11 March 2008

Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink

Yesterday's AP stories about contaminated drinking water supplies gave me pause. If you're living under a rock and missed yesterday's story here's the quickie re-cap.

The Federal Government studied, for the first time, the presence of pharmaceuticals in drinking water supplies in 28 metro areas around the country. This should come as no surprise to anyone. But of course it was met with the usual chorus of hand wringing and paranoia. The science of this scientific study will be cast aside in favor of quick fixes and feel-good policy changes. Lost in the shuffle will be the fact that there are no quick fixes and that there is even less to feel good about.

That study says as much about how precise the science of finding wildly diluted traces of substances has become as it does about the state of drinking water in the US. Someone pointed out to me recently that worrying about infinitesimally small traces of ibuprofen in my drinking water makes as much sense as worry about how much dog feces I'm eating every time my neighbor runs his leaf blower.

So if the traces of pharmaceuticals that show up in tap water aren't thought to be harmful directly, it's worth studying how they got there.

I read a study a year ago from the University of Washington that found elevated traces of cinnamon and vanilla in Puget Sound that peaked between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Who knows what, if any, deviltry those substances can get into when they're released into the environment. But that they're there is a canary in the coal mine if nothing else. Ditto the pharmaceuticals.

Modern sewage treatment plants trace their lineage to systems invented in London to get sewage out of the city and into the sea as quickly and unstinkily as possible. The sewage systems today still do the same thing, only now they filter out the poop first. This by the way, is the only thing they are designed to remove. Treated sewage with the poop removed is judged to be safe and then discharged into the nearest body of water. No one looks for anything other than the poop when judging whether or not the water is considered to be "clean enough."

Since poop is all that can be filtered out, anything that's not poop (and dissolved) is still there. Pour Drain-o down the sink and it ends up in the Bay a couple of days later. Flush away an expired prescription and you might as well be walking down the street and dumping it into the Gulf directly because that's where your Xanax, Ambien or Zoloft end up.

In Tampa's case, Tampa treats its sewage and dumps the "clean" water into the Bay. Tampa also has a desalination plant that sucks water out of the Bay and makes drinking water out of it. True, there's no poop in it anymore when it hits the intake pipes of the desal plant, but it still has its Xanax, Ambien and Zoloft. Cities not located near a body of salt water do the same thing only without a desal plant. Chicago dumps its treated sewage into the lake and then gets its drinking water from the same lake. What's that word again? Oh yeah. UNSUSTAINABLE.

That story yesterday will come as welcome news to the bottled water industry who already has the masses duped into believing that there is something inherently better about water in a bottle instead of water from a tap. This is a lie, a damned lie.

  • 40 percent of the bottled water sold in the US is tap water with a brand name on it
  • 1.5 million barrels of imported oil gets turned into those convenient plastic bottles every year
  • Those plastic bottles can't be re-used
  • US tap water is the safest supply in the world
  • Bottled water is essentially untested and unregulated
  • These bullets could go on for days and all of them would say that bottled water is a bad idea

What's the solution? A carbon filter for under your sink. Why is this a topic for a design blog? Look at this beautiful filtered water faucet!

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