The Pure Water Occasional for January 5, 2015
In this first Occasional for 2015, you’ll hear about cold water swimming in Chicago, floods in Malaysia, sinkholes in Siberia, and, even rarer, rain in California. Stories about arsenic, fracking, Unitarians, nano-silver, bicarbonate alkalinity, diabetes drugs, high tech leak fixes, the evolution of bubblers, 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.)
The top 5 water stories in 2014
by Medilyn Manibo
Water was declared the ‘least on-track target’ by the United Nations even as companies and international organisations are paying more attention to water issues and investing in it.
The United Nations recognised water recycling as key to future water and energy needs. Organic matter extracted from treated wastewater offers potential for producing cleaner energy resources while providing additional supply of water to the growing global demand for this precious resource.
Water is the source of life, as the saying goes, but despite its importance, it remains the “least on-track target” of the millennium development goals (MDGs), according to a new report published by the United Nations in November.
As many as 1.8 billion people still use a source of drinking water that is contaminated and 1 billion defecate in the open, nine in 10 of whom live in rural areas. The UN water global analysis and assessment of sanitation and drinking water report attributes this to a lack of investment in water, hygiene and sanitation as well as government failure.
Chris Williams, executive director of the UN-based Water Supply & Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), said: “Many countries have really good strategies or targets, even business plans, but their ability to translate that into decentralised implementation programmes is really weak. This is the ultimate bottleneck.”
Companies and international organisations, however, are paying more attention to water issues as they realise how it forms a key aspect of their supply chains. In Asia, for example, investment in technologies such as water recycling, water treatment and desalination are on the rise.
Here’s our pick of the top five water stories for the year:
1. Human impact on a warming ocean
The year saw many climate science studies pointing to a warming ocean and the impact of acidification on marine resources and the marine economy, which many communities rely on for food and livelihood. Human activities also contributed significantly to the ocean’s degradation, with plastic trash being a key problem. A December study reported that 269,000 tonnes of litter have been dumped in the ocean.
Environmental groups sought to put a spotlight on Japan’s whaling activities, the threats of mining in the Great Barrier Reef. The year also saw the setting up of the world’s largest ocean sanctuary in Antarctica.
2. The water-energy nexus
On World Water Day in March, the United Nations published a report that highlighted the critical importance of water in energy production and urged governments and corporations to examine energy production in view of the industry’s water demand, which comprise 15 per cent globally. One of the key findings is that producing energy from fossil fuels puts a significant stress to freshwater availability.
Hydropower, long considered as a renewable source, also has a dark side and can pose threats to water security. Scientists released a new studywhich showed that the building of dams, mainly for hydropower projects, has been growing worldwide and will have a damaging effect on the world’s rivers.
The year saw various local communities and environmental groups in many parts of China, India, and the Southeast Asian countries in the Mekong delta such as Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, oppose these projects for being unsustainable and a threat to food security.
3. The economic value of protecting water
The Water Footprint Network said in a report in August that global efforts to protect water resources need to be stepped up and urged consumers to start calculating how much water a pair of jeans or a bite to a burger would cost the water sector. By being mindful of their water footprint, consumers can help to advocate the need for transparency in the global supply chain, the non-profit noted. Separately, in June, a new study by United States researchers found that water impact is highly overlooked in palm oil production.
At the same time, Asian investments in watersheds, the most natural basin and source of freshwater, is on the rise. Latest data from Forest Trends revealed that China led the region in terms of the number of investments in watershed protection. A study by the World Agroforestry Centre also highlighted the potential of agroforestry in saving watersheds from degradation.
4. Water recyling makes a big splash
The United Nations has identified the recycling of wastewater to be significant way to raise the sustainability of water for all. Some companies have already shown that water recycling could fill the gap in the increasing demand for water. For example, coal mining firm Anglo American in South Africa reported that through new water technologies, mine waste can be transformed to tap water and provide supply for about 80,000 consumers.
