Freshwater in Jeopardy: The Current State of Our Freshwater System
By Amber Stroh
December 12, 2016
Fresh water accounts for 3% of our water systems with the other 97% being salt water. Fresh water contamination is occurring at an unprecedented rate. The US Environmental Protection Agency has set required legal limits on over 90 contaminants in drinking water, which include inorganic contaminants, pesticides and herbicides, organic chemical contaminants, and radioactive contaminants. Adverse effects due to exposure of these contaminants include a decrease in the ability to procreate and an increase in cancer. The need for fresh water has caused humans to extract heavily from freshwater ecosystems and groundwater aquifers. The highest demand for fresh water comes from the agricultural sector. As we face the buildup of contaminants in our food chain the supply dwindles. Efforts must be made to impede a potential disaster. One effort is found with a company called Nature Commode, found in the Pacific Northwest. They seek to lessen the demand on our freshwater systems by creating a waste management system that does not require water or chemicals.
Keywords: wastewater, freshwater, contamination, endangerment, food chain, endangerment, environmental issue awareness, environment, cancer, reduced fertility rates, chromium-6, arsenic
Freshwater in Jeopardy
Perils await as freshwater systems decline in quantity and quality due heavy extraction and a rising rate of contaminants. This affects the whole ecosystem. The populations of freshwater species has declined at an exponential rate and contaminated water has caused an infiltration of contaminants in our food chain. A need for practices to change in regarding freshwater has arisen.
Fresh Water Scarcity
Only 3% of the world’s water systems consists of freshwater. Alarmingly, only 1% of this fresh water is renewed unevenly across the world by the hydrological cycle and this issue of contamination is not alleviated with ceaseless fresh water sources (World Wide Fund for Nature, p. 44). Fresh water demands have caused humans to extract heavily from freshwater ecosystems and groundwater aquifers. According to The Nature Conservancy’s Water Share Report, “water depletion is leading to the degradation of entire ecosystems that provide critically important services to our societies and economies” (p. 28). Water scarcity affects the lives of over half of the world’s population. “More than 200 river basins, home to some 2.67 billion people, already experience severe water scarcity for at least one month every year (World Wide Fund for Nature,2014, p. 49). Freshwater sources have been pushed to their limits.
Decline in Freshwater Species Due to Extraction
Low water levels have occurred primarily from extraction for agricultural purposes, and resulted in catastrophic declines in freshwater species because they have lost their habitats. Notice in the following diagram how populations of mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian and fish species has drastically decreased by 76 percent in the last 40 years…
Contaminated Tap Water
Thanks to an investigation, published to the masses by USA Today, it is now common knowledge that lead is an issue in the US water system. That however is not the only contaminant to be concerned about. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires set legal limits on over 90 contaminants in drinking water (2016). Many states choose to regulate additional contaminants, with Oregon’s Portland Water Bureau testing and controlling for over 200 possible contaminants (2016). Tap water contaminants come from the following particles: pesticides and herbicides, organic chemicals, radioactive particles, inorganic contaminants, viruses and bacteria. Some of these substances enter water sources through the erosion of natural deposits.
Some big cities filter tap water for pathogens (National Resources Defense Council, 2016). However, the Portland Water Bureau does not. Their typical pathway is to follow a three-step process of: disinfecting with chlorine, stabilizing the disinfectant with aqueous ammonia to form chloramines ~ so the disinfectant lasts longer, and lastly perform a pH adjustment with sodium hydroxide to increase the pH of the water to reduce leaching of heavy metals from pipes (2016). Some people are allergic to the disinfectant chloramine and it is necessary to check its safety for various types of fish before putting this tap water in a fishtank.
Some of these contaminants, such as lead and arsenic, are not safe at any level according to Professor Jeffrey Griffiths of the Tufts University School of Medicine (David Shardt, 2016). Arsenic is “a really clear carcinogen for lots of cancers, and it causes metabolic problems. If my water had any arsenic in it, I wouldn’t drink it. End of sentence.” The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is an independent advocacy agency that upon analyzing information collected by the EPA discovered Chromium-6 in the tap water of all 50 states (2016). The chemical was first made famous by the Erin Brockovich movie in 2000 and is a known cause of cancer and birth defects. It is expected to cause over 12,000 new cases of cancer if left untreated. (2016).
