The quality of our drinking water is finally an urgent consumer issue. And not a day too soon.
Why the delay? For decades, the public has known of the 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 tile spillover of these deadly wastes into their drinking water and the gross inadequacy of most municipal water purification systems to cope with them.
The blame for this lack of awareness rests on the government and on industrial polluters. Local authorities responsible for the quality of drinking water have long encouraged public confidence to avoid public panic. Such confidence rests really on propaganda, secrecy about test results and a massive underinvestment in detection and control equipment that is available.
Federal officials in the Public Health Service and the Environmental Protection Agency are now urging action. The agency has finally started revising the federal water standards. Nearly half of the U.S. citizens drink water that does not meet the weak, incomplete federal water standards.
These standards now over only traditionally known contaminants. There is no mention, for example, of mercury. This week the Senate subcommittee on the environment is holding hearings on drinking-water legislation. Sens. Philip Hart and Warren Magnuson propose a modernization of established water-testing and treatment methods along with technical assistance and training grants.
Because meditation on polluted drinking water is thinking the unthinkable, water hygiene officials are staying quiet to keep the facts from the public. Now it is no longer sufficient merely to dump chlorine into the water. Supplies of safe water cannot be established by this old-fashioned remedy.
What is 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 be forced. Corporate secrecy about what and how much industrial poisons are being dumped into the waterways must be stopped. Federal research and development funds on drinking water safety—just $2,000,000 last year—must be increased.
Here’s what two cancer researchers, Wilhelm C. Hueper and W. D. Conway, say on the subject: “The most common and 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.”
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 toward the time when a major problem is going to create a national hysteria and a crisis in Water hygiene.”
The 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.