Drinking the Undrinkable
Why the delay? For decades, the public has known of the burgeoning pollution of our lakes, rivers and streams from industrial, agricultural and municipal wastes. Recently, reports have detailed such dangerous contaminants as lead, mercury, pesticides, hormones, detergents, acids, plastics, viruses and bacteria, in various bodies of water, such as Lakes Michigan and Erie, the Potomac and Mississippi Rivers, and other waterways, large and small.
Yet the people have been told little about the spillover of these deadly wastes into their drinking water and the gross inadequacy of most municipal water purification systems to cope with them.
The reasons for this lack of awareness rest on the government at all levels and on industrial polluters. Local authorities responsible for drinking water quality have long encouraged public confidence to avoid public panic. Such confidence rests really on propaganda, secrecy about test results, waterborne disease outbreaks, and a massive underinvestment in detection and control equipment, already available.
Federal officials in the Public Health Service and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are now displaying concern and urging action. The EPA has finally started work towards a revision of the federal water standards — the first, incidentally, since 1962. Nearly half of the nation’s population drinks water that does not meet the weak, incomplete federal water standards.
At present, these standards only cover traditionally known contaminants. There is no mention, for example, of mercury. The happy assumption is that relatively unpolluted water is the source of the raw water. Both swordfish and lake trout know better.
This week the Senate Subcommittee on the Environment will open hearings on drinking water legislation. Senate bill 1478, introduced by Senators Philip Hart and Warren Magnuson, proposes a modernization of established water testing and treatmentnmethods, along with technical assistance and training grants.
A controversial amendment to empower the federal government to establish and enforce drinking water standards covering chemical, biological, physical, radiological and other contaminants will be the first focus of the hearing.
Because meditating on polluted drinking water is thinking the unthinkable, a fraternity of silence has developed among water hygiene officials to keep the facts from the public. Now it is no longer sufficient merely to dump chlorine into the water. Safe water supplies cannot be established by this old-fashioned remedy.
What is actually needed is rigorous prevention and detection systems, and more medical research. Once citizens know the various long and short term hazards of such contaminants, government action will he forced. Corporate secrecy about what and how much industrial poisons they are dumping into the waterways must be stopped. Federal research and development funds on drinking water safety — just $2 million last year — must be promptly increased.
Let’s listen to what two cancer researchers, Drs. Wilhelm C. Hueper and W. D. Conway, have to say on this subject: “The most common and often prolonged, and therefore, the most dangerous contact with carcinogenic pollutants of water occurs when water thus contaminated is used for drinking purposes and in the preparation of food. It is here important that most of the agents . . . (arsenicals, chromium, radioactive substances, pesticides) are retained in the body and may accumulate in certain organs, such as the liver, skin, bones or fat tissue.”
Dr. H. A. Schroeder, the Dartmouth expert on trace minerals (such as cadmium, mercury and lead), has repeatedly warned about “the correlation of certain qualities of municipal water supplies and deaths from congenital abnormalities in the U.S.”
It is time to face the facts, no matter how unsettling they may be. At least government and industry must use the preventive and corrective action that is already available. Otherwise, notes Harry J. Graeser, Director of the Dallas Water Utilities Department, “We are surely moving towards the time when a major waterborne problem is going to create a national hysteria and a crisis in water hygiene.”
The new hearings in the Senate are an urgent matter. Responding belatedly to obvious disasters is not the mark of a rational society fully equipped to prevent them.