The prevalence of contamination (from man-made pollution and waste to naturally-occurring toxins), and the wide range of ways contaminated water can enter the human body are staggering. Every day, people are put at risk through:
- Drinking contaminated water;
- Eating food that was grown, washed, or prepared using contaminated sources;
- Eating food prepared in bowls or with utensils washed with contaminated water;
- Acquiring germs from people’s hands that are then absorbed by eating, rubbing eyes, wiping noses;
- Bathing and washing in unhygienic water; and
- Providing and receiving medical care in unsanitary environments.
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The human costs of people consuming and coming into contact with unsafe water are dire:
- Water-related diseases are one of the leading causes of death worldwide. Over 3 million people die each year, nearly all in developing countries. In some poor countries, diseases resulting from contaminated water comprise 80% of the total disease burden. It is estimated that up to half of all hospital beds in the world are occupied by victims of water contamination.
- The biggest killer is diarrhea contracted from microorganisms in water contaminated by sewage, resulting in 1.8 million child deaths per year. In places like Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, up to half of all cases of malnutrition are caused by diarrhea. It is estimated that diarrhea alone costs the world 52.5 million lost years of healthy life. Nearly all diarrheal deaths are preventable. In fact, mortality from water-contracted diarrhea was largely eliminated in the developed world by 1925, as technological advances secured widespread access to improved water and sanitation facilities.
- Other major water-related diseases include: aresenicosis and flurosis (from prolonged exposure to naturally-occurring arsenic and fluoride, respectively, in groundwater); cholera and typhoid (water-borne bacterial infections); guinea worm disease, intestinal worms, and schistosomiasis (from ingesting water-borne larvae); and trachoma (eye infections from dirty water).
- Patients with diseases not directly related to water such as HIV/AIDS are impacted by unsafe water because they are more susceptible to complications and infections.
- Dirty water (standing in puddles or stored) is a breeding ground for mosquitoes that go on to spread diseases such as malaria and encephalitis. The UN estimates that 60% of global cases of malaria and 80% of malaria deaths in Sub-Saharan Africa (nearly 1 million per year) are related to water storage.
Although people living in LDCs experience more water contamination and higher risk of illness and death related to poor quality water, this is not a problem exclusive to poor countries. See the recent New York Times series entitled “Toxic Waters” for an examination of polluted waters in the US that routinely sicken and kill Americans.
Tremendous financial costs are contained in all these statistics – in lost school days, lost work days, and health care costs.
- The UN estimates that simply meeting the MDG goals related to water and sanitation would save $7.3 billion per year in health care costs.
- Billions more would result from increased productivity in terms of healthy adult working days, including the increased productivity that would result when women are freed from the onerous burden of seeking out and transporting water, and could use their time in other ways. (Maude Barlow includes in her book, Blue Covenant, the shocking statistic that the women of South Africa collectively walk the equivalent of the distance to the moon and back 16 times a day for water.)
Next: Water, Health, and Nutrition: Case Study - Cholera and the World's Most Vulnerable Populations