4 Water Contamination Disasters That Became a Public Health Crisis


The problem of water contamination is not a novel crisis. By the mid-1800s, people had some understanding of the connection between polluted water and disease epidemics. The only difference between then and now is the type and level of pollutants in water.

Earlier, people only had to worry about contaminants like microbes, gravel, human/animal waste, etc. Today, the situation has flipped with the discovery of a wide range of chemicals. The growth in urbanization and industrialization has only increased the potential for health and environmental damage.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), access to safe drinking water sources can help save at least 1.4 million lives a year. This figure tells us that the crisis is grave. Notwithstanding the general issue of water pollution, some incidents have broken all records.

In this article, we will share four water contamination crises that left the world stunned at their adverse impact. These tragic occurrences led to massive destruction of human life, wildlife, and the environment.

US Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune

This incident must sit at the top of this list because it turned out to be the worst-ever public health crisis in US history. When the US Marine Corps Base of Camp Lejeune was established in 1942, military servicemen had high hopes for training.

This North Carolina Camp was used as the support center for units like the Fleet Marine Force (FMF). For decades, veterans residing across Camp Lejeune (and their families) had no clue of a lurking water contamination issue.

Three of the Camp’s groundwater supply tanks – Hadnot Point, Tarawa Terraces, and Holcomb Boulevard – were heavily polluted with volatile organic compounds. The reason for the contamination was found to be an offsite dry cleaning facility (releasing perchloroethylene as a by-product).

This problem continued unnoticed from 1953 to 1987. It is important to mention here that the contamination was discovered in 1982, but the tanks were not shut down till 1985. In the decades that followed the discovery, cases of terminal conditions like cancer, Parkinson’s disease, infertility, etc., were heard of.

The victims (over one million in total) were only offered free healthcare under the Obama administration. However, President Joe Biden chose to drop the Federal government’s sovereign immunity in August 2022.

He passed the Camp Lejeune Justice Act (CLJA), making the victims eligible for legal justice and monetary compensation. Since then, over 123,000 administrative claims have been filed, and thousands of them have turned into lawsuits.

The latest Camp Lejeune lawsuit update is that the government has started its process of early settlement (six cases have been settled). A few more could be expected to be settled through the elective option, but the rest will go to trial.

According to TorHoerman Law, chosen cases are progressing towards the first trials for fair settlements. The road to justice is still long and tedious as most plaintiffs are too sick and advanced in age to fight for years. This tragedy only revealed the irresponsibility on the government’s part in addressing the issue at its root.

Mutare, Zimbabwe

This incident dates back to 2012, resulting from diamond mining activities in Zimbabwe’s Mutare. The mining process released carcinogenic elements (fluoride, nickel, chromium) into the Odzi River. This river was one of the primary sources of water for the communities of the Mutare district.

As many as 100,000 residents were warned of the water contamination. They were advised to stop their consumption of groundwater immediately. This led to massive water scarcity. People had to wait up to five hours to get water from a borewell.

Besides the large-scale water shortage, people started falling sick of waterborne diseases like cholera, diarrhea, and skin conditions. The community’s water had turned brown and became unsafe for drinking.

The saddest part is that Mutare’s water crisis is an ongoing one. Even in 2023, it was reported that despite having sufficient reservoirs, improper distribution was leaving residents grappling for water.

Not only that, but such shortages were fueling cases of cholera. As mentioned by a 46-year-old resident, Regai Chibanda, “If the water comes at all, it is often dirty.”

Elk River, West Virginia

The Elk River water contamination incident is also a tragic one, occurring in 2014. Over 5,000 gallons of chemical spillage had left the river’s water unfit for consumption.

The next thing you know is that residents of Charleston (300,000 of them) woke up to the news of an acute water crisis. Senior residents like Cookie Lilly (age 71) reported having “chest pains” as she anxiously waited in line for four gallons of water.

At the time, authorities were unaware of how dangerous the chemical, 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, was and its health repercussions. So, people were advised against external use (no bathing, washing clothes or utensils, etc.).

It was later found that those with prolonged exposure developed skin and eye irritation, breathing difficulty, nausea, and severe headaches. Thankfully, the early action on the part of Charleston authorities prevented massive numbers of hospitalizations. However, the state of emergency lasted for 50 days, disrupting daily life.

Walkerton, Canada

This water contamination incident was the worst ever in the history of Canada. The community of Canada’s Walkerton was small (with less than 5,000 people) at the time. In May 2000, it was found that the town’s municipal water supply was contaminated with bacteria.

The bacterium was none other than the deadly E. coli. Even within a community of less than 5000, at least 2,300 fell severely ill, and seven died of contaminated water consumption.

Some of the main factors that contributed to this tragedy included surface runoff due to heavy rainfall, lack of quality testing, fraudulence on the part of operators, and privatization of municipal water.

This contamination crisis led to the infamous E. coli outbreak in the town. Gradually, the situation was resolved by disinfecting the plumbing of 1,800 buildings, regular checks of wells and cisterns, and collecting over 5,000 water samples for quality testing.


As we close, mention must be made of the worsening water quality across the world. Industrial-use chemicals are a major contributor to the growing problem. The UN World Water Development Report 2023 warned of an imminent global water crisis.

It is a ticking time bomb that can soon turn into a worldwide public health issue. Governments and citizens must work together to prevent further contamination through pollutant treatment at source, minimum waste discharge, and effective sewage treatment, among others.