‘Poisoned Waters’ — An In-Depth Look at the Sources and Impact of Water Pollution

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November 05, 2016 | 103,960 views

Story at-a-glance

  • The 1972 Clean Water Act was supposed to ensure clean water for swimming and fishing by 1983, yet after more than four decades of clean water regulations, our waterways are in serious jeopardy
  • Wildlife are dying, and bizarre disfigurements of aquatic creatures are becoming commonplace: frogs with six legs, for example, or male fish that lay eggs. Fish with cancerous lesions are also common
  • Each decade, dead zones across the globe have doubled in size. Eventually, 100 percent of our oceans and waterways will be devoid of life unless significant changes are made

By Dr. Mercola

The 1972 Clean Water Act1 regulates discharges of pollutants into U.S. waterways and sets quality standards for surface waters. It was supposed to ensure clean water for swimming and fishing, yet after more than four decades of clean water regulations, our waterways are in serious jeopardy.

In Frontline’s special report, “Poisoned Waters,”2 which originally aired in 2009, correspondent Hedrick Smith reveals the deplorable state of two great coastal estuaries: the Puget Sound and Chesapeake Bay.

Toxic runoff from industry, agriculture and suburban areas are still flowing into these waterways, polluting the food chain and drinking water for millions of Americans.

Why has the U.S. so utterly failed to protect water quality? And what are the ramifications of this water pollution? These and other questions are explored in this special report.

Industrial Agriculture Is the Largest Water Polluter in the US

Industrial agriculture is arguably the largest contributor to water pollution across the U.S., and this pollution poses multiple threats. Wildlife are dying and bizarre disfigurements of aquatic creatures are becoming commonplace: frogs with six legs, for example, or male fish that lay eggs.

Fish with cancerous lesions are also becoming more common. A recent U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) study found an alarming rate of white sucker fish with prominent tumors in several of Wisconsin's Lake Michigan tributaries. As noted by MLive.com:3

“Because white suckers, also called mullet, eat from the sediment on river bottoms, their overall health is considered an indicator of the environmental degradation within an ecosystem.”

If fish are succumbing to cancer due to toxins in the environment, is it any wonder that cancer is one of the leading killers of humans, who are at the very top of the food chain?

Ultimately, water pollution threatens our own health, and the effects on wildlife are a preview of what we might expect in the human population as the effects spread up the food chain. As noted in the video, “The things that kill wildlife will kill people too.”

Is the Price We Pay for Modern Conveniences Worth It?

Beyond industrial agriculture, water pollution is the result of the way we all live. Modern life itself is a major part of the problem.

Not only do people inappropriately dispose of drugs by flushing them down the toilet, the cleaning and personal care products we use on a daily basis also contribute to the environmental pollution and devastation.

Even the clothes we wear have a severe impact. For example, textile dyeing facilities tend to be located in developing countries where regulations are lax and labor costs are low.

Untreated or minimally treated wastewater is typically discharged into nearby rivers, from where it spreads into seas and oceans, traveling across the globe with the currents.

Once you’ve purchased a piece of clothing, you come to the next area of concern: washing the item.

Not only do most laundry detergents contain harmful chemicals, but the garment itself may be contributing to the problem of toxic pollution by releasing chemicals and microfibers4 that pose a serious threat to marine life.

Chesapeake Bay — Poster Child of Man’s Ecological Impact

Chesapeake Bay is a perfect example of what’s happening across the U.S. Over the past 25-plus years, crab catches have declined by more than 50 percent. Certain fish species have vanished altogether, as have many fishermen, unable to sustain themselves.

In terms of economic impact, water pollution has resulted in billions of dollars of lost revenue in the fishing business alone. Oysters, for example, are no longer being harvested in Chesapeake Bay. That industry was essentially eliminated over the course of just 10 years.

Overfishing was part of the problem, no doubt, but pollution bears the greatest responsibility for the decline of life in Chesapeake Bay. Large dead-zones have been created. These result when too much fertilizer (nitrogen and phosphorous) accumulate in an area.

The nitrogen and phosphorous feed algae, and when the algae die and decompose, they suck up all the oxygen in the water, literally suffocating both plant and animal life. As noted by Howard Ernst, a Chesapeake Bay historian, these dead zones are as devoid of life as the face of the moon.

