The Pure Water Occasional for August 11, 2014
In this mid-August Occasional, you’ll hear what it’s like to die of thirst, how Oxazepam affects fish, and how farming creates algae in lakes. Rescuing fish in Reno, hauling water to thirsty Navajos whose wells were poisoned by the military, “banking” water in Georgia aquifers, drilling deeper and deeper for water in California, and making cloth without water. The plight of the Yazidis, the alarming rise of mercury in the oceans, the uses of ultrafiltration, the West Virginia WaterFest, Vibrio infections on the rise, PCP in utility poles, Hardly Waite on the EPA and, as always, there is much, much more.
To read this issue on the Pure Water Gazette’s website, please go here. (Recommended! When you read online you get the added advantage of the Gazette’s sidebar feed of the very latest world water news.)
Dying of Thirst: What’s It Like?
Some 40,000 Iraqi refugees face starvation after being forced into hiding on a barren mountain top by a circling band of bloodthirsty jihadists.
They must now decide whether to descend and risk being slaughtered or hope their attackers are defeated before they die of thirst or hunger, officials said.
They were driven from the town of Sinjar by ISIS over the weekend and have already been forced to bury at least 20 children who succumbed to the harsh conditions on Mount Sinjar.
The above, from a Daily Mail article (August 7, 2014), was one of many news stories that focused on the plight of the Yazidis, a religious minority being threatened by extinction with the advance of ISIS in northern Iraq. Dying of thirst may be a casual expression to most of us, but the real experience is a horror we don’t like to even imagine. I’ve excerpted and adapted the following from a Washington Post story on the Yazidi dilemma. –Hardly Waite.
According to The Post’s Loveday Morris, the militants have surrounded 10,000 to 40,000 members of a religious minority sect, the Yazidi, on a barren mountain, where the refugees are beginning to die of thirst and hunger. The Yazidi, who ISIS considers apostates, fled there when the jihadi forces overwhelmed Kurdish fighters in the nearby town of Sinjar.
Children and older people are succumbing in the 100-plus degree heat, Morris reported in this terrible dispatch. There is no place to bury them on the rocky hill. The Iraqi government has tried to drop water to them, with little success.
“There are children dying on the mountain, on the roads,” Marzio Babille, the Iraq representative for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said Tuesday. “There is no water, there is no vegetation, they are completely cut off and surrounded by Islamic State. It’s a disaster, a total disaster.”
As this barbarism continues, I asked Jeffrey Berns, president-elect of the National Kidney Foundation and a nephrologist at the University of Pennsylvania, what these children may be going through.
“Thirst, as you probably know, is one of the most potent drives for behavior we have. It may be the most potent we have, more than even hunger,” he said.
“People are going to be miserable.”
The body is about 60 percent water, and under normal conditions, he said, an average person will lose about a quart of water each day by sweating and breathing and another one to three quarts by urinating, he said. In the heat and under more difficult physical conditions, that amount increases, he said.
If it’s not replaced over time and dehydration becomes severe, cells throughout the body will begin to shrink as water moves out of them and into the blood stream, part of the body’s efforts to keep the organs perfused in fluid.
“All the cells will shrink,” Berns said, “but the ones that count are the brain cells. They don’t operate normally when they’re’ shrinking.” Changes in mental status will follow, including confusion and ultimately coma, he said. As the brain becomes smaller, it takes up less room in the skull and blood vessels connecting it to the inside of the cranium can pull away and rupture.
This man, who died of dehydration, during a wilderness survival exercise, suffered delirium and hallucinations before he succumbed, according to an Associated Press investigation.
Victims’ kidneys may shut down first, Berns said, as they continue to lack access to both water and salt. The kidneys cleanse the blood of waste products which, under normal conditions, are excreted in urine. Without water, blood volume will decline and all the organs will start to fail, he said. Kidney failure will soon lead to disastrous consequences and ultimately death as blood volume continues to fall and waste products that should be eliminated from the body remain.
Sadly, children die this way every day in places around the globe where safe drinking water is not available. About 760,000 children die of dehydration caused by diarrhea, the second-leading cause of death in children under 5, according to the World Health Organization.
