What’s In Your Water? Part 2

Last updated on August 28, 2022.

Green dye flowing into a river that also has a white film floating in it.
Photo by the Massachusetts Dept. of Environmental Protection on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

“We are amid a major water crisis that is beyond anything you can imagine. Pollution problems persist and toxins are everywhere, stemming from the hazardous wastes of industry and agriculture. We’ve got more than forty thousand chemicals on the market today with only a few hundred being regulated.” -Erin Brockovich1

Water Treatment is Necessary

All water is reused, including the water we dump down drains and the contents we flush in toilets. Water treatment facilities “clean” the water by removing solids – including sewage – and treat the water with chemicals. Water has microorganisms, bacteria, and viruses, so it is necessary to treat the water with chemicals so that is safe to drink. However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doesn’t research or regulate all of those chemicals. As Erin Brockovich noted, “Scientists still have little data about how individual chemicals impact our health, and know even less about the effects of multiple chemicals on the body.”2

“So there is shit in the water; I’d have to make peace with that.” -Elizabeth Royte, Bottlemania: Big Business, Local Springs, and the Battle Over America’s Drinking Water

Aerial view of a Wastewater treatment plant.
Wastewater treatment plant, image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

Toxic Contaminants Linked to Cancer

Many contaminants are linked to illnesses and health issues, including cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be approximately 1,918,030 new cancer cases in 2022.3 But what is causing all of these cancer cases? Though some cancer may be from genetics or lifestyle, I’m convinced that most cancer is due to exposure to chemicals.

In 2019, researchers revealed that between 2010 and 2017, more than 100,000 cases of cancer were likely caused by the accumulation of carcinogenic chemicals in tap water. They cited arsenic, disinfection byproducts, and radioactive contaminants as the major contaminants, but they also noted that other toxins that are not monitored, such as PFASs and PFOAs, may also contribute to cancer cases.4

“How much of any toxic substance can a human body ingest and still be well? -Erin Brockovich5

Children Are Getting Cancer Too

Cancer affects our children globally. In the U.S., cancer is diagnosed annually in about 400,000 children aged 19 or under. It is the leading cause of death by disease past infancy for children.6 As Erin Brockovich wrote, children “don’t smoke, drink alcohol, or work stressful jobs.” So why are so many getting cancer? Children are more vulnerable to chemical toxins than adults because they have higher metabolisms and less mature immune systems.7 We need more research but suspicion should be enough to tell us that there’s a problem.

“American children are growing up exposed to more chemicals than any other generation in history and it shows.” -Erin Brockovich8

Colorful oil floating in water.
Photo by Steve Snodgrass on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

How Do These Contaminants End Up in Our Water?

Contaminants in our water come from many sources. Besides water treatment chemicals, corporations that discharge toxic wastewater and chemicals into the groundwater and surrounding environment pollute the water. Improperly lined landfills leach toxins into groundwater. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, forces chemicals into the ground to release natural gas and those get into the water supply. The toxins from gasoline and oil spills get into the water. Pharmaceuticals are now in our water supply too.

Herbicides and pesticides applied to large agricultural plots get into the water supply from run-off, meaning rainwater washes some of them away and they get into the water supply. Big agriculture dumps animal waste into our waterways, both directly and indirectly. Tyson Foods, for example, was caught several times directly dumping tons of animal waste into waterways. Indirectly, animal farms maintain hog lagoons to collect animals’ feces and store them in ponds. During floods, those ponds overflow and mix with all of the water and enter the water supply.

Aerial view of a farm, the pink pond at the bottom of the image is an example of a Hog Lagoon, in north Carolina
The pink pond at the bottom of the image is an example of a Hog Lagoon, in North Carolina. Photo by The Waterkeeper Alliance on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Image slightly cropped and fade corrected.

“We assume watchdogs are in place and that regulatory agencies and government standards are keeping us safe…Big businesses rule the roost, dumping their leftover chemicals wherever they like with little regard for our safety.” -Erin Brockovich9

Improve Infrastructure and Treatment

Landfill leachate at a place called Maendy. The orange froth is a mixture of solvents, phenols and other chemicals from a landfill
Landfill leachate in Wales. The orange froth is a mixture of solvents, phenols and other chemicals from a landfill created before regulations. Photo by richie rocket on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Governmental and municipal agencies across the United States must upgrade antiquated water infrastructure and water treatment practices. “The technology we rely on for treating most of our drinking water is almost a century old and many of our water treatment plants have been in operation since the early twentieth century.”10

“It’s enough to make a tap lover cry.” -Elizabeth Royte11 

Monitor Pollution

Federal, state, and local government agencies must supervise industries and monitor for pollution since we know we cannot rely on the industries to self-regulate or self-report. “Unsupervised industry pollution combined with failing infrastructure is a recipe for disaster. To add insult to injury, the more polluted the water becomes, the more chemicals we need to treat it.”12 Otherwise, cancer and related illness will continue to grow.

