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Health effects of water pollution

Polluted water.

Dirty water can make you sick. You probably already know that. But do you know the many different ways polluted water can make you ill? Drinking or swimming in unclean water can cause:

  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • A sick stomach
  • Skin rashes
  • Cancer (Some kinds of cancer, like leukemia, can happen after drinking bad water for a long period of time)
  • Reproductive problems (Some kinds of reproductive problems, like infertility, can happen after drinking polluted water for a long period of time)
  • Developmental problems (Some kinds of learning disabilities can happen after drinking dirty water for a long period of time)

What do these words mean?

Aquifer (say: ACK-kwi-fur): An aquifer is the sand, soil, and gravel underground where groundwater stays.

Nitrates (say: nye-TRAYTS): Nitrates can be found in water. Too many nitrates can harm babies and make it hard for their bodies to carry oxygen.

What if I have special health needs?

Adults and kids who have HIV/AIDS, are getting chemotherapy, take steroids, or who have weak immune systems may be more likely to get sick from dirty drinking water. If you or someone you know is like this, talk to your doctor or nurse to find out if you need to do something special, like boiling your tap water or using a filter. Boiling water will kill bacteria in the water. A filter will take out chemicals that may be in the water.

Young children are especially likely to get sick from certain kinds of water pollution. Lead is a special concern for young children. If you have a young brother or sister, or if you babysit, there are some things you can do to protect very young children from lead poisoning.

If you are using tap water to make baby formula or for drinking and cooking, use the coldest water you can. Let it run for a minute or more if the water hasn’t been turned on within the last six hours. If you know that there is lead or nitrates in the tap water at your house or where you babysit, talk to a doctor or nurse about using a different water source (like bottled water) for drinking and cooking.

Should I be worried about my tap water?

For the most part, no! Your drinking water is probably very safe and clean to drink. Remember: the United States has one of the safest water supplies in the world. Although drinking water often picks up low levels of some pollution as it flows in rivers and collects in aquifers (say: AC-kwi-fers), these things are usually not harmful. And if water does get polluted, water suppliers must tell you right away.

Still, there are things you can do to help protect yourself against getting sick from water. It’s everyone’s responsibility to take care of our earth’s most important resource: water.


Content last reviewed July 20, 2010
Page last updated October 31, 2013