Yazidi Women and Children
There’s Something in the Water and It’s Making Fish Live Longer
Pharmaceutical waste in surface waters has negatively affected marine life in the past—drugs containing the hormone estrogen making male fish pregnant, for example. But in Sweden, there may something in the water making fish live longer. According to a new study in the Institute of Physics’ Environmental Research Letters, the waste from anxiety medication Oxazepam is decreasing Eurasian perch mortality rates in the surface waters of a Swedish lake.
This is not necessarily a good thing. Researchers from Umea University in Sweden claim that the drug, while extending a fish’s life span, can alter the balance of life in the aquatic environment and might result in serious ecological consequences down the line.
According to Jonatan Klaminder, an environmental scientist and the primary author of the study, health-improving pharmaceuticals have become yet another toxin to consider when testing waters. “Ecotoxicological tests were designed with traditional toxic contaminants in mind, such as heavy metals and dioxins, which have historically been the major apparent threat against aquatic organisms in surface waters. Pharmaceuticals are a new group of contaminants that do not necessarily fit into the traditional view.”
The scientists went out and caught Eurasian perch from a lake in Sweden for the study, then exposed them to two doses, high and low, of Oxazepam. The medication, which is typically used to alleviate anxiety and insomnia in people, frequently contaminates surface waters via wastewater-treatment effluent, the product left behind from treated wastewater. The results found the fish more “bold” and active than the control group that wasn’t treated with Oxazepam.
The study also collected fish eggs from a separate population of Eurasian perch, then exposed them to three different concentrations of the drug during the first nine days of their development. After hatching, a portion of the little fish were analyzed. Results found that the hatched fry’s mortality rates were significantly lower than the control group of fry that weren’t exposed to Oxazepam.
The fish’s increased survival rates are prompting researchers to study the effects of other pharmaceuticals that get dumped into surface waters, including painkillers, antibiotics, hormones and anti-depressants, for possible ecological implications.
“A therapeutic effect leading to increased survival of one species may generate a proportional increase in mortality of that species’ prey, which may have cascading ecological consequences that need consideration,” said Tomas Brodin, co-author of the study. “A new, conceptual view of ecotoxicological testing should include the possibility that a substance can improve the health of an organism and make individuals affected by contamination more competitive than non-affected individuals.”
Deadly Algae Are Everywhere, Thanks to Agriculture
Get used to algae blooms, they may be coming to a body of water near you
By David Biello
The rains come and water the spring shoots of another bounteous Midwestern corn crop in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. The rains also wash phosphorus off farm fields and into creeks, streams and rivers. The waters flow into the shallowest of the Great Lakes—Lake Erie, which is just 18 meters deep on average and far shallower on its western edge. All that phosphorus doesn’t just help crops grow. When it reaches the lake it fuels the growth of mats of bright green algae, turning the water the color of pea soup. Such Microcystis cyanobacteria bear poisons, at least 80 different varieties of a toxin dubbed microcystin. And when the shallow waters deliver an algal bloom down to the right water intake pipes, an entire city like Toledo is left without water.
“Most water treatment plants are watching for the toxin,” says Don Scavia, environmental engineer, director of the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan and an expert on such harmful algal blooms. “The options when it occurs are to treat it—very expensive—or to shut down.”
Such dangerous blooms are becoming more common, affecting all 50 states, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Just last year a township near Toledo had to shut down its water supply due to a similar bloom. And such blooms are not confined to freshwater. Offshore, similar algal blooms create dead zones; microbes consuming dead algae use up all the available oxygen in the water, killing slow-moving and sessile sea life. Such dead zones are on the rise not just on the U.S. seaboards and interior waters but worldwide. The annual ocean dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River covered an area roughly the size of Connecticut this year, after reaching Massachusetts-proportions in 2013. Freshwater blooms like the one that shut down Toledo’s drinking water cost the U.S. hundreds of millions of dollars each year, and also occur in countries such as Brazil and China.