“We’ve had industrial byproducts discarded into the ground and into our water supply for years. The companies who dump these toxins know it. They have always known it. The government knows it too. These issues affect everyone – rich or poor, black or white, Republican or Democrat. Large and small communities everywhere think they are safe when they are not.” -Erin Brockovich13
Aerial view of the San José-Santa Clara Regional Wastewater Facility.
Aerial view of the San José-Santa Clara Regional Wastewater Facility. Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

What Can You Do?

As I mentioned earlier, water treatment is necessary. But many contaminants in water aren’t just from disinfection, as mentioned in Part 1. Find out what’s in your water by using the Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database. Then learn more about those contaminants in my list of Common Water Contaminants. Educate others, advocate through community and municipal meetings, call your water company and local politicians, and don’t take no for an answer.

Please don’t switch to bottled water. This may sound counterintuitive but it is largely a scam. It provides a false sense of security, as the water source for most bottled water is tap water.

In the meantime, review how you’re filtering your water at home. Most water filter systems don’t remove all contaminants. In my next article, I’m going to cover how to filter out the contaminants you are most concerned about. Stayed tuned, and thanks for reading!

 

Additional Resources:

Database, Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database.

Website, Waterkeeper Alliance.

Website, Erin Brockovich.

Interactive Map, “PFAS Contamination in the U.S.,” Environmental Working Group, updated October 4, 2021.

Map, “Contaminant Occurrence Map,” Water Quality Research Foundation.

Article, “Health Professionals: Fracking Can’t Be Done Without Threatening Public Health,” Environmental Working Group, March 16, 2018.

Map, Oil and Gas Threat Map.

 

Footnotes:

What’s In Your Water? Part 1

Photo of a person pouring water into a glass from a kitchen faucet, with a splash.
Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash

There are many pitfalls when it comes to finding safe, chemical-free drinking water. Like a lot of people, when I was younger I drank my fair share of bottled water, thinking it was cleaner, healthier than soda, and readily available. I even reused the same plastic bottles over and over to try and minimize my use of plastic. In the mid-2000s I became aware of the dangers of chemicals leaching into water from single-use plastic bottles. So I immediately made the switch to tap water and never looked back.

For my home tap water, I’ve almost always used Brita water pitchers for drinking water. I thought I was filtering out whatever harmful chemicals and potential toxins that the water company didn’t filter out, hence making my water even safer to drink.

Only now am I finding out how wrong I was!

A Broken Brita pitcher

Brita filter pitcher with broken handle and orange top.
My broken Brita pitcher.

After beginning my journey toward plastic-free living, I had to address the plasticity of my Brita pitcher and its filters. At the time, I decided that using a home water filtration system was best since I didn’t want to buy bottled water, especially in plastic bottles. Also, I discovered that you can recycle Brita’s plastic filters, pitchers, and even the filter wrappers through a free TerraCycle program.1 I save all the waste and ship it off about once per year.

Our Brita water pitcher cracked at the handle about 3 years ago, probably because the company makes them out of cheap plastic (though Brita does not disclose what type of plastic is used in their pitchers, only that they are ‘BPA-Free’). We did not drop it or bang it on the sink or anything, we simply filled it and poured it. We kept using it because I refused to purchase another plastic pitcher, ‘recyclable’ or not. But now the handle has completely broken off.

Shopping Leads to Discoveries

On a recent shopping trip, I decided to replace my broken water pitcher. In the process, I discovered that there is more than one type of filter for Brita, and they offer different levels of filtration. It turns out that the different levels filter different contaminants. This immediately gave me pause. Was my family, drinking city-treated tap water while trying to avoid plastic, still exposed to toxins and chemicals in our water?

Additionally, there were many brands of water filtration systems, all offering promises of “cleaner” and “safer” drinking water. I soon felt overwhelmed and undereducated about water filtration, so I left the store without purchasing one. I planned to research water filtration systems, purchase one, and share my research with you.

But it’s much more complicated than I thought. And I discovered that our water situation is much worse than I ever knew.

Kitchen sink with faucet running.
Image by Karolina Grabowska from Pixabay

What’s In Your Water?

