While water pollution can contribute to several health problems, one usually associates water contamination with digestive and respiratory issues. Water pollution can also affect the skin, from simple problems like irritating our skin to significant problems like skin cancer. In the following article, learn about three common health problems linked to water pollution/contamination and how to prevent them.
Chlorine as an Irritant to the Skin
In recreational pools, workers will add chlorine to the water. Chlorine is used as a disinfectant to protect humans from harmful bacteria. Although it can keep others safe from significant infections, it is proven to be a toxic chemical and can cause severe skin agitation (Sublime Life, 2020). When toxic chemicals interact with the natural oils in our skin barrier, dryness, itchiness, and irritated skin are guaranteed side effects. When chlorine mixes with other pollutants in water bodies, it turns acidic. (Sublime Life, 2020) As pollutants and chlorine absorb within the skin, it will disrupt the desired pH balance of the skin, tearing off its protective layer. Overexposure to chlorine can also lead to severe burns, as a high chlorine concentration can lead to blisters and wounds. (Hirsch, 2019) Continuous exposure to chlorinated water can result in premature aging and overall damage to the longevity and health of the skin.
Figure 1: A rash caused by excessive chlorine. (Fletcher, 2018)
A more severe skin infection from water pollution is “Swimmer’s Itch.” Within large bodies of water, animals such as ducks, geese, muskrats, and raccoons carry adult parasites in their infected bloodstreams. Their bloodstreams can be infected by their food once chemical waste is dumped into habitats and rivers. Once these animals defecate, these microscopic parasites can interact and grow once exposed to water. These parasites usually try to inhabit small mollusks such as snails or larger mammals to continue growing. Although humans are not suitable hosts for these parasites, larvae burrow themselves into a swimmer’s skin and can cause an allergic reaction/rash. (Quebec, 2022) Symptoms of swimmer’s itch include swollen red spots and itching, lasting between 1-2 weeks. (CDC, 2020). Although Swimmer’s Itch is not a chronic disease, continuous exposure to parasitic waters can also permanently affect the health of the skin barrier.
Figure 2: A graph explaining the cycle of Swimmer's itch. (Cercarial dermatitis, 2019)
More than rashes and parasites, arsenic poisoning risks our skin health. Arsenic integrates itself into water supplies from natural deposits in the earth or from industrial and agricultural pollution. According to the World Health Organization, however, “the greatest threat to public health from arsenic originates from contaminated groundwater.” (WHO, 2022) In third-world countries such as Argentina, Bangladesh, Cambodia and India, arsenic concentration is much more prevalent within bodies of water due to mining and chemical waste dumping into bathing waters. Long-term exposure to arsenic can cause skin cancer, discoloration and thickening of the skin. (WHO, 2022) Exposure to arsenic can also branch off into other cancers, such as bladder and lung cancer. Since arsenic is poisonous, overexposure through the skin will eventually be lethal or, at the very best, dangerous to the longevity of life.
Although these three health issues concern effects on humans, there are methods of prevention that can be considered. For chlorine, when going into swimming pools, take a thorough shower and apply moisturizer after you are done to retain moisture and firmness. For swimmers’ itch, use corticosteroid cream and apply cool compresses to the affected areas. One can prevent arsenic concentration levels by adding lime to the water or precipitation. For treatment, WHO recommends substituting high-arsenic sources, such as groundwater, with low-arsenic, microbiologically safe sources, such as rainwater and treated surface water. (WHO, 2022) It is also helpful to install either centralized or domestic arsenic removal systems that ensure the complete removal and disposal of arsenic.
Figure 3: An arsenic filtration system. (Arsenic in your drinking water may damage, 2011)
Pollutants, contaminants, and chemicals are in all water sources. Even chemicals like chlorine, which are meant to protect humans from harmful bacteria, can destroy the skin barrier. In extreme cases with arsenic, some people are automatically prone to poisoning and lethal illnesses, especially where clean water is scarce. What is important is that we find ways to prevent these contaminants from permanently affecting the health of others.