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Declaring a water crisis over isn’t the end of the ordeal

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Demonstrators at a 2010 Toronto rally protesting the mercury contamination of the Wabigoon-English waterway in northwestern Ontario carry long blue banners meant to represent a river.
(THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

Steven Liss, Ryerson University; Anna Majury, Queen’s University, Ontario, and Haley Sanderson, Queen’s University, Ontario

Water crisis is over and lead levels back to normal in Flint, read the headlines. The Michigan city has been besieged with water quality challenges for the past three years. Incidents of Legionella infections leading to 12 deaths in 2014 and 2015 further complicated matters.

Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards, a leading water expert, declared the end of the Flint water crisis. He urged residents to continue to use filters until the infrastructure upgrades are complete, but acknowledged it would be some time before residents would trust officials as guardians of water quality.

Factors contributing to the Flint water crisis are not unique.

Inadequate and aged water infrastructure are common sources of problems. While upgrading infrastructure after a crisis is necessary, and technological advancement can overcome some water quality management challenges, those efforts are only effective if implemented consistently and maintained properly.

Underlying issues that become apparent after a crisis must also be addressed. They include public trust, accessibility, the need for environmental protections and for strong communication between officials and the communities.

Water crises have a long history

Just over 17 years ago, the tainted water crisis in Walkerton, Ont. led to 2,300 cases of gastroenteritis and seven deaths. Amid excessive rainfall, cattle manure run-off from an adjacent farm contaminated the shallow drinking water well.

The community’s prolonged exposure was attributed to a lack of training and education of key personnel, and lack of action when the test results showed fecal contamination.

Dalton McGuinty, then premier of Ontario, tours the Walkerton Clean Water Centre in this 2010 file photo. Seven people died and thousands were sickened by e. coli contamination.
(THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn)

Similarly, in Camelford, England, a major pollution incident occurred in 1988 when 20 tons of aluminium sulfate, a toxic chemical used in water treatment, was introduced into the water system.

At concentrations 3,000 times the acceptable level, lead and copper were released from distribution pipes, leading to short-term illnesses such as headaches, abdominal pain and flu-like symptoms. There was also long-term harm, which can include kidney disease and even death.

The situation was worsened by poor governance and communication with the affected community.

The Walkerton and Camelford communities enjoy improved oversight of their water resources and infrastructure. In contrast, First Nations communities do not always see improvements after crises.

First Nations often forgotten

From 1962 to 1970, wastewater containing mercury from a paper mill was dumped into the Wabigoon-English River. It is the water supply for the First Nations communities of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong, each about 100 kilometres from Kenora near the Ontario-Manitoba border.

The river is still contaminated with mercury, and indemnities granted to the paper mill owners from the federal and Ontario governments severely limit cleanup and monitoring.

While the First Nations communities received monetary compensation, the loss of a commercial fishery removed the primary source of income for the residents, and 90 per cent of the population continue to show signs of exposure to mercury.

The federal government reported in July that there were 150 drinking water advisories for First Nations south of the 60th parallel. Shoal Lake 40 First Nation on the Manitoba-Ontario border has been under boil-water advisory (BWA) since 1997, while Winnipeg continues to draw its freshwater supply from Shoal Lake.

A boy from the Shoal Lake 40 First Nation sits on a bridge over a channel in this 2015 file photo. The isolated reserve has been under a boil-water advisory for 20 years, one of Canada’s longest.
(THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods)

Clearly, an inequity in water quality services in First Nations compared to non-First Nations communities exists. It has contributed to the disparity and lack of trust and satisfaction about their water supply among First Nations.

Limited consultation with First Nations communities for projects related to their traditional lands and natural resources around them causes further distrust.

Canada, with about 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water, is perceived as a water-rich nation, but only a fraction — about 6.5 per cent — is renewable.

Changes in water quality owing to depletion of non-renewable groundwater supplies, contamination due to the release of inadequately treated or untreated sewage, discharge of emerging contaminants and climate change all pose challenges to the sustainability of water resources and the supply of safe water.

Solutions not always simple or clear

At any given moment, there are hundreds of boil water advisories in effect across Canada, many lasting more than five years. There is no national standard to determine when a BWA should be implemented. Reasons for BWAs include problems with disinfection systems and failed microbiological tests.