When I searched online for a comprehensive comparison of home water filtration systems, I kept seeing the same advice over and over again: Find out what’s in your water. Then select a water filtration system based on that. I found my way to the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG’s) Tap Water database, the most ambitious collection of data regarding tap water pollutants. “The database collects mandatory annual test reports from 2014 to 2019, produced by almost 50,000 water utilities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.”2 The data is comprised of water quality analysis from more than 31 million state water records.

“For too many Americans, turning on their faucets for a glass of water is like pouring a cocktail of chemicals. Lead, arsenic, the “forever chemicals” known as PFAS and many other substances are often found in drinking water at potentially unsafe levels, particularly in low-income and underserved communities…[our database] reveals that when some Americans drink a glass of tap water, they’re also potentially getting a dose of industrial or agricultural contaminants linked to cancer, brain and nervous system damage, fertility problems, hormone disruption and other health harms.”-Environmental Working Group3

My Water

On EWG’s tap water database, I entered my zip code and found my water provider.4 What I discovered was so alarming that I almost cried!

Screenshot of the 7 contaminents found in my local water.

Above are just the contaminants that exceed EWG’s guidelines. My family’s tap water has 13 times the recommended limit on hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen made famous by the Erin Brockovich cases against PG&E since the 1990s. However, though I’d maybe heard of some of the other contaminants, I was not familiar with their toxicity or threats to human health.

“The [Environmental Protection Agency] standards were negotiated based on the technical feasibility and cost of water treatment and did not consider the long-term toxicity of these contaminants.” -Environmental Working Group5

Hexavalent Chromium

Chromium is an odorless, tasteless, metallic element that occurs naturally. Hexavalent chromium compounds are a group of chemicals with properties like corrosion resistance, durability, and hardness. These compounds have been used in the manufacture of pigments, metal finishing and chrome plating, stainless steel production, leather tanning, and wood preservatives. They have also been used in textile-dyeing processes, printing inks, drilling muds, fireworks, water treatment, and chemical synthesis.6 It may even be present at low levels in cement, which is used in concrete, mortar, stucco, and grouts.7

Also known as Chromium-VI, it was commonly used as a coolant and anti-corrosive at natural gas plants and electrical power stations. If not handled or discharged properly, it can seep into the groundwater and poison those who use the water, as was the case in the Erin Brockovich lawsuits. It can be ingested, inhaled, and absorbed through the skin.

It is a known carcinogen, causing stomach cancer, lung cancer, nasal and sinus cancers, kidney and liver damage, malignant tumors, nasal and skin irritation and ulceration, dermatitis, eye irritation and damage.8 It also causes all manner of reproduction problems to both males and females. Worse, it can cause developmental problems in fetuses. Other reported effects include mouth ulcers, diarrhea, abdominal pain, indigestion, vomiting, leukocytosis, presence of immature neutrophils, metabolic acidosis, acute tubular necrosis, kidney failure, and death.

“The EPA’s national survey of chromium-6 concentrations in drinking water revealed that the contaminant was found in more than three-fourths of water systems sampled, which supply water to more than two-thirds of the American population,” or approximately 232 million Americans.9

EPA has a drinking water standard of 100 parts per billion (ppb) for total chromium. This includes all forms of chromium, including trivalent (non-toxic) and hexavalent chromium.10 Based on a 2008 study by the National Toxicology Program, the California Office of Health Hazard Assessment set a public health goal in 2011 for chromium-6 in drinking water of 0.02 parts per billion. However, “the safety review of the chemical by the Environmental Protection Agency has been stalled by pressure from the industries responsible for chromium-6 contamination.”11 In other words, hexavalent chromium is allowed to be in our tap water in great quantities.

“It’s been common knowledge in the scientific community for years that people who inhale hexavalent chromium can contract lung cancer. Is it really so surprising that swallowing it also leads to cancer?” -Erin Brockovich12

Glass of drinking water
Image by Bruno Henrique from Pixabay

Total Trihalomethanes

Total trihalomethanes (TTHMs) refer to a group of harmful contaminants known collectively as disinfection byproducts. They are found in chemically treated water, which includes municipal tap water. These are formed when chlorine or other disinfectants used to treat drinking water react with plant and animal waste in drinking water supplies. But drinking water must be treated to prevent microbial diseases and pathogens. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) asserts that though necessary, “every measure must also be taken to decrease the amount of disinfection byproducts in finished drinking water served at the tap.”13

Four trihalomethanes include chloroform, bromoform, bromodichloromethane, and dibromochloromethane. The EPA’s legal limit for these in tap water is 80.0 ppb. But the healthy limit recommendation is 0.15 ppb, proposed by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) and adopted by EWG. Disinfection byproducts increase the risk of bladder cancer, pregnancy problems (including miscarriage), cardiovascular defects, neural tube defects, change to fetal development, and low birth weight. The EPA classified bromodichloromethane and bromoform as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”14 People are exposed to these by using water with these contaminants, whether it is drinking, eating food prepared with it, and bathing or swimming.