Warmer summertime temperatures, more powerful rainstorms and longer growing seasons—all conditions expected to strengthen as climate change continues—will only make conditions even more hospitable for such cyanobacteria, some of the oldest life on Earth. The algae have been blooming earlier and lingering later in recent years. And ecosystem changes in Lake Erie may be contributing to the problem. “The zebra and quagga mussels in Lake Erie might also be important because they do not eat the Microcystis species, favoring their growth over others,” Scavia notes.
The bloom that shut down water supplies for Toledo is just getting started, though the tap water is now drinkable again. It will persist into the fall, likely peaking in September. And such blooms are not confined to Lake Erie: similar blooms have happened in Green Bay on Lake Michigan and Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay.
The microcystin toxin is quite dangerous—more potent at smaller doses than powerful pesticide DDT, neurotoxic mercury and even the poison cyanide. It can cause liver damage in humans as well as vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. Its cousin, anatoxin, poisons the central nervous system. Treatment requires adding chemicals and carbon to filter out the toxins. And drinking water cannot simply be boiled to kill off the algae because this can burst the cyanobacterial cells, releasing yet more toxin into the water.
The states surrounding Lake Erie thought they had solved the algal bloom problem by eliminating phosphates in detergents that had been getting into Lake Erie via sewage treatment plants. These measures cut such phosphorus from nearly 30,000 metric tons per year to just over 10,000. But “changes in farming practices have contributed to increased runoff,” explains David Dempsey, a policy advisor at the International Joint Commission (IJC). The independent body was created in 1909 by Canada and the U.S. to deal with shared waters like the Great Lakes; it released a report on the subject, “A Balanced Diet for Lake Erie: Reducing Phosphorus Loadings and Harmful Algal Blooms,” in February. “To some extent this is offsetting the improvements made by reducing phosphorus in detergents,” he adds.
Reducing phosphorus from farms will be much tougher challenge than cleaning sewage treatment plants, which was required by the U.S. Clean Water Act of 1972. So far, only voluntary programs have been put in place to fight runoff. “They aren’t enough,” says Rajesh Bejankiwar, leader of the IJC task force tackling phosphorus pollution in the Great Lakes. Farm fields in the Lake Erie Basin deliver nearly 640 grams of phosphorus per acre to that lake, or more than 60 percent of the phosphorus now reaching the water. As a result, the year 2011 saw the largest algal bloom in Lake Erie in recorded history. Exacerbating the problem are nutrients that flow in with waste from large animal farms as well as, still, the treated sewage from cities like Buffalo, Cleveland and Detroit.
The basic idea to cut back on runoff from farms is simple: apply only the right amount of fertilizer in a targeted way at the appropriate time exactly where it can do the most good for crops and have the least likelihood of simply running off in the rain. That means no more fall, winter or early spring application to prepare fields for the growing season, according to the IJC, among others. Buffer zones of foliage and wetlands can also help filter out the phosphorus but this marginal land has increasingly been used to grow yet more corn, as prices of the crop have risen in recent years, thanks to a federal mandate to make ethanol from corn as fuel for cars. “The most important thing that can be done is to reduce agricultural runoff,” Bejankiwar says. “Prevention is better than treatment.”
Source: Scientific American.
More about microcystin: See What Is Microcystin? on the Pure Water Gazette website.
Water News for the Week of August 11, 2014
Drought hits Central America’s crops, cattle. Nicaragua and the rest of Central America has been hit by a major drought that has killed thousands of cattle, dried up crops and forced cities to ration electricity.
Fertilizer pollution fears bubble up in wake of Toledo water crisis. As residents of Toledo, Ohio, and the surrounding region recover from a weekend without access to usable tap water – the fault of a toxic algae bloom on Lake Erie – the crisis has set off new calls for stricter rules on the use of fertilizers that cause the blooms to grow.
Humans have tripled mercury levels in upper ocean. Mercury levels in the upper ocean have tripled since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and human activities are to blame, researchers report.
Dry California fights illegal use of water for cannabis. When a statewide drought emergency was declared in January, “the first thing we wanted to address was water theft and marijuana,” said Carre Brown, a supervisor in Mendocino County, a major cannabis hub west of Lake County.
Drought prompts fish salvage in Reno ditches. Wading knee deep beneath drizzling skies, wildlife officials and volunteers worked Tuesday to rescue fish running out of water.