BWAs are an important precautionary tool regarding water safety. However, frequent and/or long-lasting BWAs may affect consumer behaviour to such a degree that people stop heeding them.

The development and implementation of risk management plans for water, based on quality requirements, is limited by what is considered safe.

In the context of human health, safe water contains negligible, if any, levels of harmful contaminants such as pathogenic bacteria, viruses or protozoa, cancer-causing chemicals or any other acutely toxic substance.

Other potential and emerging contaminants such as personal-care products, pharmaceuticals and antibiotic-resistant microbes may cause less acute illness. And they may affect populations such as the frail, elderly and children quite differently, making them difficult to address and include in risk management plans.

Acute crises draw attention to the need for multi-level risk management plans that are preventative rather than reactive, address the greatest risks, draw on experience and adequately invest resources for risk mitigation.

The failures serve to remind us that investing only in infrastructure and personnel training is not enough.

The ConversationThere must also be investment in programs and resources that incorporate broader environmental protection requirements, community involvement, education and research to better address contemporary water issues and prevent future water crises.

Steven Liss, Vice-President Research & Innovation; professor of chemistry and biology, Faculty of Science, Ryerson University; Anna Majury, Clinical Microbiologist, Public Health Ontario. Assistant professor Department of Biology and Molecular Sciences, Faculty of Health Sciences;, Queen’s University, Ontario, and Haley Sanderson, PhD student, Environmental Studies, Queen’s University, Ontario

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Interpretation Bias in Climate Change? (Don’t Tell Me How to Think!)

A recent article (tweeted below) says the3% of “Climate Change Denier” scientific studies are flawed. While reading it I couldn’t help but think… okay, so we are supposed to stop thinking and blindly accept both the findings and interpretation of the 97% Climate Change Affirmer” studies?

I just can’t. It’s too stupid and dictatorial.

Science is a human enterprise and ALWAYS involves bias, selectivity and interpretation.

For the record, I do accept that human activity could be a significant contributing factor. But what about other sources of heat? Like inside the Earth. Nobody really talks about that.

More important, however, is the FACT about interpretation. Most everyone sees the temperature increase as a bad thing. But I can’t help but think of a possible counterexample. I’m no scientist or geologist so please take this hypothetically instead of factually.

Origin of Dinosaur-Killing Asteroid Remains a Mystery – NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Let’s say something from space hits the Earth. An asteroid. This causes all sorts of junk to fly into the atmosphere which blocks out the sun and forces the Earth’s temperature to drop drastically. Some believe this was the cause of the last ice age.

So in this hypothetical scenario, the fact that we are a little bit warmer now might be a good thing down the road. Who knows, it might save us.

Admittedly, this is pretty far out and probably not scientifically predictable. But the point I’m trying to make is that we cannot know for sure how current warmer temperatures will affect us down the road.

So although mankind might be contributing to climate change, it is a matter of interpretation about how that pans out in the long run.

This isn’t complicated thinking. I think most people – even children – could follow the argument. But what disappoints me is that most adults won’t even consider it.

See – What Killed the Dinosaurs?

and – Did an asteroid kill the dinosaurs?

Exhibit Museum Replica Urtier Prehistoric Times

Don’t DENY the possibility. Check the links.


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Water is becoming the new oil

Several years ago I wrote a piece under a pen name about water becoming the new oil. I don’t know why I didn’t take authorship. Maybe I wasn’t sure of my popular writing skills back then. Maybe other reasons. Anyhow, it doesn’t matter today. Water is so fundamental to our existence that it’s probably only a matter of time before H20 prices go through the roof and people begin to seriously think about conservation.


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Is science objective? Is objectivity possible?

Yes, yes yes. Finally someone is addressing these issues.


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Link between fracking and newborn deaths?


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These caterpillars eat plastic… have we stumbled upon a pollution solution?


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There’s a new generation of water pollutants in your medicine cabinet

Lee Blaney, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Image 20170418 10221 ajxgkl

Every day we each use a variety of personal care products. We wash our hands with antibacterial soaps and clean our faces with specialty cleansers. We wash and maintain our hair with shampoo, conditioner and other hair care products. We use deodorant and perfume or cologne to smell nice. Depending on the day, we may apply sunscreen or insect repellent. The Conversation

All of these products contribute to our quality of life. But where do they go after we use them?

