The specific contaminants leading to pollution in water include a wide spectrum of chemicals, pathogens, and physical or sensory changes such as elevated temperature and discoloration. While many of the chemicals and substances that are regulated may be naturally occurring (calcium, sodium, iron, manganese, etc.) the concentration is often the key in determining what is a natural component of water, and what is a contaminant. High concentrations of naturally-occurring substances can have negative impacts on aquatic flora and fauna.

Oxygen-depleting substances may be natural materials, such as plant matter (e.g. leaves and grass) as well as man-made chemicals. Other natural and anthropogenic substances may cause turbidity (cloudiness) which blocks light and disrupts plant growth, and clogs the gills of some fish species.

Many of the chemical substances are toxic. Pathogens can produce waterborne diseases in either human or animal hosts. Alteration of water's physical chemistry includes acidity (change in pH), electrical conductivity, temperature, and eutrophication. Eutrophication is an increase in the concentration of chemical nutrients in an ecosystem to an extent that increases in the primary productivity of the ecosystem. Depending on the degree of eutrophication, subsequent negative environmental effects such as anoxia (oxygen depletion) and severe reductions in water quality may occur, affecting fish and other animal populations.



Coliform bacteria are a commonly used bacterial indicator of water pollution, although not an actual cause of disease. Other microorganisms sometimes found in surface waters which have caused human health problems include:

Burkholderia pseudomallei

Cryptosporidium parvum

Giardia lamblia


Novovirus and other viruses

Parasitic worms (helminths).

High levels of pathogens may result from inadequately treated sewage discharges. This can be caused by a sewage plant designed with less than secondary treatment (more typical in less-developed countries). In developed countries, older cities with aging infrastructure may have leaky sewage collection systems (pipes, pumps, valves), which can cause sanitary sewer overflows. Some cities also have combined sewers, which may discharge untreated sewage during rain storms.

Pathogen discharges may also be caused by poorly managed livestock operations.

Chemical and other contaminants


Contaminants may include organic and inorganic substances.

Organic water pollutants include:


Disinfection by-products found in chemically disinfected drinking water, such as chloroform

Food processing waste, which can include oxygen-demanding substances, fats and grease

Insecticides and herbicides, a huge range of organohalides and other chemical compounds

Petroleum hydrocarbons, including fuels (gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuels, and fuel oil) and lubricants (motor oil), and fuel combustion byproducts, from stormwater runoff

Tree and bush debris from logging operations

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as industrial solvents, from improper storage.

Chlorinated solvents, which are dense non-aqueous phase liquids (DNAPLs), may fall to the bottom of reservoirs, since they don't mix well with water and are denser.

Polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs)



Various chemical compounds found in personal hygiene and cosmetic products


Inorganic water pollutants include:

Acidity caused by industrial discharges (especially sulfur dioxide from power plants)

Ammonia from food processing waste

Chemical waste as industrial by-products

Fertilizers containing nutrients--nitrates and phosphates--which are found in stormwater runoff from agriculture, as well as commercial and residential use

Heavy metals from motor vehicles (via urban stormwater runoff) and acid mine drainage

Silt (sediment) in runoff from construction sites, logging, slash and burn practices or land clearing sites


Macroscopic pollution—large visible items polluting the water—may be termed "floatables" in an urban stormwater context, or marine debris when found on the open seas, and can include such items as:

Trash or garbage (e.g. paper, plastic, or food waste) discarded by people on the ground, along with accidental or intentional dumping of rubbish, that are washed by rainfall into storm drains and eventually discharged into surface waters

Nurdles, small ubiquitous waterborne plastic pellets

Shipwrecks, large derelict ships

Thermal pollution


Thermal pollution is the rise or fall in the temperature of a natural body of water caused by human influence. Thermal pollution, unlike chemical pollution, results in a change in the physical properties of water. A common cause of thermal pollution is the use of water as a coolant by power plants and industrial manufacturers. Elevated water temperatures decreases oxygen levels (which can kill fish) and affects ecosystem composition, such as invasion by new thermophilic species. Urban runoff may also elevate temperature in surface waters.

Thermal pollution can also be caused by the release of very cold water from the base of reservoirs into warmer rivers.