Bromodichloromethane is found in 48 states and is in the water of approximately 237 million Americans.15

“The federally regulated disinfection byproducts are just a small subset of a larger group of toxic contaminants that form during water disinfection. Hundreds of other disinfection byproducts form in drinking water and may harm human health.”- Environmental Working Group16

Close up image of a water/drinking fountain.
Image by Jason Gillman from Pixabay

Haloacetic Acids

This is another group of contaminants known as disinfection byproducts. The EPA’s legal limits for these are 60 ppb. But the healthy limit recommendation is 0.10 ppb, proposed by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) and adopted by EWG. In 2018, the National Toxicology Program classified six haloacetic acids as likely carcinogens.17 “Haloacetic acids are harmful during pregnancy and may increase the risk of cancer. Haloacetic acids are genotoxic, which means that they induce mutations and DNA damage.”18

Haloacetic acids are found in tap water in all 50 states and affect the water of approximately 260 million Americans.

Nitrate

Nitrate, one of the most common contaminants in drinking water, gets into water from fertilizer runoff, manure from animal feeding operations, and wastewater treatment plant discharge. “Tap water in agricultural areas frequently has the highest nitrate concentrations. Private drinking water wells in the vicinity of animal farms and intensively fertilized fields, or in locations where septic tanks are commonly used, can also have unsafe levels of nitrate,” even excessive levels.19

The legal limit of 10 mg/L (milligrams per liter, equivalent to parts per million), for nitrate, was set in 1992. “This standard was based on a 1962 U.S. Public Health Service recommendation to prevent acute cases of methemoglobinemia, known as blue baby syndrome, which can occur when an infant’s excessive ingestion of nitrate leads to oxygen deprivation in the blood.” The EWG recommended level of nitrate in drinking water is 0.14 mg/L, which is 70 times less than the federal limit.20 Nitrate is found in the water of 49 states and affects approximately 237 million people.21

Besides the effect on babies, nitrate is associated with thyroid disease, cancers, increased heart rate, nausea, headaches, and abdominal cramps.22 Worse, nitrate converts into other compounds in the digestive system, and they damage DNA and cause cancer in multiple species.23

“Nitrate pollution of U.S. drinking water may be responsible for up to 12,594 cases of cancer a year.”24

Radium

Radium is a radioactive element that can occur naturally in groundwater. But coal, oil, and gas extraction activities such as hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and mining can elevate concentrations in groundwater. Radium causes bone cancer; tumors in bone, lungs, and other organs; leukemia; and skin and blood damage. More than a dozen different radioactive elements are detected in U.S. tap water, including beryllium, radon, strontium, tritium, and uranium. But radium is the most common. These affect the water of approximately 165 million Americans. In addition to causing cancers, these may damage the nervous, immune, and endocrine systems. Worse,  radiation can harm fetal growth, cause birth defects, and damage brain development.25

Radium in water is measured in picocuries per liter (pCi/L), which is a measure of radioactivity in water. The current EPA legal limit, not updated since 1976, is 5 pCi/L but the EWG’s recommended limit is 0.05 pCi/L. It is found in the water systems of 49 states and affects approximately 148 million people.26

Other Contaminants in My Water

There were 6 other contaminants detected but under the recommended limits of the Environmental Working Group (EWG). These included chlorate, chloroform, total chromium, manganese, strontium, and vanadium.

Photo of a bird drinking water from a pipe with a green foliage background.
Image by 165106 from Pixabay

Now What?

I was most shocked because, in my area, the water utility we are on is considered one of the best around. It is in compliance with legally mandated federal health-based drinking water standards. So what happened?

As it turns out, almost everyone’s water is contaminated.

But how did the water in the United States get so tainted with chemicals and toxins? More importantly, what can I do about it? Can I filter these toxins out? In my next articles, I’ll explore the different water filtration systems and how our water became so contaminated and polluted. In the meantime, please investigate the contaminants in your own water at EWG’s Tap Water Database. I’ve also compiled a list of Common Water Contaminants. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Erin Brockovich: the real story of the town three decades later,” bABC News, June 10, 2021.

