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Water, Water Everywhere

Posted on June 24, 2017 by Jeanne Roberts There have been 0 comments

“Water, water everywhere, but nary a drop to drink,” to paraphrase Samuel Coleridge’s epic poem, the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, written in 1798.

Coleridge was describing an imaginary sailor stranded on the ocean without drinking water. The words may be more than 200 years old, but the pathos has never been more real, or more frightening, than it is today.

Everywhere we turn, we read about Africa and the Middle East running out of water, suffering through drought, crop failures and the loss of livestock. Somalia’s extended drought has left close to a million acutely malnourished children, 200,000 of them so severely starved they require not merely food but lifesaving assistance.

Closer to home, California’s drought has apparently been resolved, but the subsequent flooding may be even more expensive – more than $1 billion, by some estimates. In any event, the floodwaters – filled as they are with all sorts of debris – are not drinkable, and the region is so parched the floodwaters just run off, into culverts, arroyos, streams and rivers, turning the desert briefly into a flower garden, but gone too soon to make any permanent change.

Both drought and flooding are the result of climate change. It may be difficult, if not impossible, to quantify how much climate change has been influenced by human activities, but there can be no denying that climate change is taking place, and some of its effects are immeasurable.

Unfortunately, climate change isn’t the only thing impacting the earth’s supply of potable water. There are all the chemicals we humans are dumping – intentionally or not – into water. These chemicals are used in manufacturing, for example, or as pharmaceuticals dumped down the drain by consumers. Flame retardant chemicals come to mind as well, to say nothing of the fabric dyes and even hair dyes. And then there are the soaps and surfactants, and the fabric softeners … really, there is no end to this list.

Let’s walk through the list, beginning with fertilizers, insecticides and weed killers. It’s no secret to environmentalists, whether professional or amateur, that the combined effluent from sewage mixed with agricultural runoff is responsible for 1.7 million tons of phosphorus and nitrogen fed almost directly into the Gulf of Mexico every year, creating what environmentalists call a “dead zone” – a hypoxic zone where no marine creatures can survive.

For example, even though Iowa occupies less than 5 percent of the Mississippi River drainage basin, the average annual nitrate release from surface waters in Iowa is approximately one-quarter of all the nitrate reaching the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi River.

The 2015 dead zone measured 16,760 square kilometers (6,474 square miles). The 2016 dead zone is being estimated as “average” (i.e., the size of Connecticut). How can chemical pollution at this level ever warrant the word average?

For the past several decades, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has reported persistent low levels of pharmaceuticals in our surface water and groundwater. Although there are no demonstrated health risks to people at these low levels, there are impacts to amphibians (salamanders, etc.), fish, wildlife, and bacteria. Of the 27 chemicals found in Lake Michigan, the three most common are metformin, an anti-diabetic drug; sulfamethoxazole, an antibiotic; and triclosan, an antibacterial and antifungal compound found in soaps, toothpastes and other personal care products.

And this doesn’t even measure the impact of flame retardants and their burden of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which can mimic hormones like estrogen and affect growth and development, reproduction, responses to stress, and energy levels. At the very least, these PBDEs may be responsible for the levels of gender dysphoria (strong, persistent feelings of identification with the opposite gender) in developed nations. At worst, they may point to a situation like that described by P. D. James in her book “The Children of Men”, which was also made into the box-office hit of the same name.

Fortunately, there won’t be any off-the-cliff scenario when it comes to drinking water, thanks to desalination techniques. But water may well become a measure of wealth, with enormous swathes of humans too poor to afford more than a subsistence level.

Shame on us.


This post was posted in Blog and Green Library, Health and Safety, The Water We Drink and was tagged with agricultural runoff, California flooding, climate change, Dead Zone, desalination, fertilizers, flame retardant, Gulf of Mexico, hypoxic, insecticides, metformin, PDBE, pharmaceuticals, potable water, sulfamethoxazole, Triclosan, water, water conservation, weed killer

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