Top 10 Most Polluted Rivers in the US [2022 Updated List]

Most Polluted Rivers in the USWhen we hear the word pollution, we usually think of the air. But it’s the pollution of the waterways that needs more attention.

The situation is bad all over the world, but the US has it worse than many parts of the world. The Atlantic reported research says, “50% of the rivers in the US are too polluted for our health”.

In recent years, many rivers, ancient and new, have seen pollution at unprecedented levels, some more than others. What is the most polluted river in the US? People have different answers to the question.

The intention behind putting together this article is to give you a brief idea of river pollution in the United States of America. Awareness is the key. First, let’s try to answer the most obvious question.

Why Do America’s Rivers Get Polluted Day by Day?

If you do a survey, most people will mention the river closest to them. And that should tell you the severity of the situation. Being one of the most developed countries in the world, it’s unacceptable.

So why is river pollution even a thing when they outsource the production of their technology products to third-world countries?

Well, the answer is multi-faceted. But the most notable reason is the runoff from agriculture operations. The USA’s agricultural boom is due to the use of fertilizer with high amounts of nitrate and pesticides.

This nitrate and pesticide get washed away from the fields into the rivers. While this is a matter of concern, the effect is passive, i.e., it’s not intentional.

Whereas if you look at the groundbreaking report from the Environment America Research and Policy Center, you’ll notice that actively pouring industrial waste is destroying the rivers more.

The report also points us toward the fact that the rivers are losing the ability to support aquatic life. As things are, rivers will soon start dying.

Most Polluted Rivers in America : Top 10 List

River pollution isn't contained in a few states, and certainly, the number is a lot more than 10. But for the brevity of our discussion, we're going to name and discuss the top 10 rivers affected by pollution. Do note that the sequence of the list doesn't reflect the degree of pollution.

1. Ohio River

Ohio River

The Ohio River begins from Pennsylvania and goes up to Illinois, stretching almost 981 miles. On the map, it's located in the Midwestern and Southern USA.

Home to 366 species of fish, this large river is considered the most dirty river in the US and has been for the last decade.

Like many rivers around the world, the leading cause of its pollution is chemical waste. 90% of the pollution is caused by nitrate compounds which are released by the AK steel group. Anglers are cautioned against fishing in this river due to the high amount of mercury.

Another closely related cause behind the river's current state is the algae bloom, which is causing pollution in so many other rivers.

The only reason why the pollution hasn't killed all the living beings inside the water is the massive size of it. It's large enough to disperse the toxic elements all over, thus reducing the impact.

But how long will it be able to keep neutralizing the chemicals if we don't take the necessary steps? That is the big question.

2. Calcasieu River

Calcasieu River

You'll find this river in southwestern Louisiana on the Gulf Coast. Stretching over 200 miles, it is home to 430 species of plants and animals.

The main culprit behind the pollution is again the chemical toxins released from the many industries on the river banks. Petroleum chemical is one of the major reasons behind the poisonous water.

It's not advisable to fish in many parts of the river, thanks to the illegal dumping of petroleum chemicals. Although the responsible oil refineries have settled to pay a fine to the federal government for their actions, it's important to make sure it never happens again.

3. Mississippi River

Mississippi River

You'd go "Ewww!" if you saw the river due to the brownish color. Trust me; this is not an exaggeration. Since the industrial revolution in the 1800s, the Minnesota lumbering industry started dumping waste into the river.

As the second-largest river in the US, the Mississippi River stretches over 2,340 miles. Starting from Northern Minnesota and ending on the Gulf of Mexico, this river is known to be the home to many species of fish, mussels, and shrimps.

Since the river flows through 10 states, it has all kinds of pollutant sources near its paths. It was a shock to me when I found out that the leading cause behind the pollution of this river is sewage!

Active pollution isn't a new phenomenon. Even the 1930s saw 144 million gallons of sewage and garbage being thrown into the river.

Agricultural waste and city waste are also two major reasons behind the sad state of marine life. It makes sense when you remember the 10 states dumping all kinds of waste in it.