Singapore, recognised worldwide for its investment and success in water recycling, announced in September it will build its fifth water treatment plantfor reclaimed water. Scientists from the country’s Nanyang Technological University also announced a breakthrough in water filtration membrane that is cost-effective and more highly efficient than existing filtration systems.
Elsewhere in Asia, corporates such as multinational firm L’oreal is investing on water sustainability initiatives in its manufacturing plants in Asia, the latest of which is a new custom-built wastewater treatment plant in Indonesia that lowers the firm’s operational carbon, water and waste footprints.
5. The blue economy
In the United Kingdom, the Tidal Lagoon Swansea Bay offers an example of how to tap the marine economy by building a sustainable community that relies on tidal power for low carbon electricity, food security from aquaculture, and eco-tourism for their livelihood.
The Evolution of High Quality Drinking Water in the United States
Probably the most spectacular water event in 2014, a year of drought and controversy over fracking, was the leaking into West Virginia’s Elk River of ten thousand gallons of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol (MCHM), a chemical used to clean coal.
This Charleston incident served as the starting point of an excellent article on “The Politics of Drinking Water” by Anya Groner. Groner’s article takes a look at the history of America’s drinking water laws and customs. We usually think of advances in drinking water purity to starting with chlorination. We forget about steps like the evolutionary jump from shared public drinking cups to the “bubbler” and very successful strategies like moving the water uptake point away from the human pollution near the lakeshore to a point far out in the lake to prevent water-borne diseases.
Here are some excerpts from Anna Groner’s article:
Most Americans take cheap, safe drinking water for granted. Globally, one out of 10 people can’t access clean water. Some 1,400 children die each day from water-related diseases. Unless there’s a spill or equipment failure, these numbers exclude U.S. residents. Across the 50 states, 155,000 public water systems treat, filter, and deliver 100 gallons per person per day, all for the low cost of less than 1 cent per gallon.
1911 Drinking Fountain
Contaminant-free drinking water hasn’t always been part of the American experience. Until the early 1900s, shared public cups accompanied most drinking fountains. Cholera, typhoid fever, dysentery, and food poisoning from coliform bacteria—all potentially fatal—spread from mouth to cup and back again. Diarrhea was rampant. Not until 1899, when Kohler Water Works invented the Bubbler, which pumped a continuous flow of water an inch into the air, did a spout replace the cup. To partake, drinkers stooped over the copper basin and slurped. What wasn’t sucked up dripped down the nozzle. Clean water mingled with saliva. Though an improvement over the public cup, bacteria still flourished.
Humans weren’t the only creatures to suffer waterborne illness. In the late 19th century, 100,000 horses populated New York City’s streets, producing 26,000 gallons of urine daily. Concerned with dehydration, early chapters of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals advocated for the erection of “fountains for man and beast,” with large, street-side basins for horses, sidewalk basins for “the sons of men,” and low spouts for dogs. Glanders, an equine disease now eradicated in North America, proliferated. Lesions formed in the infected horses’ respiratory tracts, causing fevers; coughing; and, ultimately, septicemia (an inflammation of the blood). Within days of exposure, horses died. On occasion, the bacterium crossed species’ lines, taking the lives of cats, dogs, goats, and men.
Despite health hazards, drinking fountains became a fashionable social project. Prominent citizens appealed to city governments to build fountains “for the convenience of street passengers,” and the growing temperance movement boosted the cause. In 1859, a doctor named A. K. Gardner warned the Common Council of New York City that, “Men, and women, too… resort to drinking saloons and bar-rooms where they must ‘take a little something’ for the sake of a glass of water.” A New York Times editorial from the same year argued, “intemperance should be arrested… by putting fresh, good water freely within the reach of the wayfarer.” Water and sewerage boards, church temperance clubs, men’s associations, and tree planting societies took up the cause by writing letters, holding meetings, and raising money.