When we bathe, personal care products wash off of our bodies and into sewer systems that carry them to regional wastewater treatment plants. However, these plants are not designed to treat the thousands of specialty chemicals in pharmaceuticals and personal care products. Many of the active and inactive ingredients present in these products pass through our wastewater treatment plants and ultimately end up in rivers, streams or oceans.

Once in the environment, these chemicals may cause hormonal effects and toxicity in aquatic animals. In my laboratory we are studying these emerging water pollutants, which are turning up in surface water, groundwater and even treated drinking water. Although they are typically found at low concentrations, they may still threaten human and ecological health.

New pollutants, present worldwide

Personal care products and their ingredients are widely distributed throughout our environment. In one recent study, our lab aggregated over 5,000 measurements of active ingredients from a variety of personal care products that were found in untreated wastewater, treated wastewater and surface waters such as rivers and streams. They included N,N-diethyl-3-methylbenzamide, or DEET, an insect repellent; galaxolide, a fragrance; oxybenzone, a sunscreen; and triclosan, an antibacterial compound.

Other studies conducted near the Mario Zucchelli and McMurdo & Scott research bases confirmed that chemicals in personal care products were even present in Antarctic seawater. Those reports identified the presence of plasticizers, antibacterials, preservatives, sunscreens and fragrances in the Antarctic marine environment. Together, these studies suggest that the active ingredients in personal care products can be found in any water body influenced by human activity.

These substances are typically present in the aquatic environment at concentrations of 10 to 100 nanograms per liter, which is equivalent to 1 to 2 drops in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. But even at these low levels, some still pose a risk.

Moving up the food chain

Depending on their chemical properties, we can classify some of these products as hydrophilic (“water-loving”) or lipophilic (“lipid-loving”). The fat layers in our bodies are comprised of lipids, so lipophilic personal care products can accumulate in the tissue and organs of aquatic animals like fish, birds and even dolphins.

Our group has recently detected a suite of sunscreen agents and 17α-ethinylestradiol, a synthetic form of the hormone estrogen that is the active ingredient in birth control pills, in crayfish from urban streams near Baltimore, Maryland. We have also measured sunscreens in oysters and mussels collected from the Chesapeake Bay. The uptake of these chemicals by aquatic animals raises environmental concerns.

Specifically, as lipophilic chemicals from personal care products accumulate in animals at higher concentrations, there is a greater potential for them to cause toxic effects. For instance, many personal care products disrupt hormone systems in the body. Some chemicals used in personal care products affect reproductive systems and function, causing the feminization of male fish.

These reproductive effects can have important consequences for aquatic animals in the environment, and they may even represent a potential health risk for humans. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration banned the use of triclosan and a number of other antibacterial agents in antiseptic wash products due, in part, to health risks associated with hormonal effects.

U.S. Geological Survey hydrologists sampling shallow groundwater near septic systems on New York’s Fire Island in 2011. The scientists found hormones, detergent degradation products, fragrances, insect repellent, sunscreen additives, a floor cleaner and pharmaceuticals, indicating that contaminants were moving from the septic systems into groundwater.
Chris Schubert, USGS

Recent research has shown that oxybenzone, a sunscreen agent used in many personal care products, is toxic to corals. For many coastal communities, coral reefs are critical to local economies. For example, the net value of Hawaii’s coral reefs is estimated to be US$34 billion.

Earlier this year Hawaii introduced legislation to ban the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate in order to protect coral reefs. While research and policymaking are still ongoing in this area, it is important to note that a number of new consumer products have started using labels like “coral safe” and “reef safe.”

Multiple solutions

Typical wastewater treatment plants are designed to treat multiple pollutants, including organic carbon from human and food waste; nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus; and pathogenic bacteria and viruses that cause disease. However, they are not equipped to handle the many ingredients of concern that are present in personal care products.

Protecting the environment and human health from these substances will require progress in several areas. They include improving technologies for wastewater treatment plants; conducting more testing and regulation of personal care products to avoid unintended toxicity to aquatic animals; and designing “green chemicals” that do not pose toxicity concerns. This multi-pronged approach will help us to ensure that personal care products continue to improve our quality of life without harming the environment.

Lee Blaney, Assistant Professor of Environmental Engineering, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.