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Badwater, USA: Cancer-Causing Chemicals, Poisons, Even Drugs in YOUR Drinking Water

Yesterday the Washington Post reported on an alarming study that found hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen made famous by the film Erin Brockovich, in the drinking water of 31 cities across the nation. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hasn’t even established limits for how much of this deadly chemical is allowed in your drinking water, but the state of California has set a limit of 0.06 parts per billion.

The highest levels found in the study, carried out by the Environmental Working Group, were in Norman, Oklahoma. The city of 110,000 had hexavalent chromium levels 200 times higher than the California limit. Honolulu, Riverside, Madison and San Jose were the cities with the next highest detected concentrations.

The chemical, used in the chrome plating industry and in the manufacturing of plastics and dyes, is a proven carcinogenic. It was the subject of a $333 million lawsuit in 1996 filed by the now-legendary Erin Brockovich and lawyer Ed Masry on behalf of about 600 people in the small town of Hinkley, California who were seriously sickened by hexavalent chromium poisoning by Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility company.

Earlier this year, the Washington Post revealed that the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the premier public health agency in all the land, knowingly used false data to claim that high levels of lead in Washington, DC’s drinking water did not pose a public health risk to those who drank it. The CDC determined that children living in thousands of homes throughout our nation’s capital fitted with lead pipes were four times as likely to have elevated levels of lead in their blood, yet the agency misled the public that the lead-contaminated water was safe to drink. All told, some 1 million people in Washington, DC and Virginia were exposed to unsafe lead levels in their drinking water for at least a year.

Another pressing concern is the presence of dangerous pesticides in America’s drinking water. While these agricultural chemicals have allowed the United States to become the world’s leading producer of food products, they also cause great harm to the environment. Pesticide contamination of ground water– where 50% of our population and 95% of people living in agricultural areas get their drinking water– is a growing problem. It is even affecting aquifers that lie below-ground and provide drinking water to many millions of Americans.

The National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) recently discovered that the dangerous pesticide Atrazine, banned in Europe, has contaminated various watersheds and drinking water supplies in many parts of the United States. Atrazine is highly toxic to humans and wildlife. It is an endocrine disruptor, which means it messes with hormones and affects child development and reproductive health. Approximately 75% of stream water and 40% of all groundwater sampled in the NRDC study were contaminated with Atrazine. The most severe drinking water contamination was reported in the farming-intensive states of Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska and Iowa.

Atrazine contamination. (Source: earthactually)

Atrazine contamination. (Source: earthactually)

America’s explosion of prescription drug use has, incredibly, affected our drinking water supply. A veritable pharmacopeia of antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones have been detected in the drinking water of at least 41 million people. About 1 in every 7.5 Americans are being exposed. Philadelphia’s water contains  56 pharmaceutical medicines or byproducts. Some 18.5 million people in Southern California are exposed to anti-anxiety and anti-epileptic medications. Sex hormones have gotten into San Francisco’s water supply. New York City’s water source contains heart medicine, infection fighters, estrogen, anti-convulsants, a mood stabilizer and a tranquilizer. Of 28 major metropolitan areas tested, only Albuquerque, Austin, and Virginia Beach came up clean.

Not only have these dangerous drugs contaminated surface water, they’ve seeped into the aquifers.

“People think that if they take a medication, their body absorbs it and it disappears, but of course that’s not the case,” EPA scientist Christian Daughton explained.

Human waste– and the excrement of animals treated with hormones and antibiotics– passes through the user and back into the environment. Water sampled downstream from a Nebraska animal feedlot had steroid levels four times higher than water from upstream of the lot. Fish living downstream had depressed testosterone levels and smaller heads. While the amounts of pharmaceutical medications found in drinking water is minute, there is a real danger to humans because water is drank in large amounts over entire lifetimes, thus dramatically increasing harmful exposure. Research has proven that exposure to even small amounts of medications damages human embryonic kidney cells and blood cells. The proliferation of cancer cells also increases with exposure. Brain damage, dangerous genetic mutations and risk to pregnant women have also been reported.

Even a chemical as seemingly harmless as fluoride, which is purposely added to drinking water across America, may be dangerous. Scientists and doctors around the world are increasingly speaking out against water fluoridation and many countries have stopped treating their drinking water with fluoride as test after test show that the chemical does pose human health risks. Especially alarming are the effects on the thyroid gland. Neurotoxicologist and former director of toxicology at Forsyth Dental Center in Boston, Dr. Phyllis Mullenix, has linked fluoride to brain damage. Other studies have linked fluoride to osteoarthritis, decreased sperm count, decreased strength, and other ailments. The New Jersey Department of Health has linked fluoride to cancer and nearly a dozen EPA unions representing thousands of government employees have called for an end to the use of fluoride in drinking water due to the risk of cancer.

