Contaminated Irrigation Water and the Associated Public Health Risks

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Food, Energy, and Water: The Chemistry Connection

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The use of contaminated water, particularly wastewater, in agriculture is quite widespread and is positively correlated with poverty. The major drivers of the practice include water scarcity amid increasing demand; contamination of traditional sources of irrigation water and lack of alternatives; affordability, availability, and nutritional value of wastewater; and market incentives. Unfortunately, water, soils, and crops are getting contaminated, and illnesses have been linked to the contaminants through diet as well as occupational and recreational activities. The major polluters of water are the population-driven activities that include industry, urbanization, and agriculture, with the major contaminants being heavy metal(loid)s, micro- and nanomaterials, pharmaceuticals, dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), phthalates, and pathogens. The farmers and consumers in most countries where untreated wastewater is routinely used in agriculture have little to no knowledge of the risks involved, which explains the lack of risk analysis data on the issue. The lack of data complicates the enactment, implementation, and enforcement of regulations because regulating the unknown makes no sense. This could be the major reason some countries that purport to have regulations cannot enforce them. Robust policy that includes investment in water technology can only result from a government-mandated risk analysis that involves scientists, farmers, consumers, and the media. It is risk analysis that should inform public policy and not the other way round. Continuing the practice is just like dumping hazardous waste at dumpsites, yet in reality, these are agricultural lands, and health impacts will be severe. Something drastic can happen, and poverty and droughts cannot be the scapegoats.