When it comes to water quality issues across America and the rest of the world, the more I dig into this nightmare situation, the more I want to turn to just drinking vodka. I read an article in the Wall Street Journal, Biden Push to Replace America’s Lead Pipes Faces Challenges, that discusses the challenges of removing lead pipes from our water infrastructure. And for fun and research, I have been reading Superman’s Not Coming: Our National Water Crisis and What We the People Can Do About It by Erin Brockovich.
If you don’t know about Erin Brockovich, Wikipedia states:
Erin Brockovich is an American legal clerk, consumer advocate, and environmental activist who, despite her lack of education in the law, was instrumental in building a case against the Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) of California with the help of attorney Ed Masry in 1993. Their successful lawsuit was the subject of the Oscar-winning film, Erin Brockovich (2000), starring Julia Roberts as Brockovich and Albert Finney as Masry.
This week I was analyzing the quality of water across America because I believe the need for water purification will only become more urgent. At Watergeddon, we are tracking more than 40 variables that lead to water stress, pollution, water scarcity, water chaos, and water refugees. As I look at the various causes and scenarios for a Watergeddon outcome, being a green capitalist, I am also looking for technologies to help solve these challenging environmental problems. Any water efficiency technology that helps save water is precious. As the climate changes, water access is critical, but having access to “clean water” is even more significant.
Photo: The large drain of the city is draining the wastewater into the canal, flowing into the sea.
I grew up in a town called Sremska Mitrovica, Serbia (formerly part of Yugoslavia). During the Roman era, the city was called Sirmium. As a boy, I used to play in the Roman ruins, and was fascinated by the design and structure of aqueducts. The Roman empire is one of the most sophisticated civilizations in building and managing a vast water infrastructure. If you have not seen their waterworks in person, they are pretty remarkable. The problem is they used lead in their water systems. The difficulty of keeping water clean for human consumption is timeless. In her book, Erin discusses lead as one of the problems during the Roman empire and the water crisis we face today.
“Lead is a heavy metal that’s been used for centuries, most notably to construct ancient Rome’s aqueducts that brought water from faraway sources to fountains, public baths, homes, farms, and gardens. The system supplied water for more than a million people at that time. Many historians believe those lead pipes could have contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire, but we developed amnesia at the turn of the twentieth century and started using lead again for water lines, pipes, and plumbing as well as in ammunition, ceramic glazes, and paints. While lead is now banned in gasoline and paint, more than 6 million lead service lines are still providing drinking water across the country.”
The number of lead pipes currently in the American water infrastructure varies, but it is a huge problem any way you look at it. The WSJ article provides additional disturbing water facts:
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates there are about nine million lead service lines in the U.S. That comes to about $45 billion for nationwide replacement, which President Biden proposed in the infrastructure plan he released earlier this year. Those estimates could be off.
Some states and cities don’t know the location of all their lead service lines because many of the pipes were installed long before laws required keeping detailed records.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, recently estimated that as many as 12.8 million lead service lines could exist in the U.S. The cost of replacing a line can balloon much higher than $5,000, local officials and researchers said.
When you read further into the article, Chicago has major problems.
The city has more lead pipes, often called service lines, than any other city in America—an estimated 400,000—and it is only just beginning the long process of replacing them.
A complete replacement of a lead service line can cost between $15,000 and $26,000, according to city officials.
One problem with replacing lead pipes is that the city officials have difficulties persuading some Chicagoans to take advantage of the programs to replace lead pipes because they don’t view lead pipes as a tangible health risk. While thinking about the unexpected costs America faces with the lead pipe replacement, I wondered where it ranks in toxicity to other pollutants in our water infrastructure.
And this is where Wonder Woman Erin comes to my data research rescue. I’ve read 20+ water books about water issues, and when it comes to scaring me about what we all drink, Erin Brockovich gets an Olympic Gold Medal.
Her book enables anyone to understand the seriousness of our water pollution problems . When it comes to top toxic chemicals found in water across America and the potential hazards they pose, this is a must-read book. In reading her book, I was surprised to learn that lead was not in the lead position as the most toxic chemical. Let the drums roll … the top 6 toxins are as follows:
Toxin #1: Hexavalent Chromium
Additional Names: Chromium 6, Cr6, Chromium VI, Cr-VI
Wonder Woman Erin Fact #1: A 2016 analysis of federal data from drinking water tests throughout the country shows that hexavalent chromium contaminates water supplies for more than 200 million Americans in all fifty states. But federal regulations only monitor general chromium in water, which includes the two most common forms: chromium-3, a naturally occurring metallic element, and chromium-6, the toxic version used by industry to make everything from motor vehicle bumpers to textile dyes, wood preservation, anti-corrosion products, and more. We don’t differentiate between the two at the federal level, and that’s a big problem.