But for sheer danger and toxicity, nothing beats the mining and energy industries’ effects on our nation’s drinking water. Just last month some 700 people from West Virginia filed a lawsuit against Massey Energy Company for poisoning their water wells with 1.4 billion gallons of toxic coal slurry. Massey, the same company whose lax safety standards led to a massive underground explosion that killed 25 West Virginia coal miners earlier this year, is denying it did anything wrong. But the red, orange and black water that flows from residents’ faucets says otherwise, as do the developmental disabilities, cancers and other ailments that have plagued folks living near Massey mines for decades. One little girl was even born without a pituitary gland.

The most shocking of all the contaminators are the energy companies who extract natural gas by a process called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” wherein gas is removed from underground rock formations by smashing them open with millions of gallons of water mixed with highly toxic chemicals like benzene, ethylene, glycol and napthalene. Fracking is fraught with peril. Just ask Thelma and Richard Payne of Bainbridge, Ohio. Their home was blown clear off its foundation by an explosion caused by shoddy cement work in the fracking well near their property. Horror stories of tap water bubbling and hissing, smelling like chemicals, and even catching on fire and exploding, are disturbingly common.

Federal officials investigating drinking water contamination have found wells in Wyoming  fouled with chemicals used in the fracking process. Residents of Pavillion, Wyoming, a ranching town on the Great Plains, report animals going blind and dying from drinking from wells contaminated by fracking. Visible oil slicks can be seen floating on the surface of the water and people are getting seriously ill. Keep in mind that this water isn’t just for drinking– people wash their clothes and themselves in it too.

The implications are terrifying. Children who’ve showered or bathed in the water have suffered full-body chemical burns and the hair has been burned off the bodies of many animals.

“How in god’s name can the oil industry dump shit in our drinking water and not tell us what it is?” asked Alan Hofer, a furious local who lives near a contaminated site.

Drilling companies have often compensated people whose water supplies have been contaminated, but they haven’t acknowledged any guilt in actually causing the problems.

Part of the problem is that the toxic chemicals used in fracking are protected as trade secrets. When the EPA requested that nine natural gas drillers disclose which chemicals they use in the fracking process, eight of the companies complied. But oil services giant Halliburton declined, saying that asking for such information was “much like asking Coca-Cola to disclose the formula of Coke.” But Coke isn’t poisoning people’s drinking water.

Here’s where things get really infuriating. As you probably already know, Dick Cheney was CEO of Halliburton before taking off with $34 million and becoming George W. Bush’s Vice President. In that capacity, Cheney used his power to successfully lobby for fracking fluids to be exempted from the Clean Water Act. It should come as no surprise that Halliburton is one of the world’s leading frackers. The so-called “Cheney Loophole” has been used to great profit for Halliburton and great damage to the health of countless Americans.

Fracking now takes place in the majority of US states. It is being hailed as an answer to our nation’s energy woes. Being that it’s cheapest way of extracting natural gas from deep beneath the earth’s surface, fracking has won many supporters in business and political circles.

Yet the growing health risks have also created a strong and growing movement of concerned citizens and politicians who are fighting the practice.  And not without success– the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania banned fracking last month and this week New York governor David Paterson signed an executive order banning fracking until next summer while the state Department of Environmental Conservation conducts a comprehensive review. Many people in New York City are concerned that fracking upstate near the world’s largest municipal water source will result in contamination and other grave environmental damage. Fracking a single well, for example, involves pumping millions of gallons of water and hundreds of tons of chemicals into the ground. It takes more than 1,000 truckloads of water to do this, not to mention other heavy equipment and waste water removal. That’s just for one well.

Over 90% of the natural gas is the United States is produced by hydraulic fracturing. That means there are hundreds of thousands of fracking wells all across America. That’s a lot of potential drinking water contamination.  People are waking up to the dangers. The  film Gasland has been immensely helpful in raising public awareness and opposition to hydraulic fracturing.

Is your drinking water contaminated? Chances are, it does have at least trace amounts of either chemicals, poisons or pharmaceutical drugs. That doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t drink tap water. The environmental costs associated with bottled water and the fact that many bottled waters are nothing more than re-packaged tap water mean you really ought to avoid buying your water in bottles.

But, depending on where you live,  filtration may be recommended, as is keeping a vigilant eye on local issues that could affect the quality of your community’s drinking water supply. There are few things more important to life itself than drinking water. The more you know about where it comes from and the external factors that affect the quality of that water, the better the chances that you’ll know if something is threatening its purity and safety.

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