Ohio EPA’s July notes said Toledo’s water crisis plan is lacking. Nine days before an algae-induced water crisis sent metro Toledo’s 500,000 residents scurrying for bottled water, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency was hounding city officials to finish the latest version of their contingency plan for a water crisis.
Canadian residents using social media to challenge farm activity. Once upon a time, people would stop along the roads of Prince Edward Island to wave and take photographs of farmers working in their fields. Now there is a pesticide posse sweeping across the province, hunting down farming infractions and violations.
Flash flooding causes chaos across swathe of England. While much of the world is suffering under drought conditions, flash floods caused chaos in a swathe of England as a month’s worth of rainfall fell in the space of an hour. Eight-hundred homes in Cambridgeshire were left without power, the bank of the River Nene collapsed and an air display of Lancaster Bombers at RAF Coningsby in Linconshire had to be cancelled.
With uranium poisoning wells, Navajos must drive miles to get drinking water. Twice a week, the Yazzies come down off their lonely hill on the Navajo Reservation and point themselves toward the city for the clean water they need. For ages, they drank from a well less than a mile from their home. Then they learned that poison lurked there.
When World War II spawned the nation’s nuclear program and then a nuclear-arms race, companies came digging. They unleashed a radioactive element that would leach into wells and springs. Not until decades later — and decades after many of the mining companies departed — would Painted Desert inhabitants know the real hazards left to them. Even today, true cleanup is in its infancy, with an uncertain growth chart.
‘WaterFest’ generates goodwill, but concerns linger. When one event has cost you more than $10 million, it can’t hurt to spend a couple thousand dollars to generate goodwill. So West Virginia American Water gave out rubber duckies, tote bags and water bottles, and offered a backhoe as it opened up its Charleston treatment plant for a “WaterFest.”
After 15 years, Georgia ban on aquifer banking expires. The underground aquifer that coastal Georgia relies on for its main source of drinking water was considered so pristine that state lawmakers 15 years ago declared it off-limits to well drillers looking for a place to stash extra water for use in periods of drought. In some cases underground water banking can pollute aquifers with arsenic when dissolved oxygen in the injected water reacts with heavy metals in the rock, or injection equipment can sometimes introduce bacteria or chemicals from disinfectants into the aquifer, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Vibrio infections not confined to Florida, are steadily rising in Louisiana. A bacterium that thrives in warm saltwater, and infects swimmers through open cuts, made headlines last month for infecting 13 people in Florida and killing three. But vibrio vulnificus is not confined to state lines and, in fact, has infected 8 people this year in Louisiana.
AM4U in Rancho Cucamonga makes clothes without water, pollution. Bill Grier says the apparel industry is on the cusp of returning to Los Angeles and it is all due to a process he invented called infusion.
We can’t let agriculture destroy our environment. Are we prepared to sit back and leave our quality of life, our natural resources and our health up to the goodwill of agricultural producers?
Toxic utility pole treatment seen threatening water. The state’s utility regulators are about to launch an investigation into the use of a toxic chemical on utility poles around the state. Utilities have been using the chemical — fully aware of its risks — for years with permission from state regulators. PCP is still around.
Residents petition for removal of fluoride from water in Topsfield. Jeffy Demeter is part of a growing coalition of people in Massachusetts, and throughout the country, who are questioning the addition of fluoride to public water supplies.
In dry California, water goes to those who drill the deepest. The only sign of life sprouting out of a vast expanse of land in this unincorporated corner of Tulare County is a large drilling rig and two trucks laden with 1,000-foot-long drill pipes “Groundwater is our buffer against any climatic disturbance. We have, in the state of California, a lot of science, we’ve invested a lot of state money and effort. Yet, we continue to manage water without even mentioning climate change.”
The EPA in a Nutshell
by Hardly Waite
The EPA, aka USEPA, is an agency of the US Government that is charged with protecting human health and the nation’s environment by writing and enforcing regulations (which must be passed into law by Congress).
The EPA came into being on Dec. 3, 1970 as the result of a plan submitted to Congress by President Nixon. The agency now has about 18,000 full-time employees. The current administrator is Lisa Jackson. [Update: Gina McCarthy is the current administrator. She took over in July of 2013.]
