(The following article is from Saving Our Oceans and is being reprinted with the permission of the publisher.)
Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Chapter 5: Fresh Water Has Problems Too
While cleaning the oceans of debris is a major challenge and task, it’s not the only task on which survival depends. And frankly, cleaning up the oceans cannot be accomplished without stopping the fresh water pollution that is the primary cause of ocean pollution. Some say that as much as 70 to 80 percent of the ocean’s pollutants comes from rivers and streams.
It’s quite easy to conclude that fresh water pollution is as serious as ocean pollution when one considers that the drinking water of about 244 million Americans is compromised and potentially unsafe to drink. That number represents nearly 2/3 of the American population. Much of the contamination happened in previous years (although it seems likely that there’s still some occurring) and just like plastic, contaminated water doesn’t simply go away. While plastic is a pollution problem, fresh water issues go far beyond plastic bottles left along the shoreline.
Lakes, rivers, streams, and aquifers across the country are home to cancer-causing ingredients from industrial waste, farm fertilizers, and chemical toxins. Whether one believes in global warming or not, there’s also the presence of brain and flesh eating bacteria in the mix that relishes warm waters. There are even more culprits, but these will suffice to make a point.
Let’s start with lakes first, and then delve into the serious issues with “potable” water. The EPA, with the assistance of state and tribal agencies, did water quality assessments for a large number of lakes. 55 percent of the lake water studied was considered to be of acceptable quality (whatever that means), but the other 45 percent had waters “impaired for at least one type of use,” such as drinking water, recreational fishing, swimming, or aquatic life support. Man-made lakes, often serving as dams, accounted for 59% that were impaired. (ThoughtCo. “Lake Pollution: Types, Sources, and Solutions.”) Plastic pollution was not part of this study, unfortunately. When plastic pollution is assessed in lakes, it appears that 100 per cent of them have some degree of contamination.
Algae blooms occur in both fresh water and salt water. These “blooms” are a serious problem that lead to toxin build-up causing oxygen levels to drop which kills fish and is dangerous for swimming. In fact, algae can be deadly to both humans and animals.
Some areas studied had nitrogen and phosphorus pollution which can come from inefficient sewage treatment and fertilizers. This is a far more serious problem than one may realize. Dead zones in lakes and the ocean where there are insufficient oxygen levels are often caused by fertilizer run-off, resulting in death to animals, fish, and plants that enter these zones.
A combination of fresh and salt water, the Baltic Sea is the largest man-made dead zone, and the northern Gulf of Mexico is the second largest and covers over 8700 square miles. Lake Erie (fresh water) and Chesapeake Bay (a combination of fresh and salt water) also have large dead zones. According to ThoughtCo, a 2008 study found over 400 dead zones in lakes and oceans worldwide. “The underlying cause of any dead zone is eutrophication…which is the enrichment of water with nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients causing algae to grow out of control or ‘bloom’.” Unfortunately, some fresh water dead zones are not recognized or identified as such.
“Pollution is the primary human source of the nutrients that cause eutrophication and dead zones. Fertilizer, manure, industrial waste and inadequately treated waste water overload aquatic ecosystems. In addition, air pollution also contributes to eutrophication.” Waste water is often piped into rivers and coasts.
The study also found that 42 percent of lakes had metal contamination with mercury and lead predominating. Coal-fired power plants are a leading cause of mercury contamination, and lead can be caused by fishing tackle dropped in the water (but often the surviving fish are already inedible due to toxins).
Basically, phosphorous, mercury, sediment and bacteria and pathogens are the main culprits. Added to this, however, are deadly microorganisms like lethal brain-eating bacteria. Although the incidence of people contracting brain-eating bacteria is fairly low, it’s a ghastly brain infection with very few surviving.
The problem with fresh water pollution, however, is it goes far, far beyond lakes. While lakes often provide drinking water, rivers are another very large source of household water. The list of unscrupulous companies that have contaminated drinking water for literally millions of people is shocking. It seems there are endless accounts of “manufacturing, mining and waste disposal companies – and dozens of others – who are among the country’s worst water polluters.” In all fairness, when some of these companies were dumping toxic waste, it’s possible they didn’t understand the ramification of these toxins contaminating groundwater that then causes cancer and all manner of debilitating diseases. This does not absolve them of responsibility for the death and destruction they caused, however. As they say, ignorance of the law is no excuse…neither is ignorance of the ramifications of one’s actions. Unfortunately, these rivers carry contaminants to the ocean, adding their toxins to the mix.
