Posted by: drgeophysics | September 14, 2009

Water pollution in the United States, a toxic legacy.

Are these beautiful animals swimming in a toxic soup?

On Planet Earth only 3% of water is fresh water and two thirds of this amount is frozen in glacier systems. Water pollution is a serious problem in the United States and I’ve been thinking about how to blog about this for some time, here goes a first attempt. There are several trends that are intersecting to create problems much larger than the individual pieces with respect to water resources. These problems include:

  • Toxic pollution in water.
  • Drugs in public drinking supplies.
  • Toxic metals in drinking water.
  • Acidification of water.
  • Pollution of water by saline pollution or breaches of saline aquifers into fresh water resources.
  • Uptake of these pollutants by animals and plants, and then transmission of these pollutants along this vector into the human population.

I will look at a few of these, but you should investigate these thoroughly and carefully.  The history of environmental and health safety laws are frequently written in tomb stones, let’s all do our part to make sure that our drinking water is safe.  The United States Geology Survey has done an outstanding job in completing important scientific studies and accurately reporting their results.

Generally fresh water is thought of as drinkable with 500 ppm or less of dissolved salts. Here is the wiki describing freshwater.

The EPA definition is slightly different:
“Fresh/potable water generally refers to TDS contents of less than 3000 ppm, whereas USDWs include water with < 10,000 mg/l total dissolved solids (TDS). Here is an EPA guidance document.
Here is the EPA Groundwater and Drinking Water web site.

The New York Times, today, has an excellent pieces related to the acidification of water and the rapid increase in toxic metals in this water.  As reported today in the New York Times, with respect to toxic metals in public drinking water in a major city in West Virginia:

Neighbors apply special lotions after showering because their skin burns. Tests show that their tap water contains arsenic, barium, lead, manganese and other chemicals at concentrations federal regulators say could contribute to cancer and damage the kidneys and nervous system.

Here is the New York Times article.

There is an excellent EPA database you can search to find compliance histories for sites in your region, you search by your local ZIP code.   Here is the database.

Here is the state of California site.

In addition to these issues, outside of any regulation framework the following has been observed, it’s quite shocking.  The AP did a study following a thorough USGS study.  Both are linked and described below.  The bottom line is that unregulated drugs are routinely found in public drinking water.

A five month investigation by the Associated Press has discovered that small quantities of drugs, including antibiotics, sex hormones, and anti-seizure compounds, have been found in public drinking water supplied to over 40 million Americans across the US.

In a survey begun in 1999, the agency surveyed 139 streams around the country and found that 80 percent of samples contained residues of drugs like painkillers, hormones, blood pressure medicines or antibiotics. The agency said the findings suggested that the compounds were more prevalent and more persistent than had been thought.

Here is the New York Times story.

Here is a description of the extensive USGS study.

There were many serious problems found in this study.  Here is one related to fish immunity.

Here is a quote from the study.

A recent study by the Toxic Substances Hydrology Program of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) shows that a broad range of chemicals found in residential, industrial, and agricultural wastewaters commonly occurs in mixtures at low concentrations downstream from areas of intense urbanization and animal production. The chemicals include human and veterinary drugs (including antibiotics), natural and synthetic hormones, detergent metabolites, plasticizers, insecticides, and fire retardants. One or more of these chemicals were found in 80 percent of the streams sampled. Half of the streams contained 7 or more of these chemicals, and about one-third of the streams contained 10 or more of these chemicals. This study is the first national-scale examination of these organic wastewater contaminants in streams and supports the USGS mission to assess the quantity and quality of the Nation’s water resources. A more complete analysis of these and other emerging water-quality issues is ongoing.

Map of U.S. showing 139 streams where wastewater contaminants were measured.
Pharmaceuticals, hormones, and other organic wastewater contaminants were measured in 139 streams during 1999 and 2000.

Background: Chemicals, used everyday in homes, industry and agriculture, can enter the environment in wastewater. These chemicals include human and veterinary drugs (including antibiotics), hormones, detergents, disinfectants, plasticizers, fire retardants, insecticides, and antioxidants. To assess whether these chemicals are entering our Nation’s streams, the Toxic Substances Hydrology Program of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) collected and analyzed water samples from 139 streams in 30 states during 1999 and 2000. Streams were sampled that were considered susceptible to contamination from various wastewater sources, such as those downstream from intense urbanization or livestock production. Thus, the results of this study are not considered representative of all streams.