The ensuing fountains ranged from purely functional to “handsome bronze and marble affair[s]” designed more to flaunt wealth and memorialize family names than to quench public thirst. Rich patrons bequeathed fountains in their wills, and young people collected change to support upkeep. Newspapers supported this fetishization, printing the locales of new fountains alongside lists of prestigious attendees at inaugural festivities.
In 1892, when the Chicago World’s Fair coincided with a devastating typhoid outbreak, clean water became a matter of national safety. In the two years prior, Chicago suffered more typhoid-related deaths than any other city in the world. To protect the fair’s 27 million guests from infection, engineers designed plumbing that extended four miles into Lake Michigan where they hoped the water was contagion-free. Additional supplies were piped in from Waukesha, Wisconsin, and sold for a penny per glass. The innovations worked. When the fair opened to the public in 1893, infection rates dropped and the outbreak receded.
By 1900, germ theory—the belief that microscopic pathogens travel through air and water—took hold. New sanitation methods promised to eliminate these invisible threats. Redesigned Bubblers included arc projection, separating clean water from run-off, and the first disinfectant, a continuous dilute solution of chloride of lime, was added to the Boonton Reservoir in 1908, providing sterile, disease-free water to Jersey City. Nationwide, municipal treatment centers followed suit. Though gastroenteritis and norovirus infections occasionally broke out, germ-free water became the norm.
As tap water became safer, drinking fountains provided a staging ground for white Americans to act out fears of racial contamination. The rhetoric of sanitation—maintaining purity against an insidious threat—was used to justify Jim Crow laws. From 1876-1965, alongside hospitals, trains, lunch counters, voting booths, and highway passing lanes, drinking fountains became sites of Black exclusion. “White Only,” “Colored Only,” or simply “Colored” signs directed traffic. A 1963 pro-segregation speech titled “The Message from Mississippi” argued that separate fountains protected white citizens from “exposure” to bad morals, poor education, and improper hygiene: “There are many Negroes, of course, who have reached plateaus of citizenship. They are personally clean, have high morals and are educated. However, they are still in the minority.” In 1964, the Civil Rights Act mandated “equal enjoyment … of public accommodation,” ending segregated fountains and setting precedent for the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which legislated spout height and knee clearance to enable wheelchair access.
Although public water fountains have become more inclusive, they’ve also grown less desirable. Bottled water, the fastest-growing drink product in the U.S., is now the preferred way to hydrate. The anthropologist Martha Kaplan suggests that this “bottlemania” reflects post-9/11 skepticism of federally-protected water supplies. Participants in her study of American water consumption cited unclean pipes, pollution, unsavory smells, bad tastes, and fluoridation as reasons for preferring the corporate-produced, single-serve water bottle. In the Great Recession, Kaplan notes, “Bottled water [was] the only luxury people [could] still afford.”
Besides portability, bottled water offers few advantages over the fountain. Many popular brands—including Aquafina and Dasani—simply fill bottles with tap water. The difference in taste, when there is a difference, is most often caused by the disinfection process. Public treatment plants use chlorine while bottled water companies tend to adopt more costly methods: ultra violet light or ozonation. Not only is single-serve bottled water more expensive than gasoline—averaging $7.50 a gallon—the petroleum used to create the plastic of the bottle and the carbon released during its shipment incur environmental costs. Student organizations such as “Tap That” at Vassar College and “Take Back The Tap” at the University of Nevada attempt to reduce plastic bottle consumption. So far, over ninety colleges have restricted bottled water sales. Last March, San Francisco became the first city to create policy on the topic by banning distribution of single-serve, single-use bottled water on public properties.
