the downstream effects of water pollution from the home?

Nutrient run-off from sources such as damaged septic systems and lawn fertilizer can cause toxic algal blooms once they reach a water way. These blooms poison wildlife and can taint drinking water supplies. Giant toxic algae blooms are not common place in Lake Eerie and other bodies of water around the country.

Algae blooms can have serious consequences for the creatures living in these ecosystems.

Ali Majdfar/Moment/Getty Images

Microplastics, such as those found in personal care products, are proliferating through U.S. waterways. USGS reports that microplastics have contaminated an estimated 12 percent of freshwater fish and that a serving of commercial oysters now contains roughly 50 microplastics particles. These plastics are literally choking you.

While the full impacts of microplastics contamination are still being investigated, they contain toxic compounds and can cause digestive obstruction and death in wild animals.

Flushed pharmaceuticals can get into aquatic animals as well. USGS reports that fish exposed to pharmaceuticals may exhibit reduced growth and change escape and nest defense behaviors.

Ultimately, Evans sums up your best approach like this:

“Assume that whatever you pour down the drain has the potential to end up back in your drinking water. If you don’t want to drink it, don’t put it down the drain.”

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