“Hundreds of these companies have been contaminating drinking water throughout the country for decades with everything from arsenic and lead, to mercury and chromium – most coming from improper dumping and waste disposal….” (Environment, “Industrial waste pollutes America’s drinking water.”) “Mining and smelting operations are responsible for contaminating water with heavy metals in almost every state in the nation.”
Example: “In Ringwood, New Jersey, Ford Motor Co. dumped more than 35,000 tons of toxic paint sludge…poisoning groundwater with arsenic, lead, and other harmful bacteria. Today, more than 43 years after the dumping ended, those toxins are still in the groundwater and threaten a reservoir providing water to millions of residents in New Jersey.”
Example: “In North Carolina, the state has told residents living near coal-fired power plants their water contains elevated levels of chromium-6 and other chemicals.”
Example: Anaconda Aluminum in Montana produced manufacturing wastes that contaminated local water sources with lead and chromium. Gulf States Utilities in Louisiana discharged toxins into marshlands polluting waters with benzene and other chemicals, and the Conklin Dumps in New York leaked volatile organic chemicals into groundwater.”
Various industries located on or near the Ohio River which borders six states and provides drinking water to nearly 3 million people, have dumped over 600 million pounds of toxic substances into the river.
These toxins cause extraordinary health problems in people and animals. Dioxins (byproducts of incinerators) are the most commonly released chemicals. “They are known carcinogens and exposure has been linked to health effects such as heart disease, diabetes, and reproductive issues. Almost every living creature on Earth has been exposed to dioxins, according to the National Institutes of Health.” (“Industrial waste pollutes America’s drinking water.”) And how much of all these poisons floating downstream make it out to sea? We already know that fertilizer runoff provides a lot of contaminants to the Gulf of Mexico helping to create the giant dead zone there.
While many of these offenses may have occurred before people understood the severity of the problem that their illegal dumping was causing – or would cause – that does not appear to be the case with 3M and their fight to avoid massive pollution and restitution lawsuits.
“Chemical industry giant 3M is waging an aggressive campaign to stave off new regulations and potentially billions of dollars in damages stemming from a contamination crisis that has fouled tens of millions of Americans’ drinking water.” (Politico.com Energy and Environment)
As expected, the company has engaged lobbyists to work in Washington ostensibly to woo state attorneys general to their side as the company faces massive financial liability for toxic pollution that has been tied to two of its popular products that have turned up in the water supplies of some 1500 U.S. Communities.
3M argues that the chemicals are not hazardous according to their studies, an opinion many independent studies dispute. The issue that 3M is facing is that there are multiple lawsuits in the wings including personal injury, class-action, and property damage suits. “Altogether, industry experts say the company’s liability could reach the tens of billions of dollars.”
The chemicals known as PFOA and PFOS have been used for five decades in products like Teflon and Scotch Guard. They take years to break down and are called “forever chemicals.” They accumulate in bodies and cause cancers like kidney and testicular cancer, immune disorders and many other ailments – “and have been found in more than 99 percent of Americans’ blood.”
3M is known to support various political candidates, including attorney generals in Michigan, California, Ohio, and Alabama – “all states with major PFAS contamination.”
“In Alabama, where the chemicals made by 3M’s manufacturing plant in Decatur have contaminated the Tennessee River, a drinking water source for 4.7 million people…” the newly elected attorney general will not be joining a water utility’s lawsuit against the company. Is it possible that the contributions he received persuaded him otherwise? Let’s hope not. But he was not the only person dissuaded. “The representatives of a collation mainly supported by 3M (Responsible Science Policy Coalition) have met with congressional officers and EPA political appointees arguing that the weight of current science evidence does not show PFOS or PFOA to cause adverse health effects in human at the current levels of exposure.” This goes entirely against the findings made by leading independent scientific researchers, the EPA and the CDC. This type of behavior is extremely disappointing and disturbing. If people are willing to do this to other people and the planet, it should come as no surprise that they would do worse to animals. We are all apparently just “collateral damage” – just a member of the herd – when we die of chemical induced cancers and other illnesses caused by their toxic products.