Bottled water backlash has renewed enthusiasm for old-fashioned drinking fountains. Since 2013, the EPA has partnered with mayors to “reinvigorat[e] our nation’s supply” of these “iconic symbols of public health and welfare in our communities.” Companies have taken note. Both Elkay EZ and Halsey Taylor sell affordable retrofits: no-touch, sensor-activated spigots that turn neglected fountains into “HydroBoost” stations where passersby can top off reusable bottles. While consumers pause for their refill, electronic counters track how many plastic bottles they’ve diverted from landfills. Watching the display uptick feels good, akin to the sensation produced by a Facebook like or a favorited tweet.
Unlike oil, water is a renewable resource, replenished by rain and snowmelt. Even so, environmentalists warn that we’re tapping out our supply. Agriculture, industry, and household use deplete ecosystems faster than they can replenish. Many of the world’s biggest rivers—including the Indus, the Ganges, and the Colorado—often dry to sand before reaching the ocean. The Baltic Sea, central Lake Erie, the lower Mississippi River, and portions of the Gulf of Mexico are so polluted by fertilizers and sewage that they’ve become oxygen-deprived and are unable to support life.
As we near peak water, hydroclimatologist Peter Gleick warns that skirmishes over resources will intensify. “Water can be—and often is—a source of cooperation rather than conflict,” Gleick notes, “but conflicts over water are real.” Already Gleick’s organization, the Pacific Institute, has created a 5000-year timeline of water-related conflict. Highlights include Assyrians poisoning enemy wells with rye ergot in the 6th century B.C., the World War II targeting and destruction of Soviet hydroelectric dams, the U.S. bombing of North Vietnamese irrigation canals in the 1960s, and riots in Cape Town, South Africa in 2012 sparked by insufficient water supplies. By 2025, scientists predict that one in five humans will live in regions suffering from water scarcity, areas with insufficient resources to meet water usage demands.
You can read Anya Groner’s full article in The Atlantic.
Water News for the week ending January 5, 2015
A hardy group of people plunge into Lake Michigan every winter in support of a charity that finds homes for homeless greyhounds. For more pictures of shivering people, go here.
Floods kill 21 in Malaysia, waters recede. At least 21 people have been killed and eight others are missing after the worst flooding in decades across Malaysia’s northeast, police said Wednesday, with almost a quarter of a million people displaced.
Rain eases California drought anxiety, if not the actual drought, The small city of Orange Cove, at the doorstep of the Sierra Nevada in central California, was suffering the brunt of the state’s drought in April. Recent rain and new groundwater regulations have eased the crisis, but only slightly.
University of Nebraska agrees to finish cleanup of toxic wastes near Mead. The University of Nebraska has agreed to a settlement with the federal government on how to contain and continue the cleanup of toxic wastes dumped on university land near Mead during the 1970s and 1980s.
A view of a sinkhole, which stretches 20 meters by 30 meters, at the Solikamsk-2 mine in Russia’s Perm region. Click for a bigger picture.
One of the top water stories of 2014 were three massive sinkholes in northern Russia.
A 115-foot hole was discovered in Siberia’s Yamal peninsula — a name that means “end of the world” in the language of the area’s indigenous inhabitants — after an unexplained explosion in July. Two other mysterious sinkholes popped up in Russia’s north shortly after. Scientists believe gas explosions beneath the surface caused the sinkholes, but they haven’t been able to confirm that theory.
In November, a team of scientists, a medic and a professional climber plunged into the sinkhole to learn more about it, but the cause of the deep holes is still unknown.
New York’s ban on high-volume fracking rocks the foundations of ‘shale revolution.’ New York advocates say they’ll redouble their efforts to block pending fracking-related projects in the state while they try to coax the governor to take the logical next step: leading the nation towards renewable energy.
Lesions caused by arsenic.
Arsenic is a known human carcinogen, although it’s unclear how it causes cancer. Some studies have suggested that epigenetic modifications—specifically DNA methylation—may play a role in arsenic toxicity.In this issue of EHP, investigators identify gene-specific DNA methylation targets in white blood cells in a large study of Bangladeshi adults.
