I grew up in the water world. My dad worked for the water department in Dallas and served as director of Austin water and wastewater. He was the water readiness White House consultant in preparation for Y2K, served terms as President of the American Waterworks Association, and now volunteers his time building wells and bathhouses in impoverished Mexican border towns. It was educational always having the inside scoop on the local water world. I knew when areas of town were quietly asked to boil their water. I knew when environmental groups sent him personal death threats for daring to extend water service to the suburbs. I knew when requests from "Middle Eastern University Professors" for the full schematic of the city water system had to be reported to the FBI. And I always dreaded "take your kids to work" day if that was a day he was visiting the wastewater treatment plants. So it's been interesting to hear him talk about the looming water crisis that he says no one in the water world has any clue how to fix.
It's World Water Week and the focus is on how to provide clean drinking water to people around the world. More than 1.4 million children die from drinking-water-related issues every year -- clean water is a necessity for life. But even as the awareness of the worldwide need for clean water grows, few people realize the growing toxic menace in our own tap water. But the truth is that pharmaceutical drugs and personal care products increasingly are found in our water systems. Few or no discharge standards or monitoring systems currently exist to regulate these items. But trends occurring in local rivers and lakes -- fish dying, mutating, or changing sex en masse -- have sparked scientists to look into what is actually in our water. The culprits -- drugs and medical wastes, contraceptives, anti-depressants, blood pressure medications, antibiotics, perfumes, musks, soaps, cleansers, sun screens, and thousands of other chemicals now manufactured for human use and health care. These are chemicals our water works systems don't test for regularly and so they aren't removed from our wastewater. But they are impacting our world in a big way.
We think we are "getting rid" of those old pills we flush down the toilet, or we don't care about the hormones we pee away. Maybe if we thought about it, we'd assume that these things are removed by wastewater treatment plants. But there aren't even systems in place to test their presence in our water, much less federal standards regulating their levels. So into our local waterways we pour antibiotics and endocrine inhibitors causing superbacteria to breed and schools of fish to literally change sex (leading to no more baby fish). Then we return this water to our treatment plants where these chemicals are still not dealt with before they return to our drinking water. We are exposing ourselves to low levels of antibiotics, Prozac, and estrogen on a regular basis. And the health implications are only beginning to be understood. What happens to young boys who are raised on a cocktail of estrogen? What about people suffering from blood clots for whom hormone therapy could equal death?
Solutions are difficult. Drug and cosmetic companies lobby hard against any regulation of their products and dispute any studies showing possible harmful effects of these chemicals. It would be impossible to restrict people from dumping pills down the toilet, or from merely using the toilet to eliminate their chemically laced bodily wasted. Testing standards would require the government's involvement (which the lobbyist are fighting against), and developing treatment plans would cause the cost of clean water to skyrocket. (And just fyi, bottled water has all the same problems.) So you can see why the water world fears this impending crisis.
We promote charity causes to help dig clean water wells in other countries, but our very affluence has turned our own water into an untreatable toxic mess. The world water crisis is scarier than we think.
Julie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com and emergingwomen.us.