Oh dear…water we going to do?

Posted on 11 July 2009

Water comprises anywhere from 55 to 78 percent of the human body.  Next to air, it is the most essential ingredient for human survival.  We drink it by the gallon; we swim and play in it; we feed our gardens with it; we squirt it with guns, freeze it and eat it; we bathe in it.  I can’t think of a better way to end a hard work out than a tall glass of water—though yes, sometimes a cold beer can offer some stiff competition.  Nothing compares to it for clean, pure and undistracted refreshment (sorry, Gatorade). 

Any way you look at it, water is a crucial part of our lives.  Which made me all the more puzzled this past week, when I came across a pamphlet detailing the quality of DC Water: “Drinking Water: Quality Report 2008.”  Perusing its pages while casually sipping a nice cool glass of (filtered) tap water, I came across a few tidbits of knowledge that, in retrospect, I would’ve been happier living without.  Although the phrasing and treatment of these topics in the pamphlet did a fairly good job of leading you to believe that everything therein was pretty innocuous—i.e., heavy usage of the words “naturally occurring,” “may,” and “potential”—I couldn’t help smelling a rat. 

A few enlightening examples:

– DC drinking water comes from the Potomac River, a body of water which, I recently read elsewhere, is an unsafe body of water in which to swim.  The Quality Report lists the following contaminants that “may be present” before treatment: unhealthy microorganisms from septic systems and livestock farm runoff; chemicals from industrial discharges and storm water runoff; pesticides and herbicides; volatile organic chemicals from septic systems, gas stations and other industrial operations; and radioactive chemicals from local mining activities.  Yikes!!

– As listed in the Quality Report, proportionally high traces (in relation to the EPA limits) of the following contaminants were present in DC drinking water (post-treatment) in 2008: arsenic, barium, nitrate, nitrite, di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (haven’t a clue what this is but it sounds awful; not at all comforted by the report’s statement that it is “discharge from rubber and chemical factories”), combined radium, and coliform bacteria.  Mmmm.   

– In addition, traces of herbicides (atrazine) and something called carbamazepine—an anti epileptic pharmaceutical—were found in DC drinking water.

Worst of all, the fact that all of this scary crap is floating around in our drinking water doesn’t seem to be anything unusual.  Indeed, a few days later I received the DC WASA newsletter, “What’s On Tap,” which proudly proclaims: “The water DC WASA delivers meets or surpasses every EPA regulatory and safety standard, and compares favorably with drinking water quality in other major cities throughout the United States.”  Really?!  Wow.  To me, that just means that those standards are frighteningly low—and people all over the country are unknowingly poisoning their bodies; slowly but surely.  

True, the state of our drinking water may have come a long way in the past fifty years.  But our environment has also become increasingly polluted with higher population levels, greater pesticide and automobile use, and rising industrial production.  Nor does buying bottled water avoid the issue, as most bottled water comes from equally polluted environments—and just looks nicer because it comes in a pretty plastic container with the required “contents” itemized down the side.  (A fun fact from “What’s on Tap” helpfully informs readers that “In 2008, U.S. consumers spent more than $18 billion on bottled water;” to which one is intended to respond: “Well then—all the more reason to invest in DC WASA!”)  In a funny, ironic twist, many of those same bottles eventually end up clogging the very rivers, lakes and streams that cities and towns rely upon for their own drinking water, and so the fantastic, nightmare cycle continues…

What is wrong with this picture?  And water we going to do about it?  (So sorry for the poor pun…or not.  Haha.)  If the trees are the earth’s lungs and the soil its flesh, then the water is its veins and arteries.  Testing its rivers is like giving a person a blood test—coincidentally, one of the best ways to tell if someone is sick.  Perhaps its time to ask the question: “Is our earth sick?”  Even if we find out that it has this horrible, chronic affliction called humanityosis, we should know about it—because if the earth gets sick, we get sick.

Rock Creek, which runs through the center of DC, absorbs raw sewage with every heavy rainfall.

Rock Creek, which runs through the center of DC, absorbs raw sewage with every heavy rainfall.

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