In addition to cancer, chronic exposure to arsenic in drinking water has been associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, peripheral neuropathy, respiratory diseases, and diabetes.
ssNew technologies that not only find leaks but fix them as well. In Great Britain, a fifth of treated water is lost to leaks before it reaches its destination. High tech solutions are in the works. Read the Guardian article about how digital tools can prevent water loss.
A look back at the year’s biggest environmental stories and a peek ahead. What’s in the water? We can tell you. What’s in your food? You don’t want to know. Here’s a look at the big environmental health stories that shaped 2014 and a glimpse at what’s to come in 2015.
Ship collision causes 33,000 barrel oil spill off Singapore. An oil tanker and a bulk carrier collided off Singapore on Friday, causing a crude oil spill, the Maritime and Port Authority.
Unitarians try to create lasting change after W. Virginia water crisis. In the wake of the Freedom Industries leak that fouled the water of roughly 300,000 West Virginians nearly a year ago, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Charleston called out to several hundred other UU chapters for help.
Silver as a bacteria killer under review
The EPA is under pressure to change its method of regulating nanosilver partices that are now used in many commercial products a microbe killers. Silver has been used for years to product “bacteriostatic” qualities in water treatment products. Silver-impregnated carbon was very popular in small home water filters in the 1990s, for example. The following is information from a Civil Eats article.
If you haven’t heard of nanosilver, you’re definitely not alone. But that doesn’t mean these tiny silver particles intended to kill bacteria aren’t ending up in your food. There are now over 400 consumer products [PDF] on the market made with nanosilver. These include many intended for use with food, among them cutting boards, cutlery, pans, storage containers, espresso machines, water filters, baby bottles, and refrigerators.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers nanosilver a pesticide and requires products that contain–or are treated with this germ-killer–to be registered with and approved for use by the agency. But most of the nanosilver products now on the market have not been reviewed, let alone approved by the EPA.
Just a few weeks ago, in an attempt to close this loophole, the Center for Food Safety, the Center for Environmental Health, Clean Production Action, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and other nonprofits filed suit against the EPA for failing to respond to their 2008 petition [PDF], asking the agency to regulate all products containing nanosilver as pesticides.
Why all the fuss?
As the name implies, nanosilver is silver used at the nanoscale, in the realm of billionths of a meter. To put this in perspective, one strand of human hair is about 50,000 to 80,000 nanometers wide. What makes nanomaterials so interesting to scientists designing new materials is that at this infinitesimal scale, materials can behave entirely differently than they do at either the macro or micro scales.
At the nanoscale, materials can take on chemical, physical, and biological properties that they might not otherwise have. And there are still many of unknowns, even in the scientific community, about how nanomaterials behave.
It is known that nanosilver can kill bacteria and microbes, so manufacturers are including it as a sort of antiseptic safeguard in food contact products that might harbor bacteria (i.e., that pesky cutting board on your kitchen counter.) But exactly how nanosilver behaves once released into the environment or absorbed into the human body, is not yet well understood. A number of studies show that consumer products, including textiles and plastics, can shed nanosilver particles. In fact, these particles have been detected in wastewater and sewage sludge.
Among the concerns raised by the growing use of nanosilver as antimicrobial agents in consumer products, explains Center for Food Safety’s Senior Policy Analyst Jaydee Hanson, is that it, like other antibacterial ingredients, “may lead to bacteria becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics.”
Despite the many gaps in understanding the environmental and human health impacts of nanomaterials, the EPA has already granted what’s called “conditional approval” to some nanosilver products, saying the silver released will not cause unreasonable adverse effects.
Common diabetes medication among drugs found in Lake Michigan
by John Fauber
There is more than one way to measure prescription drug use in modern society.
The most direct method is just to count up prescriptions filled by America’s pharmacies. That would show, for instance, that more than 180 million prescriptions for diabetes drugs were dispensed in 2013.
Or you could test the treated water coming out of sewage facilities such as the South Shore plant in Oak Creek.