The bottom line: “3M’s own documents handed to the Minnesota attorney general office show that the company has known since the 1970s that the chemicals in question were toxic.”
With countless numbers of attorneys, lobbyists and “representatives” involved, the delay tactic for solving this issue may be even longer than the tobacco industry’s delay in finally coming to terms with the fact that tobacco causes cancer. How’s your water today? Perhaps you should have it checked.
Closer to home, “PFAS… have been found in five Washington drinking-water systems at levels over the Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, as well as dozens of private drinking-water wells near firefighting training areas where the foams were used.” (PFAS are used in fire retardants, such as firefighting foam.) This discovery contradicts somewhat the 3M disparagement of their products being deadly even in small doses.
Also troubles still haunt Hanford, Washington, the site where 56 million gallons of radiative waste are stored. Although there have been problems with leakage, and threats of leakage, the waste has probably not made it to the Columbia River or to underground aquifers (that are known, anyway). However, during the time the nuclear power plant was in production, water was released into the river; in fact, “Groundwater contaminated with radioactive waste from the decommissioned Hanford nuclear facility in Washington state is still ‘flowing freely’ into the Columbia River…” according to a program manager with the U.S. EPA. This is a river regularly used for fishing, swimming and boating activities. How much is withdrawn for irrigation? How many cancers have resulted from exposure to this freely flowing contaminated groundwater? Are the fish safe to eat?
It seems state leaders are becoming seriously galvanized to take a better look at the quality of water their constituents drink. Like plastic, PFOS and PFAS are ubiquitous. Partly this increased interest in local water safety may have been prompted by the “lead” scandal in the water supply of Detroit, Michigan’s residents, another debacle that exposed citizens, especially vulnerable children, to life-long debilitating toxins.
Thus most toxins in the water are the result of farming, mining, industry and activities of this nature. Some, however, are deadly pathogens of nature. Brain-eating bacteria (amoeba) officially known as Naegleria fowleri may be the worst. The infections occur when contaminated water gets in the nose. The amoeba travels up the nose and into the brain which it destroys. The disease itself is known as PAM (primary amoebic meningoencephalitis). This disease is almost always fatal (97 percent).
The bacteria have been reported worldwide and live primarily in warm water, but can live in colder water for a length of time. In the United States the bacteria is most commonly found in warm lakes or rivers in the south, and even in water parks and pools. Some estimate that about 8 people a year die from this infection, mostly young males, but these estimates vary depending on the source. The exact number is unknown because PAN is difficult to diagnose in its early stage where it might be cured. It’s sometimes mistaken for bacterial meningitis. Likely climate change will contribute to this infection if temperatures continue to warm.
Unfortunately, the bacteria can also be found in drinking water – and that was the situation in 2017 in Louisiana. Health officials reassured people that contaminated tap water would not lead to an infection, “but using it for nasal irrigation or accidentally getting it into your nose can.” (“Brain-Eating Amoeba Found in Louisiana Tap Water, People Warned to Avoid Water in Nose.”) Residents were given a list of things to do to avoid contracting the bacteria, such as flushing out pipes by running showers and water hoses for a full five minutes before use, and also they could boil their water or use distilled or sterile water for washing and making nasal rinses. Yet another warning about the presence of the amoeba in drinking water was issued by the New York Post in June of 2018.
At the risk of being morbid, I will only briefly mention flesh eating bacteria – known as necrotizing fasciitis – a rare condition, but not as rare as brain-eating bacteria. There have been between 600 and 1200 cases of this disease every year since 2010. This is not necessarily a water-born disease, although it can be. The water version is from an ocean-dwelling bacterium called vibrio vulnificus. The bacteria can be found in warm coastal waters during the summer months. People can develop this infection by going into the water with an open wound and having the bad luck of coming into contact with the Vibrio. One can also become infected from eating contaminated seafood.
It might be worthwhile to consider using a water filter for all potable water, particularly water from private wells. (City water sources are likely tested more often than private wells although many people find the taste of treated water to be repugnant, but water filters may help with that.) These filters do not need to be elaborate systems. Some refrigerator filters work fine for filtering drinking water. There are many relatively inexpensive filtration products available. Using one of these for drinking water is not being paranoid. Doing so is completely understandable and justifiable considering the chemicals and toxins dumped in the water supply.
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