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Urban water expert comments on water pollution in cities, Rio de Janiero

Friday, July 31, 2015

MANHATTAN — A recent Associated Press investigation shows that the Rio de Janiero waters where Olympic athletes will compete are extremely polluted and present serious health risks. 

Stacy Hutchinson, interim director of Kansas State University's Urban Water Institute, discusses the dangers of urban water pollution and way to remedy polluted systems. 

The Urban Water Institute is a center of knowledge, research and engagement that focuses on sustainable water management in urban environments. 

Name: Stacy Hutchinson, interim director of Kansas State University's Urban Water Institute and professor of biological and agricultural engineering
Link to website: Stacy Hutchinson bio 
Description of expertise: Research focuses include the use of vegetated systems for the mitigation of non-point source pollution, including erosion control, and the remediation of contaminated soil and water. 


How does urban water become polluted?
There are two types of pollution that cause water quality problems. The first is called point source pollution, which is pollution that is added to water in a concentrated area, or at one point. An example is the discharge from a wastewater treatment plant or an industrial facility. The second type of pollution is called non-point source pollution, which occurs as stormwater runoff washes across the landscape picking up pollutants such as excess nutrients from fertilized lawns, heavy metals and petroleum hydrocarbons from our cars, and fecal coliform bacteria from our pets and septic systems. Because of the number of people and various activities that take place in urban areas, there is the potential to greatly increase the amount of pollution in water around cities from both point and non-point sources.

What are the dangers of polluted water?
Polluted water can cause serious health risks — both immediate and long-term.  The immediate concerns center on bacteria and viruses that are transported with human and animal waste and can cause serious gastrointestinal infections and illnesses resulting in diarrhea, fevers, severe cramping and vomiting. Poor water quality also can cause skin irritations if people are in direct contact with the water. Under certain conditions — including increases in water temperature and high levels of fertilizer — algal growth increases can cause a decrease in dissolved oxygen, which can cause fish kills and loss of other aquatic life. Blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, are a type of photosynthetic bacteria that produce toxins that are harmful to humans and animals. Long-term effects of polluted water result in an overall decline in ecosystem function, which results in continued decline in water quality, aquatic habitat and increased health risks.   

What are some ways to remedy polluted water? How long does this remediation take?
The best way to treat polluted water is to prevent the pollution from occurring. For point sources of pollution, this means to treat the water before allowing any discharge into surface water bodies. An example is using wastewater treatment systems. These types of treatment systems are typically heavily engineered to remove a relatively well-defined group of pollutants, such as the excess organics, nitrogen, phosphorus and bacteria in wastewater or specific industrial chemicals from industrial waste. While these systems can be costly, they are extremely effective in protecting our water.

For non-point source pollution, it is best to reduce the potential for pollutants to be washed off the land. Ways to reduce non-point source pollution potential include carefully managing lawn fertilizers and chemicals, fixing all leaking fluids from cars and preventing spills, and picking up pet waste. We also can help reduce water pollution by encouraging water to infiltrate and move through the soil where soil microorganisms help to degrade pollutants, such as fertilizers, and bind heavy metals to the soil to reduce the potential for the pollutant to enter the water. 

What else should we know about water pollution?  
The most important thing to remember when considering water quality and quantity is that water is a finite resource. Water moves around the globe changing from water vapor to liquid and solid forms through the processes of evaporation, condensation and precipitation as part of the hydrologic, or water cycle. Because all water is connected, we need to carefully consider our actions across the landscape to ensure that excess pollutants are not introduced into the water, which results in both human and environmental health risks.


Stacy Hutchinson


Stacy Hutchinson bio


Jennifer Tidball