Article, “Drinking Water Nitrate and Human Health: An Updated Review,” by Ward, Mary H et al. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 15, No.7, July 23, 2018

Footnotes:

There’s DDT in the Ocean

DDT is good for me advertisement with a woman, cow, dog, chicken, apple and potato singing.
‘DDT is good for me’ advertisement. Detail of Penn Salt chemicals advertisement in Time Magazine June 30, 1947. AP2 .T37 v.49 pt. 2. Provided by the Crossett Library at Bennington College on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In late 2020, scientists discovered that up to 500,000 barrels of DDT, a highly toxic and banned pesticide, had been dumped in the Pacific Ocean near Santa Catalina Island in Southern California. To make matters worse, the barrels are leaking. Some barrels, unbelievably, are leaking because they were deliberately punctured to make them sink easier. DDT is super toxic, so how did this happen?

Montrose Chemical Corporation

Montrose Chemical was the nation’s largest manufacturer of DDT, located in Los Angeles. Starting in 1947 and continuing through 1961 (and perhaps even later), the company instructed its employees to transport barrels of DDT and acid sludge waste and dump them into the ocean. 

This is in addition to a DDT deposit of about 110 tons on the ocean floor off the Palos Verdes Peninsula, covering 17 square miles of ocean floor. From 1947 until 1971, Montrose discharged DDT into Los Angeles County sewers that empty into the ocean. It is the largest known deposit of DDT in the world and the EPA declared it a Superfund site in 1996. The fish found in the Palos Verdes Shelf area contain high concentrations of DDT as well as PCBs.

So for decades, Montrose Chemical dumped DDT and DDT acid sludge both down the drains and into the ocean. But the barrels likely caused far more damage. According to the Los Angeles Times, a sediment sample showed DDT concentrations 40 times greater in the ocean floor from the barrel dumpings than the highest contamination recorded at the Superfund site created by the DDT sewer discharges.1

Now back at that time, the common ‘wisdom’ was that the ocean was so big that it would dilute even the most dangerous poisons. It’s hard to believe now that ocean dumping was an accepted practice then, but laws protecting the ocean didn’t exist. “Federal ocean dumping laws dated back to 1886, but the rules were focused on clearing the way for ship navigation. It wasn’t until the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act of 1972, also known as the Ocean Dumping Act, that environmental impacts were considered.”2

There have been several lawsuits filed against Montrose and its successor company, Bayer Corporation. As of October 2021, the companies settled and have agreed to pay for the cleanup of contaminated groundwater at the Montrose Chemical Superfund sites in Los Angeles County. In May 2021, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against Montrose and Bayer. It calls for the companies to take responsibility for the areas affected by the DDT barrel dumping.3

 But the damage is already done. 

The Los Angeles Times wrote a comprehensive and fascinating series of articles on the Montrose DDT ocean dumping. I’ve listed them under Additional Resources and I encourage you to read them.

“DDT — the all-but-indestructible compound dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, which first stunned and jolted the public into environmental action — persists as an unsolved and largely forgotten problem.” -Los Angeles Times4

DDT’s History

While many people have heard of DDT, and may even be generally aware that it is ‘bad,’ they do not know exactly what it is or how it was used.

DDT, or dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, was first concocted by a German chemist in 1874. But someone discovered it was powerful as a synthetic insecticide in the 1940s. “It was initially used with great effect to combat malaria, typhus, and the other insect-borne human diseases among both military and civilian populations. It also was effective for insect control in crop and livestock production, institutions, homes, and gardens.”5

The military used DDT to treat and prevent lice in soldiers during World War II. “The U.S. Army’s chief of preventive medicine, Brig. Gen. James Simmons, famously praised the chemical as ‘the war’s greatest contribution to the future health of the world.'”6 After WWII, it was sprayed everywhere and sold in household products and in lice treatments. Companies even advertised it as safe for children.

"No Flies on Me Thanks to DDT - Black Flag" vintage advertisement with a photo of a baby
“No Flies on Me Thanks to DDT – Black Flag” vintage advertisement. Uploaded by Seth Anderson on Flickr, Creative Commons license, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

For decades, this chemical was used in neighborhoods, recreation areas, agricultural areas, and farms. Fogging trucks sprayed it in residential areas, such as neighborhoods and beaches, and airplanes sprayed over vast swaths of agricultural land. “During the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, approximately 675,000 tons of DDT were applied to U.S. soil. The peak year for use in the United States was 1959 – nearly 80 million pounds were applied.”7

1962. TBM spraying DDT. Western spruce budworm control. Yakima, Washington.
1962. TBM plane spraying DDT. Western spruce budworm control. Yakima, Washington. Credit: USDA Forest Service, Region 6, State and Private Forestry, Forest Health Protection.