Toxin #2: Chloramines
Additional Names: Secondary disinfection, monochloramine, chloramide, chloroazane
Wonder Woman Erin Fact #2: Chloramines are what I like to call the godfather of where we’ve gone wrong with our water. Municipal water districts are adding ammonia to chlorinated water—a process called chloramination—to help meet standards set by the EPA to lower levels of disinfection byproducts, which many in the industry call “unintended consequences.” Several different types of chloramines exist, including monochloramine, dichloramine, trichloramine, and organic chloramines.
Toxin #3: Lead
Additional Names/Spellings: Pb, atomic number 82
Wonder Woman Erin Fact #3: While lead is now banned in gasoline and paint, more than 6 million lead service lines are still providing drinking water across the country.
Toxin #4: PFCs (perfluorinated chemicals)
Additional Names/Spellings: General: Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), C8, ammonium perfluorooctanoate Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), perfluorooctane sulfonate, perfluorooctylsulfonic acid GenX, perfluoro-2-propoxypropanoic acid, or PFPrOPrA PFCs (perfluorinated chemicals) are the contaminants of concern right now.
Wonder Woman Erin Fact #4: PFOA and PFOS are byproducts of an industry that has been used regularly since the 1940s and ’50s. These manufactured chemicals, found in everything from firefighting foams and stain-resistant sprays to nonstick cookware and water-resistant fabrics, have no business in our water supply. Not surprisingly, the highest levels of PFCs are found near facilities that made or used these substances, but they have made their way far beyond the factories.
Toxin #5: Fracking Chemicals
Additional Names/Spellings: hydraulic fracturing, fracturing, hydrofracking
Wonder Woman Erin Fact #5: The EPA estimates that twenty-five thousand to thirty thousand new wells were drilled and hydraulically fractured in the U.S. between 2011 and 2014.
U.S. oil production continues to boom, with more than 2 million wells spread out from California to Pennsylvania. Many of these wells are located near or within drinking water sources. By 2013, almost four thousand public water systems serving more than 8.6 million people had at least one fracking well within one mile of their origin.
Toxin #6: TCE
Additional Names/Spellings: Trichloroethylene, 1,2,3-Trichloroethylene, trichlor, trike, and tri TCE is a colorless, nonflammable liquid solvent used in both industrial and household items to make hydrofluorocarbon chemicals.
Wonder Woman Erin Fact #6: While this chemical’s name does not roll off the tongue, its widespread use in multiple industries means that most of us have been exposed to it. In 2011, the total estimated commercial production of TCE in the U.S. was 270 million pounds.
According to Erin,
“We are amid a major water crisis that is beyond anything you can imagine. Pollution problems persist, and toxins are everywhere, stemming from the hazardous wastes of industry and agriculture. We’ve got more than forty thousand chemicals on the market today, with only a few hundred being regulated. We’ve had industrial byproducts discarded into the ground and our water supply for years. The companies who dump these toxins know it. They have always known it. The government knows it too. These issues affect everyone—rich or poor, black or white, Republican or Democrat. Large and small communities everywhere think they are safe when they are not.”
The problem with innovation and the human quest to improve our standards is that when we invent new products such as chemicals to solve commercial and industrial problems or address new market opportunities, we don’t look at it from a holistic perspective. How does a new chemical bond with other chemicals and the amplified adverse outcomes that could arise once it gets into our water?
I have often heard, “Knowledge is power.” But knowledge backed by action is even more powerful. Wonder Woman Erin shows the path to understanding the seriousness of our water quality situation. More importantly, she gives you the tools to do something about the terrible water quality situation we face by asking questions about your local water situation and ensuring that you’re not slowly poisoning yourself by drinking your water.
I highly recommend you buy the book and buy a few more for your family and friends. Erin will inspire you. The more we understand the water quality situation, the more we can do something about it. There is more detailed information on her website about the local quality of water across the country. The book shows you a roadmap on how to become a Wonder Woman (or Superman) yourself.
We must do something about our water quality. We are slowly poisoning our children, grandchildren, and future generations. We are also poisoning ourselves.