That approach reveals that in the Lake Michigan waters outside the plant, the diabetes drug metformin was the most common personal care product found by researchers with the School of Freshwater Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
More importantly, according to their latest research, the levels of metformin were so high that the drug could be disrupting the endocrine systems of fish.
Last month, a Journal Sentinel/MedPage Today investigation found booming sales of diabetes drugs, which in 2013 had grown to more than $23 billion.
Metformin is a first-line treatment for type 2 diabetes and is the most commonly prescribed medicine for the condition. In 2013, about 70 million prescriptions were dispensed, according to IMS Health, a drug market research firm.
It is so ubiquitous it can easily be found in water samples taken two miles off the shore of Lake Michigan.
“I was kind of a surprise,” said Rebecca Klaper, a professor of freshwater science at UWM. “It was not even on our radar screen. I said, ‘What is this drug?’ ”
The drugs get into the sewage and eventually the lake because they are not broken down completely after they are consumed and then excreted.
The metformin concentrations are low, compared with the amount taken by people.
For instance, coming right out of the treatment plant the levels are about 40 parts per billion. About two miles away, they drop to 120 parts per trillion.
Other commonly found substances include caffeine, sulfamethoxazole, an antibiotic, and triclosan, an antibacterial and antifungal found in soap and other consumer products.
Klaper co-authored a 2013 science journal paper on the finding as well as another one this year.
The more recent research suggests that metformin in lake water is not just a curious artifact of everyday life.
The study looked at the effect of metformin on fathead minnows in the lab that were exposed to the drug at levels found in the lake for four weeks.
It found gene expression suggesting disruption of the endocrine system of male fish, but not females. In essence, the males were producing biochemicals that are associated with female minnows. The biochemicals are precursors to the production of eggs.
Klaper said that because the minnows are a stand-in for other fish, the changes also could be affecting other species such as perch, walleye and northern pike.
The UWM research confirms what others have found regarding prescription drugs showing up in America’s lakes, rivers and streams, said Melissa Lenczewski, an associate professor of geology and environmental geosciences at Northern Illinois University.
For years, it was assumed that the volume of water in the Great Lakes was so enormous that any drugs that got through treatment facilities would be diluted to the point that they would not pose a problem, said Lenczewski, who was not a part of the UWM study.
That theory itself now is being diluted.
In addition, strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria also have been found in water near those farms, she said.
“It is very alarming how much we are putting drugs out there in the environment,” she said.
Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Pure Water Gazette technical writer Pure Water Annie explains alkalinity, aka “bicarbonate alkalinity”
The Water Quality Association defines alkalinity as “the quantitative capacity of water to neutralize an acid.” In other words, it’s a measurement of how much acid can be added to water without changing its pH.
Alkalinity in water is usually made up of bicarbonate (HC03), carbonate (CO3) and/or Hydroxide (OH), but phosphates and silicates can also play a role.
The related term, “total alkalinity,” frequently called TA, is defined as “the amount of acid required to lower the pH of the sample to the point where all of the bicarbonate [HCO3-] and carbonate [CO3–] could be converted to carbonic acid [H2CO3].”
Although alkalinity is related to pH, it isn’t the same thing. High levels of alkalinity stabilize the pH, but water does not have to have a high pH to have a high level of alkalinity. As alkalinity is the capacity of water to neutralize its acidic content, alkalinity therefore measures how much acid can be added to a water body without changing the pH level significantly
Alkalinity is not regulated as a water contaminant, but it is often tested since it is a factor in amending and controlling pH.
Treatment of Alkalinity: In most cases, there is no reason to want to alter the water’s alkalinity itself, but changing alkalinity is often involved in changing the pH. Neutralizing treatments with such items as Soda Ash or limestone (calcite) usually raise the alkalinity level as well as the pH. Adding an acid like citric acid or vinegar lowers pH. This is most often accomplished in residential treatment by use of a chemical feed pump.
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