The river's water is too muddy to be mistaken as clean water. It is sometimes referred to as the "Big Muddy." And it's poisonous to both animals and humans if drank untreated.

4. New River

This river flows through three states; North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. It's fairly long, stretching over 320 miles. It flows from California and goes into Mexico. All the terrains and lowlands surrounding the river made it a popular place for hiking.

But the unmistakable stench from the river is making things hard. The main reason behind the pollution is the increase in population in the nearby area.

It's the garbage and sewage being dragged into the river's path. And we don't even need to mention the industrial wastage being discharged into the river.

Recent tests have shown the presence of mercury and arsenic in the river. Both of which can cause life-threatening diseases in the long run. DDT, pet waste, and PCBs are also present in the water.

Don't take the pollution lightly. Workers have to wear protective clothing when working in and around the river.

5. Grand Calumet River

Grand Calumet River

A river that goes under the radar almost always is the Grand Calumet River. It's not a big river by any means at only 13 miles in length. And that might have been a reason behind its absence in the pollution leaderboard.

However, if you were to look at the water flowing in its path, you'd find 90% of it is full of industrial and municipal effluent.

The river originates in Miller Beach in Gary and flows through Chicago and Hammond. A large percentage of its water ends up in Lake Michigan, and part of it from its western end flows into the Mississippi River, which is another dirty river.

Its history of pollution goes back 200 years to the 1800s. The reason? It's the same as any other river. Industrial waste accumulation destroyed the river bed and made it problematic for health by 1885.

Continuing the construction of industries along the bank of the river only increases the rate of pollution.

Right in the middle of the 19th century, the river lost its identity as a river and started being considered as an industrial sewer. Now, it can't support any life form except algae and sludge worms.

6. Tennessee River

Tennessee River

The main river in the state of Tennessee is located in the Tennessee valley. It's 652 miles long and hosts hundreds of species, including fish, shrimp, and mussels.

But the high amount of pollutants present in the water is causing marine life to shrink its numbers. Pollutants include industrial chemicals, waste, raw sewage, agricultural spill, and micro-plastics from the garbage.

The EPA regulated that if the PFOA level is 70 ppt and below, the water is considered to be safe and drinkable.

But a 2020 study from the Tennessee Riverkeeper shows that almost 51,000 ppt PFOA and PFOS are being dumped into the river. These are alarming levels of elements that have the potential to cause generational damage to the human population.

In a study, 121 people were reported to have high levels of PFOA in their system. Although the responsible corporations have been sued, the history of negligence from authorities on these issues does not give us any hope.

7. Cuyahoga River

Cuyahoga River

Another polluted river from Ohio is this small river, the Cuyahoga. This river starts from the south of Lake Erie and travels only 80 miles before merging with the lake near Cleveland, Ohio.

Did you know this river caught fire?

Yes, the river is so polluted that the water is flammable enough to be catch fire. Since Cleveland became a center of manufacturing plants, this river has been a dumping ground. Residential sewage is a culprit but not as big as the industrial chemical spill.

You can imagine the damage that a hundred years of spillage can cause, so much so that there is a food of oil covering the river's surface.

By the way, this river caught fire at least 13 times, and that was only until 1969. The most memorable one was in 1952; it cost damages worth 1 million USD.

According to the National Park State, the river is getting back its life. But it's a work in progress.

8. Holston River

Holston River

This is another river in Tennessee. It stretches over 136 miles from Kingsport, Tennessee, to Knoxville, Tennessee. As a source of many species of shrimp, fish, and mussels, it's an important economic spot. And it's also a source of hydroelectric power for the state.

Despite being such a short river and starting and ending in the same state, the amount of pollution is astounding.

It's the Holston Army Ammunition factory located near the river banks and branches. Chemical explosive from the plant flows into the river, specifically the carcinogen RDX, aka Research Development Explosive. RDX can cause death within 30 minutes if inhaled.

It alone is enough to make the water toxic for marine life and unsuitable for human consumption.