Photograph of a wastewater treatment facility near Atlanta, Georgia.
Household chemicals can enter streams through wastewater discharges. A wastewater treatment facility near Atlanta, Georgia, is shown above. (Photograph by Daniel J. Hippe, U.S. Geological Survey)

Although each of the 95 chemicals is used extensively, there is little information about the extent or occurrence of many of these compounds in the environment. Some may be indicators of certain classes of contamination sources, such as livestock or human waste, and some have human or environmental health implications. The results of this study are a starting point for investigation of the transport of a wide range of organic wastewater contaminants in the Nation’s waters.

New laboratory methods were developed in several USGS research laboratories to provide the analytical capability to measure concentrations of 95 wastewater-related organic chemicals in water. Uniform sample-collection protocols and field and laboratory quality-assurance programs were followed to ensure that results are comparable and representative of actual stream conditions.

Findings: One or more chemicals were detected in 80 percent of the streams sampled, and 82 of the 95 chemicals were detected at least once. Generally, these chemicals were found at very low concentrations (in most cases, less than 1 part per billion). Mixtures of the chemicals were common; 75 percent of the streams had more than one, 50 percent had 7 or more, and 34 percent had 10 or more.

Boxplot showing chemical groups detected in susceptible streams.
Steroids, nonprescription drugs, and an insect repellent were the three chemical groups most commonly detected in susceptible streams. Detergent metabolites, steroids, and plasticizers generally were found at the highest concentrations.

The most frequently detected chemicals (found in more than half of the streams) were coprostanol (fecal steroid), cholesterol (plant and animal steroid), N-N-diethyltoluamide (insect repellent), caffeine (stimulant), triclosan (antimicrobial disinfectant), tri (2-chloroethyl) phosphate (fire retardant), and 4-nonylphenol (nonionic detergent metabolite). Steroids, nonprescription drugs, and insect repellent were the chemical groups most frequently detected. Detergent metabolites, steroids, and plasticizers generally were measured at the highest concentrations.”

Here is the web site for the USGS study, and the 2-page study PDF document.   Here is the press release. Another report site related to this study. The USGS has a Toxic substances Hydrology Program web site that can be access here.

Mercury has been found in every fish tested in the United States in a recent USGS water and fish study.  This was shocking and matches studies of fish from oceans.

Here is the NRDC report, which relates the pollution to chlorine chemical plants and coal-fired power plants.  Senator Leahy well describes this important health concern.

Mercury is a dangerous toxin that has become widespread throughout our environment. Coal-fired power plants, waste incinerators, chlor-alkali plants, and other U.S. sources dump 150 tons of mercury per year into our air. Much of the mercury in the air returns to earth, contaminating our lakes and streams as methylmercury, a powerful neurotoxin. Methylmercury accumulates in fish, which is especially hazardous to the people and wildlife that eat these fish.  In 2002, 45 states issued more than 2,000 fish consumption warnings because of mercury contamination.  Advisories for mercury increased 11 percent from 2001 to 2002 (1,933 to 2,140) and increased 138 percent from 1993 to 2002 (899 to 2,140).  Large predatory ocean fish, such as swordfish, shark, and large tuna, can also have dangerous levels of methylmercury.

Some states, such as Minnesota, have created excellent summary documents describing this problem in detail.  Here is one of these easily understood summaries.

The USGS Mercy in stream ecosystems site can be found here.

The problem was described in this USGS report.

“Mercury in Fish, Bed Sediment, and Water from Streams Across the United States, 1998–2005”

And then there is water pollution related to nuclear bomb testing.  This has been studied by various state and federal agencies for decades, but recently hit the main stream press.

Here is the LA Times story.

What about the water resources under the test site?

Yucca Flat Nuclear Reservation.

Remember that when testing started Las Vegas only had a population of 50,000.  There appeared to be much more water than was needed by the small population.  Unfortunately a non-renewable water source, worth billions of dollars, has been polluted.


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