Absolutely nothing that requires oxygen can live in these oxygen-depleted areas. In the summer months, these dead zones now make up more than 40 percent of the main stem of the Chesapeake Bay. And the dead zone problem is a global one. Each decade, dead zones across the globe have doubled in size.

Common sense will tell you that, eventually, these dead zones will be maxed out, meaning 100 percent of our oceans and waterways will be devoid of life.

When that happens, life may become challenging, to say the least, since not only will we lose a major food source, we’ll also lose a major source of oxygen needed for breathable air. Moreover, phytoplankton in our oceans also play an intricate role in our climate.5

Lack of Public and Political Will

In 1970, following a series of environmental calamities, 20 million Americans — 10 percent of the U.S. population — took to the streets on Earth Day, demanding an end to environmental pollution. It was the largest public demonstration in American history. And it worked.

The sheer enormity of the outrage forced President Nixon to address the problem head-on. As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created. The Federal Water Pollution Control Act, which later became the Clean Water Act, was enacted to empower the EPA to go after major polluters.

The Act included strict pollution limits and penalties for those who violated them, and called for waterways to be fishable and swimmable again by July 1, 1983. The EPA initially made significant headway, suing several major polluters and banning DDT, for example.

Unfortunately, a decade later, the Reagan administration’s deregulation agenda gutted the EPA, effectively stopping it in its tracks. Reagan also appointed people to the EPA who were quite obviously opposed to the environmental mission of the agency, and this kind of internal undermining has been the trend ever since.

The EPA lost its ability to enforce environmental protection laws and instead the strategy shifted to voluntary compliance — a strategy that was doomed to fail from the start. Today, it seems both public and political will to take strong, affirmative action to protect the environment has been lost, and the pollution flowing from industrial agriculture and elsewhere is essentially and largely unregulated.

Poultry Industry Refuses to Take Responsibility

The Frontline report shows how toxic waste from industrial-scale poultry farms flows down the river, polluting the bay. But chicken farmers argue they’re not responsible for the waste produced, as the animals are really owned by companies such as Perdue and Tyson; the farmers are just rearing them until they reach a marketable age.

However, per contract, the chicken producers have no legal responsibility for the manure created. They see the manure as a “resource” of the grower, which can be sold or used as fertilizer. The problem is, there’s just too much of it being generated.

While cities must treat their sewage waste, industrial farmers are not held to the same standard. As a result, massive quantities of untreated fecal waste from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are allowed to enter our waterways. As shown in Frontline’s report, the poultry industry has successfully opposed any and all efforts to enact nutrient regulation laws that would force the industry to address and clean up its waste problem.

Much of US Drinking Water Is of Questionable Quality

It’s difficult to get a complete overview of the severity of water pollution. For example, in the U.S., the Safe Drinking Water Act regulates a mere 91 contaminants. Meanwhile, more than 80,000 chemicals are used in the U.S.6 How many of these chemicals, and at what levels, end up in the water supply is anyone’s guess, as no one is testing and measuring these unregulated chemicals in drinking water.

However, what little we do know suggests the situation is dire indeed. Tests show drinking water in the U.S. contains potentially unsafe levels of many different contaminants. Some of the contaminants that have started gaining more widespread attention include:

Polyfluoroalkyl or perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFASs). According to a recent Harvard study, 16.5 million Americans have detectable levels of at least one kind of PFAS in their drinking water.7,8,9,10 Seventy-five percent of the samples with elevated PFAS came from 13 states: California, New Jersey, North Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Georgia, Minnesota, Arizona, Massachusetts and Illinois.

Lead. More than 18 million Americans receive drinking water from water treatment facilities that have violated federal drinking water rules for lead.11 And, in 9 out of 10 cases, the EPA has taken no enforcement action against the violators. Many water treatment facilities have also been caught using incorrect testing methods to avoid detecting high levels of lead.

This means the number of Americans drinking lead-contaminated water may be far higher than suspected. For example, a recent review of the testing done in 1,500 New York City school buildings revealed strategies were employed to artificially lower the lead levels in the water for the tests.12 So while officials told parents the water is safe to drink, the reality may be that students are ingesting unsafe levels of lead.

