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Dirty water, clean to drink

Posted on Sep 21, 2009 by Sergio Ulloa ()

Many nations around the world are faced with a wide range of water problems. This is especially true in many developing countries such as the Republic of Congo, Mauritania, Bangladesh and India. These countries are facing severe shortages in drinking water and the technology to improve water quality. There is no equipment or facilities available to make the water safe to drink. The leaders of these countries cannot provide quality clean water required by their residents. Citizens have no choice other than to consume water that is in the form readily available to them, even knowing that the water is unclean and may contain a number of hazardous diseases, including ailments such as Diarrhea, Cholera, and Malaria. The lack of clean and safe water has caused deaths to millions of people all over the world.

Is Drinking water safe to drink?If you think that failure to provide safe drinking water to all people only happens in third world countries, well then think again. While unclean water is a problem in many developing countries, it is shocking to learn that tap water in many parts of the USA has been contaminated with pollutants such as heavy metals, chemicals and inorganic toxins. These constituents in the water are highly harmful to human bodies and they are mainly released from chemical factories, manufacturing plants and coal mines.

The USA has the largest and most technologically powerful economy in the world, with a per capita GDP of US$ 47,000.The country is full of technological pioneers especially in computers, medical, aerospace, and military equipment. The nation is supposed to have one of the safest public drinking water supplies in the world. Most Americans get their tap water from a community water system. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates drinking water quality in public water systems and sets maximum concentration levels for water chemicals and pollutants.

Despite this attempt at instituting a fully formed regulatory system, contaminants have been identified in water systems throughout the United States, raising major concerns about the safety of "supposedly" potable water in America. Tap water in West Virginia was found contaminated with arsenic, barium, lead and manganese. Pesticides (Atrazine) were found in drinking water in Chicago and across a number of states in the Mid-West US. In addition to this, chemical contaminants were shown in drinking water wells near natural gas drilling rigs in Philadelphia and Wyoming. Failure to provide even the most basic water services for billions of people in the USA and the devastating human health problems associated with this failure are at the heart of the country's water problems, and perhaps contribute to the current poor health of the American populace as a whole.

Symptoms - Skin Rash Recently, in Charleston West Virginia, heavy metals runoff from the coal industry have been poisoning the whole community. Analysis of the potable water supply has shown the existence of contaminants like arsenic, barium, lead and manganese at concentrations that could lead to cancer, and cause damage to an individual's kidneys and nervous system. Some immediate effects were already found on residents that have had contact with the contaminated water, and whom developed symptoms such as rashes on the body and tooth enamel being dissolved. Residents are complaining of increasing health problems such as gall bladder diseases, fertility problems, miscarriages and kidney and thyroid problems. Some of the symptoms may take longer to detect as heavy metals accumulate in the body, and may link industrial contamination of municipal water supplies to cancer, birth defects and neurological disorders.

One of the contributing factors, which leads to the occurrence of these incidents is primarily due to companies that are violating the Clean Water Act by discharging excessive amounts of toxic waste into the environment. It was reported that the largest U.S. industrial, municipal and federal facilities discharging dangerous chemicals were in serious violation of the Clean Water Act, and had disposed over 500,000 times more industrial waste into the water system in 2009 than in the last five years. Most of the violations have gone unpunished, with state regulators taking significant action in just 3% of all cases.

Atrazine - meeting EPA set limit? Another reported case on contaminated water takes place in Chicago where pesticides (Atrazine) have contaminated watersheds and drinking water throughout most of the central United States. The states with the most severe contamination of drinking water included Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska, and Iowa. Atrazine is the most commonly detected pesticide in the U.S. water system and is a known endocrine disruptor, which means that it affects human and animal hormones. Atrazine is actually one of the chemicals regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), it was determined that if an annual average of no more than 3 parts per billion (ppb) of atrazine is present in drinking water, it is "safe" to drink. Atrazine concentrations in the water system in Versailles, Indiana and Mt. Olive, Illinois were found to be at 4.6 ppb and 3.79 ppb respectively.

