In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section River Pollution

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Remediation

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Environmental Science River Pollution
Ellen Wohl
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0003


People who are not researchers are most likely to intersect environmental science in the context of protecting or restoring a place or species about which they are concerned, or in the context of pollution—trying to understand the sources and effects of contaminants, or trying to prevent or remediate environmental contamination. The works in this entry address pollutants affecting river ecosystems, including the people who live within or use resources from those ecosystems. Pollution is commonly subdivided based on the primary medium affected by contamination, creating categories such as air pollution, soil pollution, freshwater pollution, groundwater pollution, or marine pollution. In reality, of course, all of these media are intimately connected. Atmospheric deposition of contaminants pollutes soil and water bodies. Contaminated groundwater seeps into rivers, and contaminated rivers recharge groundwater aquifers. Fluxes of water, sediment, solutes, and even organisms carrying contaminants within their tissues create vectors to disperse pollutants. This is one of the great challenges to understanding and mitigating pollution: the contaminant is seldom an inert substance that stays in one place. Another great challenge is that there are many different types of contaminants, including human and animal wastes such as sewage or intestinal bacteria, excess nutrients, heavy metals, petroleum products, radioactive isotopes, and an enormous array of synthetic chemicals such as pesticides and personal care products. Each type of contaminant can disperse through environmental media, combining with other chemical compounds to form metabolites that may have different levels of toxicity for organisms or different dispersal mechanisms than the original contaminant. Yet another challenge in understanding and managing pollutants is that a substance that is harmful to one type of organism may not cause harm to another type of organism, but detailed knowledge of how individual pollutants affect the spectrum of living organisms is almost never available. Consequently, the environmental standards set by government agencies for maximum permissible levels of contaminants are based on very limited knowledge and are likely to be inadequate. Most of the standards are also based on acute effects that show up very quickly. Contaminant levels below permissible standards can cause chronic effects—subtle but pervasive changes that eventually degrade the health of individual organisms and populations. Some chronic effects result from bioaccumulation, as an organism accumulates contaminants within its tissues over the course of its life, and biomagnification, as organisms pass on their accumulated doses to predators or scavengers.

General Overviews

The works cited in this section provide broad overviews of topics, including the diverse types of contaminants that can be present in river environments, as well as the physical and chemical properties and environmental toxicity of these contaminants; methods of sampling contaminants in water, sediment, and biota; regulatory standards for contaminants and how these standards are established and enforced; and methods of mitigating or remediating river pollution. Edzwald 2011 focuses on these issues in the context of drinking-water quality, whereas Haslam 1994 focuses more on the effects of pollutants on river plants and animals. Steingraber 1998 provides a highly readable account of the sources of environmental contamination, including rivers, and the effects on human health. Wohl 2004 examines diverse sources of river pollution across the continental United States in the context of historical developments in technology that result in pollution. Gallo and Ferrari 2008 includes treatments of these issues in several countries, facilitating comparisons between countries and regions. Both Smol 2008 and Heim and Schwarzbauer 2013 provide a good introduction to using river sediments to understand the contemporary distribution and historical dissemination of pollutants. Jain 2009 exemplifies book-length treatments of pollution in individual rivers, in this case the Yamuna River of India.

  • Edzwald, J. K., ed. 2011. Water quality and treatment: A handbook on drinking water. 6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    This book provides an overview of diverse sources and types of water pollution, and of drinking water standards and regulations, but primarily focuses on treatments to improve water quality. Individual chapters cover both theory and practice with respect to specific water treatments.

  • Gallo, M. N., and M. H. Ferrari, eds. 2008. River pollution research progress. New York: Nova Science.

    This edited volume includes twelve chapters summarizing diverse aspects of the state of the science as of 2009. These include case studies from Russia, the United States, Greece, Brazil, and Zimbabwe, as well as overviews of processes, modeling, human perceptions, and different types of river pollution.

  • Haslam, S. M. 1994. River pollution: An ecological perspective. Chichester, UK: Wiley.

    This book provides an overview of different types of river pollution and how pollution affects river biota. The writing is readily accessible to nonspecialists, but includes extensive referencing for research uses. Although now more than twenty years old, this text is a good introduction to the topic of river pollution.

  • Heim, S., and J. Schwarzbauer. 2013. Pollution history revealed by sedimentary records: A review. Environmental Chemistry Letters 11:255–270.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10311-013-0409-3

    A useful and thorough review of how sediments can be used to evaluate distribution and concentration of persistent pollutants within rivers through time and across space. The paper describes different types of contaminants, including heavy metals, PCBs, PAHs, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals; contamination sources and pathways; and numerous case studies.

  • Jain, A. K. 2009. River pollution: Regeneration and cleaning. New Delhi: A. P. H. Publishing Corporation.

    This book is a comprehensive case study of a single large river in India, the Yamuna, and of the large cities, including Delhi, that pollute the river. Following an introduction to the river’s ecology, geomorphology, and flow regime, the book focuses on pollutants and remediation of pollution in the river.

  • Smol, J. P. 2008. Pollution of lakes and rivers: A paleoenvironmental perspective. 2d ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    This book covers diverse types of pollutants from the perspective of sedimentary records of changing types and concentrations of pollutants through time. Because river channels, floodplains, alluvial fans, and deltas preserve thousands of years of river sediments, these depositional environments provide a unique perspective on river pollution over long time spans. First published in 2002 (London: Arnold).

  • Steingraber, S. 1998. Living downstream: A scientist’s personal investigation of cancer and the environment. New York: Vintage.

    Written for nonspecialist readers, this highly readable book provides an overview and in-depth introduction to river pollution and other forms of environmental contamination, and reviews a wide array of studies documenting the resulting impairment of human and animal health.

  • Wohl, E. 2004. Disconnected rivers: Linking rivers to landscapes. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300103328.001.0001

    This book examines human effects on rivers throughout the continental United States, and includes an extensive discussion of diverse types, sources, and effects of river pollution. The book discusses specific examples of river pollution from the Great Lakes region and provides an overview of riverine water quality throughout the country.

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