Perchlorate. An estimated 16 million Americans also have perchlorate — a chemical used in explosives and rocket fuel — in their drinking water.13

Pharmaceutical drugs. There’s no drinking water standard for drugs in the U.S., and typical water treatment methods are not designed to filter them out. Depending on the method used, anywhere from 10 percent to more than 80 percent of the drugs in the water fail to be removed during treatment.14

One 2015 investigation (see video below) concluded at least 41 million Americans in 24 major cities are drinking water contaminated with a wide range of drugs, including painkillers, hormones, antidepressants, antibiotics, cholesterol drugs and several dozens more.

Atrazine. According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 75 percent of the U.S. population has detectable levels of pesticides in their urine, and unless you're a farmer, your diet and drinking water are two of the most likely routes of exposure.

The EPA's risk assessment for atrazine found the chemical can cause reproductive harm to mammals, fish and birds, with the level of concern already surpassed by nearly 200-fold using real-world scenarios for mammals. Atrazine is the most commonly detected pesticide in U.S. waters, so I recommend filtering your tap water — both for drinking and bathing — with a filter certified to remove it.

PCBs Are Decimating Killer Whale Population

According to the Frontline report, killer whales are dying at an alarming rate, and tests have reveled high levels of PCBs in the deceased animals. PCBs have also been linked to fertility, reproductive and endocrine damage along with neurological effects, including damage to learning and memory. Even though PCBs have been banned in the U.S. for decades, these chemicals are extremely persistent in the environment.

Frontline discusses Boeing’s involvement in the PCB pollution problem, and how Boeing has been playing the blame game of who’s responsible for cleaning up the contamination. Today, the focus is primarily on Monsanto. Various lawsuits by individuals and municipalities are now trying to hold Monsanto accountable for PCBs' widespread pollution.

For example, Seattle has filed a lawsuit against Monsanto for PCB pollution. They want Monsanto to pay to help to clean up pollution it caused in the Duwamish River and also wants to hold Monsanto responsible for making the river's fish too contaminated to eat. The city alleges that Monsanto knew all along that PCBs were toxic but continued to market them anyway.

In an obvious effort to aid Monsanto, the House of Representatives slipped a clause into the proposed update to the Toxic Substances Control Act. Once reformed, the Act will determine how the chemical industry is regulated, including which chemicals are allowed and who can sue over any related problems. Lo and behold, the inserted clause actually shields the company from legal liability related to PCBs.

Make Clean Water for Everyone a Priority

Unfortunately, your choices are limited when it comes to avoiding certain water contaminants, especially if they’re unregulated, such as pharmaceuticals. Others, such as microbeads, are simply difficult to filter out. To be certain you’re getting the purest water you can, filter the water both at the point of entry and at the point of use.

The New Jersey Drinking Water Quality Institute recommends using granulated activated carbon “or an equally efficient technology.”15 One of the best filtration systems I’ve found so far, and the one I personally use, is the Pure & Clear Whole House Water Filtration System, which uses a three-stage filtration process — a micron sediment pre-filter, a KDF water filter and a high-grade carbon water filter.16

Filtering your water is your best immediate option. Ultimately, however, we really must address the issue of pollution on a much larger scale. We need much stronger regulations, but it seems that in order to get THAT, we must first break the industrial stronghold on politics.

The agricultural and meat lobbies are just as efficient and powerful as the chemical lobby when it comes to their political and regulatory influence, and they’re all hell-bent on opposing efforts that would make them accountable for the toxic waste and pollution they create during the course of business. There are no simple answers to that problem, but it is certainly an issue that must be faced and addressed.

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1 EPA.gov, Clean Water Act
  • 2 PBS.org, Poisoned Waters
  • 3 Mlive.com August 31, 2016
  • 4 Messinger, L. (2016). How clothes are poisoning oceans and food supply. GulfNews. Retrieved 12 August 2016
  • 5 National Geographic June 7, 2004
  • 6, 10 PreventDisease.com August 10, 2016
  • 7 Environmental Science and Technology Letters August 9, 2016 DOI: 10.1021/acs.estlett.6b00260
  • 8, 13 Washington Post August 9, 2016
  • 9 Medicinenet.com August 9, 2016
  • 11 CNN August 9, 2016
  • 12 New York Times August 31, 2016
  • 14 Livetradingnews.com May 22, 2016
  • 15 New Jersey Drinking Water Quality Institute, Recommendation on Perfluorinated Compound Treatment Options for Drinking Water, June 2015
  • 16 How Stuff Works, Charcoal Water Filters