However, there are possible flaws when setting the maximum contamination limit. Setting acceptable standards based on the annual averages means that there is a serious risk of running on faulty assumptions; Atrazine contamination levels will fluctuate throughout a reporting period, peaking at extremely high levels which may go unrecorded. Long term exposure to Atrazine could have a considerable impact on an individual's reproductive system. Moreover, the regulations are set based on a safe level of consumption for an average weighted adult with presence of one chemical; they do not, however, take into account the combined toxicity effect of two or more chemicals. The strength of combining two or more chemicals may not increase in a linear manner proportion to the number of chemicals present in the water, it can be an exponential increase in a magnitude of 1,000 times. In addition to this, the terrible health effects of consuming these highly toxic chemicals are magnified many times over for small children, since their systems are more sensitive and are less developed; their bodies are unable to detoxify certain harmful chemicals. Small children also tend to consume a much larger volume of fluids per unit of their body weight, and as such children absorb a much higher dose of these toxic chemicals into their body. Unfortunately, EPA has not taken into account any of these factors when setting the maximum contaminant levels.

While there is no doubt that the big manufacturing companies have contributed to the water contamination problems, we as individuals are also the ones to blame. The majority of the contaminants found in our drinking water can be traced to improper or excessive use of ordinary compounds like lawn chemicals, gasoline, cleaning products and even prescription drugs. Once we realise that whatever goes down to the drain eventually winds up in our water supplies, we need to be extra cautious in what we flush down the drain.

Gas Extraction Technique - highly suspect cause of contamination? US Government scientists have found contaminants in drinking water wells near natural gas drilling rigs during August, 2009 in Philadelphia. The gas drilling companies involved repeatedly told the public that the gas drilling technique that they were using were safe. The drilling technique involves injecting water and other fluids into the well and have the potential to create cross-contamination. Residents who live close to the drilling vicinity are still highly concerned over the gas-extraction technique used, which may possibly have adverse impacts to their health. One can understand the worries of the local residents as some said that their well water had become discolored, foul-smelling or tasted bad, in some cases water was black and oily. Up to date, there is still no conclusion on the cause of contamination but the gas drilling technique is a highly suspect cause of contamination.

Earlier in March and May this year (2009), the EPA also found contaminants in 11 out of 39 wells tested around the Wyoming town of Pavillion. Chemicals found may cause illnesses such as cancer, kidney failure, anemia and fertility problems. Among the contaminants found in some of the wells was a solvent used in natural gas extraction, 2-butoyethanol (or 2-BE), which may cause breakdown of red blood cells, leading to blood in the urine and feces, and can damage the kidneys, liver, spleen and bone marrow.

Since 1999, the number of violations of the Clean Water Act has increased, while the number of inspections carried out by EPA remained roughly the same. There seems to be a shortage of resources to perform the work effectively. The EPA seems to be failing in its task of ensuring that companies comply with the regulations and at the same time carrying out the enforcement activity for those companies breaking the law; ultimately to ensure no polluters escape from any punishment. People put a lot of effort in establishing their lives, families and businesses in these cities. What is it all worth when a simple necessity of clean water supply cannot be fulfilled, especially in a developed country like the USA.

Globally, there are about 2.3 billion people suffering from diseases linked to dirty water each year. Among this number, approximately 3.6 million people die from water-related diseases, it is estimated that about 98% of water-related deaths occur in the developing countries and about 43% of water-related deaths are due to diarrhea. In the USA, roughly 19.5 million Americans fall ill per year from drinking contaminated water with parasites, bacteria or viruses. This figure is excluding water-related illnesses caused by toxins and chemicals. Given that the USA is a more developed country, people suffer from water related diseases in the country is about 1% of the total, which is deemed high.

It is a good intention that President Obama has committed to ratify healthcare reform to provide healthcare stability and security for all Americans. However, it is not going to help when fulfilling the basic needs of safe water is not even available. If contaminants are continuously found in water leading to adverse health problems in US residents, there is no point in carrying out health reform. US citizens all deserve the right to know what polluters are dumping into the communities. While the former Bush Administration severely limited the information disclosed to the public about toxic pollution released into the communities, we hope that the new Obama Administration will keep his word and will be able to make a change as he had promised. After all, president Obama does not want to be interrupted by people like Joe Wilson yet again, telling him that "You lie!".

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