What Is Nutrient Pollution?

High levels of fertilizer runoff can result in algae growth in water.

What Is Nutrient Pollution?

The term nutrient pollution refers to an overabundance of nutrients within a particular body of water, and is considered a type of water pollution. The most common contaminants that contribute to nutrient pollution are phosphorus and nitrogen, which are often used as fertilizers in the agricultural industry. Nutrient pollution in water is primarily caused by runoff from croplands, livestock land, septic tanks of private homes, and exhaust from vehicles. Additionally, phosphorus and nitrogen may be present in the chemicals used for landscaping treatment, as well as municipal sewage facilities. The pollutants present in these locations, as well as pollutants present in the air, are washed away by precipitation and carried into nearby waterways. Even snow and ice melt can carry pollutants into local watersheds.

What Are the Effects of Nutrient Pollution?

Just as phosphorus and nitrogen work as fertilizers in the agricultural industry, these substances also have the same effect in water (including sources of groundwater). When bodies of water are fertilized by phosphorus and nitrogen, algae plants are more likely to develop, grow, and thrive in a process known as eutrophication. As the algae population increases, it begins to block increasing amounts of sunlight, which has a detrimental impact on other plant life in the water. As more and more plants die off, their remains fall to the bottom and begin to decay. The decaying process works to reduce the amount of oxygen available in the water, and this oxygen depletion results in the loss of large numbers of aquatic vertebrate and invertebrate species. In addition to harming the natural environment, nutrient pollution and its resulting algal blooms may also cause humans to become sick if they come into contact with or drink the contaminated water. Humans are also exposed to increased risk of becoming sick if they consume fish or other aquatic life that is caught from nutrient polluted water. Additionally, municipal drinking water systems that rely on groundwater may also contain elevated levels of phosphorus and nitrogen.

Preventing Nutrient Pollution

Since nutrient pollution is considered a serious environmental problem, many governments and organizations around the world have dedicated themselves to its prevention and removal. Some approaches aimed at prevention have included governmental regulations to control both the volume of discharge and the amount of pollutants in said discharge that a company may emit. In the United States, for example, the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System provides permits to companies in an an attempt to control and prevent nutrient pollution. This regulatory system, however, does not have any authority over runoff that comes from private, corporate facilities as this issue is considered a nonpoint source pollution, which means the pollutants may come from a number of sources. Other organizations are dedicated to removing nutrient pollution from water sources, which may involve biofiltration. Biofiltration is a system that incorporates live plant matter to trap and break down contaminants. A similar approach is bioremediation, in which microorganisms are used to break down contaminants, instead of living plants.


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