The EPA has regulatory authority in such diverse areas a air quality, oil pollution, drinking water, fuel economy, and radiation protection. In regard to water, it is involved with the enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974.
The EPA is an often-maligned agency that is, unfortunately, subject to the political whims of changing administrations. Its authority was noticeably weakened during the years of the George W. Bush administration. In a 2008 survey conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists more than half of the nearly 1,600 EPA staff scientists who responded online to a detailed questionnaire reported they had experienced incidents of political interference in their work.
The EPA has the tough job of walking a tightrope between environmentalists and commercial interests. It is unpopular most of the time with both groups. It may not be a perfect system, but the nation would certainly be the worse without it.
The EPA sets the MCL (Maximum Contaminant Level) for selected chemical substances that can pollute water. We have often pointed out the MCL are “politically negotiated” rather than based on the best scientific evidence. The regulations can also be altered by judicial action. Here’s a cut from the EPA website that explains why there is currently no established limit for chloroform, a dangerous DBP and known cancer causer. It illustrates how the process works (and why you should not necessarily feel that you can rely on the government of monitor and protect against dangerous water contaminants). I hope you won’t mind that I snipped out some of the bureaucratic jargon to make it readable by humans.
Removal of the Maximum Contaminant Level Goal for Chloroform From the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations
In December, 1968 EPA Promulgated National Primary Drinking Water Regulations for disinfectants and disinfectant byproducts that included a MCLG (Maximum Contaminant Level Goal) of zero for chloroform. The MCLG was challenged by the Chlorine Chemistry Council and the Chemical Manufacturers Association, and the U. S. Court of Appeals for District of Columbia Circuit found that EPA had not used the best available, peer-reviewed science to set the MCLG as required by the Safe Drinking Water Act. The Court issued an order vacating the zero MCLG.
The EPA has removed the MCLG for chloroform from its NPDWRs to ensure that the regulations conform to the Court’s order. (You can read the full ruling on the EPA’s website.)
Reprinted from the Pure Water Occasional for October, 2011.
Ultrafiltration: Between Conventional Filters and Reverse Osmosis
by Gene Franks
In water treatment, the term “ultrafiltration” is used to describe a filtration process that separates out particles down into the 0.1 to 0.001 micron range.
That’s extremely small when compared with conventional filtration, but it’s large when compared with nanofiltration and reverse osmosis. Ultrafiltration is tight enough to strain out pesky colloidal particles that conventional filters can’t hold, and it rejects both organic and inorganic polymeric molecules. It cannot, however, remove ions and organics with low molecular weights (sodium, calcium, sulfate, for example), which are handled by reverse osmosis.
Molecular weight, in fact, is the yardstick by which ultrafiltration systems are usually measured. For example, an ultrafiltration membrane that removes dissolved solids with molecular weights of 10,000 is said to have a molecular weight cutoff of 10,000. Such a membrane has a nominal pore size of about 0.003 micron.
Compared with reverse osmosis, ultrafiltration membranes have extremely high flux rates. (Think of flux as the speed that the product water goes through the membrane.) They can also be operated at much lower pressure. As with reverse osmosis, temperature can have a great effect on performance, with lower temperature resulting in reduced flux rate.
Unlike conventional filters, ultrafiltration membranes do not trap and hold contaminants, but like the reverse osmosis membranes they act as a barrier, screening out contaminants until they are washed away. Ultrafiltration works in the same cross-flow separation method as reverse osmosis.
One great advantage of ultrafiltration membranes is that they can operate at pressures much lower than those required for reverse osmosis. In fact, UF systems usually operate at pressures below 100 psi, and 50 psi operation is common.
At this point, ultrafiltration has not been particularly successful in the residential water treatment market. It is widely used in industrial settings both for water and non-water applications. It can, for example, remove color from water, pre-treat for sea water desalination by reverse osmosis, separate oil from water, or remove bacteria or fine particulate. Typical industrial applications include clarification of fruit and vegetable juices, beer filtration, separating whey concentrates, cheese making, and purification of vitamins and antibiotics.
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