Impure Water – And Getting Worse?

When we use water, drink it, cook with it, bathe in it, it’s not “pure.” 

Accepting that it’s impure, how “safe” is our water?

The answer is we have cause for concern.

The reasons are obvious in Northern Virginia.

There is the increased density of our population, the accompanying development, the large number of households that use wells, the bad practices that many of us follow that can compromise the water’s “purity,” and, perhaps worst of all, the waste products that industry is allowed by law to dump into the water, also what industry dumps that is unlawful (that it’s not supposed to discharge), and how weakly the feds and the state push back against those who pollute, allowing the general public to absorb the cost and risk to their health and mortality.

We don’t always think of the cycle of water that we take for granted.

Consider the fact that this water has been in our atmosphere for over 4 billion years and it alights today on the surface of our houses, lawns and roadways as raindrops.

Some water molecules, that’s H2O, were trapped long ago in the rock literally changing what land masses are above or below the earth’s oceans and seas.

Other rain drops are continuously sucked up in plants and then evaporate from the leaves back into the air.

Water passes through each of us and into sewers and septic tanks and back to groundwater and to streams.

Water can be cleaned naturally of many impurities by the sun’s ultraviolet rays, by the water absorbing oxygen when falling over falls, plants may extract nutrients as water passes, and add oxygen back, and, more than that, by the changes of state of H2O, from liquid water to gas or vapor.

Concentrated crowded development, however, among other factors, removes the geographic features and natural habitat that once cleaned our water, making the water riskier downstream, particularly the closer the downstream development is to the upstream development.

Rainwater washes off our lawns, or that nearby golf course, or the baseball field where Johnny plays in the Little League, and the nitrates from the fertilizer on these surfaces end up in our lakes and streams.

Some people too lazy will throw their motor oil on a driveway and that will go into the ground and then pollute the water.

There are leaking underground storage tanks that flow into the groundwater.

Nor can we ignore the pesticides and herbicides that are spread on our lawns, especially golf courses, a planned poisoned pasture, shedding these toxins into our water supply.  It’s ironic that our use of pesticides has increased since Rachel Carson wrote “Silent Spring”in 1962 and so has the rate of breast cancer.  Better Living Through Chemistry?  Nor really!

Many Virginians don’t drink waters treated for impurities – indeed 500,000 households (37% of the total in Virginia) are on private wells.

This is what we are doing to ourselves.

But there are also industrial strength pollutants.

As a society, we have embraced a public policy that disfavors individual health in the face of industrial pollution.

In a spectacular 1886 case, Pennsylvania Coal Co. v. Sanderson, the polluted mine water discharged into a stream that passed through the Sanderson property, and the Sandersons couldn’t drink their water or use it to work their farm.  The court said the “trifling inconveniences to particular persons must sometimes give way” and directed the Sandersons to “yield to the necessities of a great public industry.”

This externalization of the costs of pollution were thrust onto landowners, communities and the public as a whole, and, despite intervening regulation since, this grave public policy error persists.

The public’s tipping point came in the mid-1960s when the Cuyahoga River that runs through Cleveland, Ohio into Lake Erie caught fired and burned.  The unquenchable fire ignited a public push to curtail pollution that degraded our natural environment.

The EPA resulted, with some legislative bite including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.  The objective was to restore water quality so you could swim and fish in our waters.

The EPA identified standards based on technology and specific toxic elements including Aldrin, DDT, Endrin, Toxaphene, Benzidine, and PCBs.

But the industry pushed back creating exceptions to the prohibitions, seeking to balance what was dangerous to health against what it cost the industry.  As a result, the enforceable values for the carcinogens benzene, vinyl chloride and trichloroethylene, for example, have been set at 5, 2 and 5 parts per billion, while their maximum-contaminant-level goals, however, are all zero.  In 1986, the public learned that industry routinely released 650 toxic substances into our water.

It should come as little wonder, given how it works, therefore that, despite the dangers to our water, in the Commonwealth of Virginia, 13,145 miles of Virginia’s rivers are “impaired” (71% of those examined), 94,041 Acres of our Lakes are “impaired” (83% of those examined), and 2,129 square miles of our estuaries are :impaired” (94% of those examined). The causes of the “impairment” included bacteria, Mercury, and PCBs. (Source: )

We talk a lot about quality of life, so we should clean up our act, stop compromising that critical molecule, H2O, that’s been with us a billion years, and tell industry that our lives are not “trifling inconveniences.”