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Water contamination and its effect on our health

“Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall.
He will end by destroying the earth.”
Albert Schweitzer

The causes of water contamination are numerous and range from agricultural runoff to improper use of household chemicals and everything in between. While the standard use in our society of over 75,000 different chemical compounds has offered added convenience and productivity in our lives, it has also come at a tremendous price… drastic increase in degenerative diseases. In the early 1900s, before chlorine, pesticides, herbicides and the tens of thousands of other chemicals that we are exposed to, the average person had a 1 in 50 chance of getting cancer, today 1 in 3 can expect to get cancer in their lifetime, one out of every 2 men.

Our use of man made chemicals has become so extreme that we can now find traces of these low level toxins in virtually every public water supply in the world. A recent report by the Ralph Nader Study Group, after reviewing over 10,000 documents acquired through the Freedom Of Information Act, stated that “U.S. drinking water contains more than 2,100 toxic chemicals that can cause cancer.” The Federal Council On Environmental Quality reports that “Up to two thirds of all cancers may be attributed to these low level toxins.” and that “once contaminated our ground water will remain so for tens of thousands of years… if not geologic time!”

Our tendency is to blame it on the big factory up stream. And while industry has certainly played its part in our water contamination problems, it is “us” individuals that are the most to blame. The majority of the contaminants found in our drinking water can be traced back to improper or excessive use of ordinary compounds like lawn chemicals, gasoline, cleaning products and even prescription drugs.

Once we realize that everything that goes down the drain, on our lawns, on our agricultural fields or into the environment by any means… eventually winds up in the water we drink, we begin to see just how fragile our water supplies really are.

Our municipal water treatment facilities are not designed or effective for removing these synthetic chemicals and typically only consist of sand bed filtration and disinfection, much like a standard swimming pool filter. For the most part today's water treatment facilities are much the same as they were at the turn of the century. “Drinking water plants are old and out of date, and water supplies are increasingly threatened by and contaminated by chemicals and microorganisms.” Natural Resources Defense Council. “The way we guarantee safe drinking water is broken and needs to be fixed.” Carol Browner, U.S. EPA.

One of America's leading authorities on water contamination, Dr. David Ozonoff of the Boston University Of Public Health warns that, “the risk of disease associated with public drinking water has passed from the theoretical to the real.” Many illnesses that in the past could not be linked to a probable cause, can now be directly linked to toxins in our drinking water.

The use of pesticides and herbicides has become so excessive that they are now commonly found in household tap water with alarming frequency.

A 1994 study of 29 major U.S. cities by the Environmental Working Group found that all 29 cities had traces of at least one weed killer in the drinking water. The report titled “Tap Water Blues“ went on to say that “Millions of Americans are routinely exposed to one or more pesticides in a single glass of tap water”.

These first ever “tap water testings” found two or more pesticides in the drinking water of 27 of the 29 cities, three or more in 24 cities, four or more in 21 cities, five or more in 18 cities, six or more in 13 cities and seven or more pesticides in the tap water of five cities. In Fort Wayne Indiana nine different pesticides were found in a single glass of tap water!

As a startling side note it was reported that in these 29 cities 45,000 infants drank formula mixed with tap water containing weed killers and that “ over half of these infants were swallowing 4 to 9 chemicals in every bottle!”

The tragic health effects of consuming these highly toxic chemicals are magnified many times over for small children because their systems are more sensitive and still developing. Small children also consume a much larger volume of fluids per pound of body weight and therefore get a bigger dose, yet non of these factors are considered when the EPA's maximum contaminant levels are set. The National Academy of Sciences issued a report in 1993 on this subject and stated that “ children are not little adults, their bodies are less developed and incapable of detoxifying certain harmful compounds.”

Another major flaw in the estimated risks of chemicals in our drinking water is the false assumption that only that one chemical is being consumed. The regulations are set based on what is assumed safe for a 175 pound adult drinking water with only that one chemical present and does not take into account the combined toxicity of two or more chemicals. In a 1995 Science Advisory Report to the EPA it was stated that “when two or more of these contaminants combine in our water the potency may be increased by as much as 1000 times.” Regardless of the differing opinions it is safe to assume that there is no acceptable level for pesticides and weed killers in our drinking water.

In America each year we use over 2.2 billion pounds of pesticides, or eight pounds for every man woman and child in the country.

Industrial solvents like TCE and Benzene make their way into our water supplies from literally hundreds of sources. Airports and military bases degrease planes and engine parts with TCE, one of the most concentrated toxins in existence. One teaspoon of TCE will render undrinkable over 250,000 gallons of water, and yet thousands of gallons are used in uncontained applications each day. Perchlorethelyne, cyanide, and benzene are used in such common industries as dry cleaning, car washes and photo processing, much of which ends up going down someone's drain and into our water supplies. It has been shown that areas with the highest levels of these man made carcinogens in their water supplies also have the highest incidence of cancer. Jacquelyn Warren of the Natural Resources Defense Council commented on this subject, “The one thing we know for sure about toxins in our drinking water is that the more we look the more we find.”

Cancer extracts a staggering toll from our society, one in every seven people will die from this man made disease. According to the Center For Disease Control “death from cancer is increasing more rapidly than is the population”. It is now widely accepted that cancer is an environmental disease. The World Health Organization and the National Cancer Institute both suggest that most human cancers, perhaps as many as 90% are caused by chemical carcinogens in the environment. This realization is paramount for change because it means that most cancers could be prevented by minimizing or eliminating our exposure to chemical carcinogens.

While the powerful chemical industry argues that the levels of these toxins in the environment are not significant, scientific evidence has shown otherwise. A National Cancer Institute report to the Surgeon General concluded that “no level of exposure to a chemical carcinogen should be considered toxicologically insignificant for man.”

We spend billions of dollars each year seeking a cure for cancer. The disease is merely a result of the real problem, environmental pollution. If we were to direct these billions of dollars and the same intense effort towards curing the problem (pollution) instead of learning to live with the result (cancer) we would do future generations a great service, and we could realistically stop the “cancer epidemic”.

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