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It’s World Water Week, and officials from around the world are meeting in Stockholm to discuss how to get adequate water and sanitation to the world’s population – even as drought and other environmental problems threaten the global water supply.
The conference organizers explain the problem and what WWW intends to do about it:
Most of us probably take our tap water for granted, but recent events remind us that we shouldn’t. Salmonella contamination of the water supply in Alamosa, Colorado sickened over 300 people and left residents avoiding showers and drinking bottled water for a week. Abel Pharmboy explains that the city was one of the few that didn’t have a water chlorination program – but that’s changed now, and the episode reminds us that trace amounts of chlorinated acid byproducts in the water seem less alarming when compared to potentially fatal bacterial illness.
Meanwhile, in Iowa, manure and commercial fertilizers spread on frozen ground contributed to record-high levels of ammonia in the water. Des Moines’s utility had to draw on alternate water sources to keep taps running in the metro area, and use four times the usual amount of chlorine. As alarming as such instances of contamination are, though, water supply and infrastructure should probably be more of a concern.
By Vera Toulokhonova
Over spring break, my family and I traveled to spend a weekend in New York City. One of our expeditions included a visit to the Statue of Liberty and, naturally, to the large restroom located on Ellis Island. The first thing I noticed about this notably modern facility is the proliferation of green signs all over its walls. Each had a large, bold, green heading, which read “Green Restroom.” I was curious to see exactly what constitutes a restroom that prides itself on being “Green.”
My experiences tell me that journalists play a critical role in public health improvements; my evidence is anecdotal, but my examples continue to mount. Take Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette and his coverage of the toxic substance ammonium perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), also known as C8. It’s the chemical used to make Teflon non-stick surfaces. Recently, Ward wrote about a mortality analysis of workers in a 3M facility in Cottage Grove, Minnesota. What’s noteworthy about Ward’s story is not so much the study’s findings, but rather, that he does the yeoman’s work to monitor the EPA’s TSCA 8(e) docket. What do you know—something interesting was submitted by 3M in late February 2008: “Mortality of Employees of an Ammonium Perfluorooctanoate Production Facility.”
The Associated Press conducted a five-month investigation and found that drug residues have been detected in the drinking water of 24 major U.S. metropolitan areas, which serve roughly 41 million Americans. Concerns about these drug residues have largely focused on wildlife, as estrogen from birth control pills and other hormonal drugs has been interfering with fish reproduction (see past post here). Now, though, the AP is highlighting the number of people exposed and the potential for human health effects:
Most of us are lucky enough not to have to worry about our sewage. We flush the toilet, it goes away somewhere, and we don’t have to worry about cholera or other diseases that spread when waste contaminates the water supply.
While most of sewage systems do a great job of making the water look clean and getting rid of bacteria and viruses, they often aren’t designed to remove synthetic chemicals. With so many of us dependent on daily doses of pharmaceuticals, we’re excreting lots of drugs (or their metabolites), and they’re sticking around in treated wastewater. Researchers are now starting to discover what that means for the environment.
The journal Epidemiology has just published new evidence that drinking hexavalent chromium — also called chromium 6 — increases risk of stomach cancer. The study is important for public health purposes, since many drinking water sources are chromium contaminated (including the water in the community in the movie Erin Brockovich).
This new study is also the latest piece of a very ugly scandal that illustrates how polluters manufacture doubt to impede regulation. And this scandal is but one of several in which chromium polluters have manipulated epidemiologic studies to sow uncertainty – see our case study on chromium 6 at DefendingScience.org.
Pump Handle readers may recall our reporting on the controversy around a study of stomach cancer in Chinese villages where there were high levels of chromium in the drinking water. After an initial study reported elevated rates of stomach cancer, product defense consultants working for US chromium polluters reanalyzed the study, and the increased risk disappeared. The consultants re-analyzed the data and arranged for it to be published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (JOEM) without their names on it, hiding any connection to the product defense firm (Chemrisk) or the polluters who paid for the re-analysis. After the controversy was reported in the Wall Street Journal, the editor of JOEM retracted the study.
The Council of Science Editors has organized 235 journals from 37 countries are publishing more than 750 articles on poverty and human development this week. For its theme issue, PLoS Medicine asked a variety of commentators from around the world to name the single intervention that they think would improve the health of those living on less than $1 per day. While reading the article, I was struck by three themes that emerged in multiple responses:
The Chesapeake Watershed in the eastern U.S. covers over 500 miles, reaching north to Otsego Lake, NY and south to Virginia Beach, and traveling west to Blacksburg, VA and east to Ocean City, MD. It’s been called a “giant, sprawling system of rivers that all drain into one shallow tidal basin—the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal tributaries.” (map). It’s home to more than 3,600 species of plants and animals, with over 15 million people residing in it.
A major river in the Chesapeake Watershed is the Anacostia River which extends from Montgomery County, MD through Washington, DC, flowing directly into the Potomac River (photo). This week we learned that raw sewage has been “leaking” into the Anacostia River and is now polluting the watershed.
Occupational exposure to manganese has been in the news lately, with law suits by welders who claim neurological disease caused by manganese exposure. Now two scientists at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute have written a paper in which they argue that current guidelines for safe levels of manganese in drinking water are based on a misinterpretation of a twenty-five year old study, and that newer evidence suggests that at least for infants and other vulnerable populations, the current guideline values are not adequately protective.
In a paper available online at Environmental Health Perspectives, Karin Ljung and Marie Vahter trace back the foundation for the World Health Organization’s (and the EPA’s) recommendation for manganese in drinking water to a single study from 1982 that was misinterpreted in calculating a No Observed Adverse Effect Level. That mistake, combined with several new studies showing neurological effects in children, lead the authors to conclude that it’s time to re-evaluate the guideline data.