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Sources of groundwater pollution

Saltwater encroachment associated with over drafting of aquifers or natural leaching from natural occurring deposits are natural sources of groundwater pollution. Most concern over groundwater contamination has centered on pollution associated with human activities. Human groundwater contamination can be related to waste disposal (private sewage disposal systems, land disposal of solid waste, municipal wastewater, wastewater impoundments, land spreading of sludge, brine disposal from the petroleum industry, mine wastes, deep-well disposal of liquid wastes, animal feedlot wastes, radioactive wastes) or not directly related to waste disposal (accidents, certain agricultural activities, mining, highway deicing, acid rain, improper well construction and maintenance, road salt).

The following table shows a list of the potential groundwater contamination sources [6]:

Place of origin

Potential groundwater contamination source





At or near the land surface

air pollution

municipal waste landspreading

salt for de-icing streets

streets & parking lots

air pollution

chemicals: storage & spills

fuels: storage & spills

mine tailing piles

air pollution

chemical spills


livestock waste storage facilities & landspreading


air pollution





motor oil



Below the land surface


leaky sewer lines


underground storage tanks

underground storage


wells: poorly constructed or abandoned

septic systems

wells: poorly

constructed or abandoned

Large quantities of organic compounds are manufactured and used by industries, agriculture and municipalities. These man-made organic compounds are of most concern. The organic compounds occur in nature and may come from natural sources as well as from human activities. In many locations groundwater has been contaminated by chemicals for many decades, though this form of pollution was not recognized as serious environmental problem until the 1980s.

A brief description of the contamination sources follows.

Natural: groundwater contains some impurities, even if it is unaffected by human activities. The types and concentrations of natural impurities depend on the nature of the geological material through which the groundwater moves and the quality of the recharge water. Groundwater moving through sedimentary rocks and soils may pick up a wide range of compounds such as magnesium, calcium, and chlorides. Some aquifers have high natural concentration of dissolved constituents such as arsenic, boron, and selenium. The effect of these natural sources of contamination on groundwater quality depends on the type of contaminant and its concentrations.

Agricultural: Pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides and animal waste are agricultural sources of groundwater contamination. The agricultural contamination sources are varied and numerous: spillage of fertilizers and pesticides during handling, runoff from the loading and washing of pesticide sprayers or other application equipment, using chemicals uphill from or within a few hundred feet of a well. Agricultural land that lacks sufficient drainage is considered by many farmers to be lost income land. So they may install drain tiles or drainage wells to make the land more productive. The drainage well then serves as a direct conduit to groundwater for agricultural wastes which are washed down with the runoff.
Storage of agricultural chemicals near conduits to groundwater, such as open and abandoned wells, sink holes, or surface depressions where ponded water is likely to accumulate. Contamination may also occur when chemicals are stored in uncovered areas, unprotected from wind and rain, or are stored in locations where the groundwater flows from the direction of the chemical storage to the well.

Industrial: Manufacturing and service industries have high demands for cooling water, processing water and water for cleaning purposes. Groundwater pollution occurs when used water is returned to the hydrological cycle.
Modern economic activity requires transportation and storage of material used in manufacturing, processing, and construction. Along the way, some of this material can be lost through spillage, leakage, or improper handling. The disposal of wastes associated with the above activities contributes to another source of groundwater contamination. Some businesses, usually without access to sewer systems, rely on shallow underground disposal. They use cesspools or dry holes, or send the wastewater into septic tanks. Any of these forms of disposal can lead to contamination of underground sources of drinking water. Dry holes and cesspools introduce wastes directly into the ground. Septic systems cannot treat industrial wastes. Wastewater disposal practices of certain types of businesses, such as automobile service stations, dry cleaners, electrical component or machine manufacturers, photo processors, and metal platters or fabricators are of particular concern because the waste they generate is likely to contain toxic chemicals. Other industrial sources of contamination include cleaning off holding tanks or spraying equipment on the open ground, disposing of waste in septic systems or dry wells, and storing hazardous materials in uncovered areas or in areas that do not have pads with drains or catchment basins. Underground and above ground storage tanks holding petroleum products, acids, solvents and chemicals can develop leaks from corrosion, defects, improper installation, or mechanical failure of the pipes and fittings. Mining of fuel and non-fuel minerals can create many opportunities for groundwater contamination. The problems stem from the mining process itself, disposal of wastes, and processing of the ores and the wastes it creates.

Residential: Residential wastewater systems can be a source of many categories of contaminants, including bacteria, viruses, nitrates from human waste, and organic compounds. Injection wells used for domestic wastewater disposal (septic systems, cesspools, drainage wells for storm water runoff, groundwater recharge wells) are of particular concern to groundwater quality if located close to drinking water wells. Improperly storing or disposing of household chemicals such as paints, synthetic detergents, solvents, oils, medicines, disinfectants, pool chemicals, pesticides, batteries, gasoline and diesel fuel can lead to groundwater contamination. When stored in garages or basements with floor drains, spills and flooding may introduce such contaminants into the groundwater. When thrown in the household trash, the products will eventually be carried into the groundwater because community landfills are not equipped to handle hazardous materials. Similarly, wastes dumped or buried in the ground can contaminate the soil and leach into the groundwater.

For more information check the following pages: groundwater contamination, source of groundwater pollution, contaminants (seawater intrusions, nitrates, arsenic, iron), reducing groundwater contamination.

Click here for definitions concerning groundwater, or to learn more about its properties, its origin and quantities, its sources in Europe.

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