Map of Tap Water Found to be Contaminated with Chromium-6 — Courtesy of EWG
Tap Water Versus Bottled Water
Many think that when there is a flair up of something dangerous in the tap water that they will just start drinking “safer” bottled water. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has found that this can sometimes be a false solution. The NRDC is an activist group with over 2 million members consisting of scientists, lawyers, and policy advocates that work hard to fight for “the rights of all people to the air, the water, and the wild” (2016). As tap water is tested for bacteria and other contaminants 100 or more times per month, bottled-water plants test for bacteria just once per week. “After a four-year review of the bottled-water industry and its safety standards, NRDC concluded that there is no assurance that bottled water is cleaner or safer than tap. In fact, an estimated 25 percent or more of bottled water is really just tap water in a bottle — sometimes further treated, sometimes not… 22 percent of the brands tested contained chemicals at levels above state health limits in at least one sample. If consumed over a long period of time, some of those contaminants could cause cancer or other health problems for people with weakened immune systems” (2016).
A Contaminated Ecosystem
The use of water in agriculture leads to its infusion with pesticides. This pesticide laden wastewater runs off into bodies of water, and has resulted in a bioaccumulation of contaminants infiltrating the ecosystem. It has built up in both crops and animals. One study released by Portland State University, found a “cocktail of chemicals” in the indigenous oyster population. Contaminants include PCBs, mercury, pesticides, pain relievers, antibiotics, antihistamines, and a slew of other impurities. (OPB, 2016)
Pharmaceuticals enter the tap water system through the improper disposal of pharmaceuticals and other hazardous chemicals, and at a higher rate from human waste itself. Our current waste management system’s best attempt at filtering out contaminants from the water system is at a rate of 50 percent. The process involves adding harsh chemicals to disinfect and treat wastewater. Four of such added chemicals, which are known to be harmful:
- Bromate which increases risk of cancer.
- Chlorite which causes anemia and nervous system effects in infants and young children.
- Haloacetic acids which increases risk of cancer
- Total trihalomethanes which cause liver, kidney or central nervous system problems and increases risk of cancer.
(as cited in Letcher et al., 2011, p. 48)
In Conclusion — Efforts to Impede Disaster
It seems that depreciation of this vital asset will increase the pressure for changes. The amount of freshwater available has decreased while it gets contaminated with toxins which wreak havoc on our ecosystem and slowly poison our food chain. Yet attempts to amend this disaster proves to be a lengthy and extensive, as it is in the expert opinion of the World Wide Fund for Nature that cases will have to be handled individually due to the differences in each community’s predicament.
Perhaps it is time to retire the use of tap water and chemicals in waste management because freshwater has grown scarce and does not need any more additional contaminants. That is one posed remedy provided by Randall Scott White, the part-owner of a Portland, Oregon based company called Nature Commode. Nature Commode conducts water and chemical free waste management at events and festivals around Washington and Oregon. In an interview with White, he stated that it is time to return to the old ways and compost waste. “Why are we peeing and poo-ing in our fresh water? It makes no sense. None whatsoever.” The average person flushes away up to 22 liters of drinkable tap water every day (Duncan, 2008). The United States has a population of 318.9 million people; which means that this one change in just our country could stop the extra contamination of over 7 billion gallons of water per day.
White’s “reva-loo-tion” uses red wiggler worms to turn human waste into nutrient laden soil that is pharmaceutical and chemical free. Urine is, for the most part, collected separately from fecal matter and then diluted with water to make a fast acting fertilizer. “Did you know that your pee has the three magic ingredients that make fertilizer? Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium are the magic ingredients that grow food crops. And that is just the fun part because pee is easy to capture. If you compost poop ~ it gets even better. You can turn it into electricity and you can grow crops with it.”
Consumer adoption of this service will require increasing consumer knowledge of the stakes at hand, such as what is provided by this report.
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