9. Harpeth River

Harpeth River

If the appearance of deformed fish with messed-up reproductive systems does not scare you, I don't know what will. It makes me remember the polluted river in the cartoon Simpson.

It's approximately 115 miles long and located in Rutherford County, Tennessee. Home to 50 different fish species, the pollution cannot be more alarming. The salamanders and turtles living on the river bank are extremely vulnerable.

Sewage waste is a major cause. But the runoff from stormwater is responsible for the blue-green algal bloom. It makes the water toxic and inhabitable.

There's a unique underlying reason behind the mutations in the fish. It's the lead-smelting plants near the Kirkland community that caused the mutations. Even humans could damage their health from the lead.

10. Willamette River

Willamette River

After a century of pollution, Willamette is easily one of the contaminated rivers in the US. This 190 miles long river is known to contain 65 chemical elements that pose a monumental risk to human and overall environmental health.

In the year 2000, the EPA announced the river as a priority site for toxic waste removal. Sewage and industrial waste are both responsible for destroying water quality.

This has been the scenario for the past hundred years. In 1906, a local Oregonian newspaper called the river the "common sewer for the entire valley."

Not only that, but the river is also victim to algal bloom, which results in the death of many fish species. And the fish that lives is full of toxic components, making them unfit for consumption.

Precautions to Stay Safe from Dirty Water

Precautions to Stay Safe from Dirty Water

Those who are living around the polluted waterways and river streams need to be cautious at all times. Even if you don't drink from the river, the river water will find its way into your clothing and food in one way or another.

We see germs of all kinds floating in the water samples. If you want to live a good life, here are a few pieces of advice -

Don't Drink from the River

Yes, it might sound weird. But that's what it has come to. You need to find another source that is not contaminated. However, it might not be possible for everyone due to unfavorable circumstances. In such cases, it's a must that you boil the water and filter it before drinking it.

Yes, boiling will kill the bacteria and other germs. But the chemical components from the wastage need to be filtered to make the water drinkable.

I don't think I need to tell you the amount of bacteria-borne diseases river water contains.

Don't Bathe or Swim

Some rivers are so polluted that you're going to damage your health just by touching the water. Even your skin will show symptoms.

Don't Wash Your Clothes

I give the same advice as before. Please don't wash your clothes with dirty water unless you boil them. Even then, the remaining chemical elements will destroy your fabric quality. But if the chemical elements get inside you through inhalation or touch, it might be fatal.

Use Disinfectants to Wash Everything

This is a must-have for the riverine regions. Just using an average soap will not give you any protection. Use disinfectants to wash your utensils and other cookware.

Have a Bath Every Day

It needs to be said more and more. Never touch anything without having a bath when you come home every day. Bathe your pet animals, too, if you let them outside.

People Also Ask

1. What percentage of US rivers are polluted?

Around 46% of the USA's rivers and streams are considered polluted because of the excessive amount of phosphorus.

2. Where is water pollution worst in America?

Texas leads the country in the water pollution leaderboard.

3. Where is the purest water in America?

According to many reports, Hawaii ranks first in both the pure water and air category. Massachusetts came in 2nd, followed by North Dakota and Virginia.

4. Why are rivers more polluted today?

The cause of river pollution hasn't changed much. Although the industrial cause of pollution has reduced, it is still one major cause. But the city sewage seems to hold its 1st place.

5. Is it safe to swim in polluted water?

It depends on the level of pollution. In some cases, swimmers will develop different illnesses. It's recommended to shower after swimming to get rid of any pollutants from the body.

Final Words

As you can probably tell, it's tough to select a single river as the dirtiest river in the US. Fortunately for us, rivers can heal if you create the right situation. But as of now, we are not taking enough measures to prevent the sources of pollutants.

Industries are still dumping their wastes, and municipal wastage still finds its way into the streams of water.

Hopefully, the newly emerged organizations around the polluted rivers, such as Dignity Village, Texas Rivers Protection Association, American Rivers, etc., will push for a change and make it happen. You can be a part of the movement too!

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