“During summers in New Jersey, I remember the fog machine – at least, that’s what we called it, the fog machine; we loved it because it spewed out this mist, and my sisters and I would go riding after it on our bicycles so we could get lost in the fog. I remember our mother screaming at us to get away from it, just screaming. These were exterminators, who came almost every evening in the summer when the sun was setting, to kill mosquitos…I cannot imagine how they sprayed pesticides like that every night, and that kids were allowed to be out there in it.” -Alice Waters, referring to DDT fogging trucks8

DDT spraying on Darwin's RAAF Base Fogging Machine 1962, Australia,
“Photograph 0078 – Darwin’s RAAF Base Fogging Machine 1962,” Australia, photo uploaded by Ken Hodge on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Banning DDT

Studies into the effects of DDT started as early as 1945, and scientists discovered fish, birds, and mammals died from exposure to it. Rachel Carson, a writer, scientist, and ecologist who worked for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, wrote some of the press releases about these studies and proposed writing a story for Reader’s Digest to reach a wider audience. But the publication turned her down. The New Yorker released Silent Spring as a series, and then Carson published the book in 1962.9 It “exposed the hazards of the pesticide DDT, eloquently questioned humanity’s faith in technological progress and helped set the stage for the environmental movement.”10

At the very end of 1972, the EPA banned DDT use based on its adverse environmental effects, such as those to wildlife, as well as being a human carcinogen. Carson, herself, died of breast cancer at age 56, in 1964. She was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980.

“We have seen that [pesticides] now contaminate soil, water, and food, that they have the power to make our streams fishless and our gardens and woodlands silent and birdless.” -Rachel Carson

Painted Sloss DDT advertisement on the side of a building, 6% DDT
“Sloss DDT advert[isement]” by Francis Storr on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0)

DDT is Extremely Toxic and Poisonous 

DDT is highly persistent in the environment and in the body, meaning it does not dissolve or wash away. After the use of DDT was banned in the U.S., its concentration in the environment and animals has decreased, but because of its persistence, it still poisons.1314 

DDT is absorbed by ingesting, breathing, or touching products contaminated with the chemical. But people are most likely to be exposed to DDT from eating meat, fish, and dairy products. In the body, DDT is converted into several breakdown products called metabolites. One of these includes the metabolite dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene (DDE). Both DDT and DDE are bio accumulators, meaning the chemicals accumulate in the body’s fatty tissues. In pregnant women, DDT and DDE can be passed to the fetus and both chemicals are found in breast milk.15

“How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?” -Rachel Carson16

Brown pelican close-up, with ocean water in background.
Brown Pelican, photographed in La Jolla, California. Photo by Y S on Unsplash

Endangered Species

DDT completely infiltrates the environment and food chain. “When it rained, DDT would wash off the soil and into the waterways. There, aquatic plants absorbed it and animals ingested it. Fish ate the plants and animals, and then eagles ate the fish.”17 It works its way up the food chain.

A pair of Bald Eagles in their nest in a tree at Bonita Bay, Florida
A pair of Bald Eagles in their nest at Bonita Bay, Florida, February 16, 2021. Photo by J Dean on Unsplash

DDT in Our Environment Today

DDT doesn’t go away. Past contaminations of waterways still linger, and it still affects many species, including ourselves. There are hundreds of cases related to DDT’s continued effects on humans and wildlife. Following are just a few of them.

Arizona

The sign from Maricopa County, Arizona (see below) is a good example. Fish and aquatic wildlife are dangerous to eat because of DDT contamination. Additionally, residues from the chemical have made their way into the milk people drink. “DDE routinely shows up in trace amounts in Arizona’s milk supply, transferred to cows through hay grown in contaminated soil,” according to a 2005 article in the Phoenix New Times.

In 1958 alone, 500,000 pounds of DDT were applied to farmland in that area to fight the cotton bollworm. By the 1970s, the Gila [River] was the most DDT-contaminated stream in the western United States. In the 1980s, federal wildlife officials found that DDE residues in birds collected in the Goodyear-Avondale area were among the highest in the nation.” The state began posting signs like the one below in the 1990s.

Don't Eat the fish, crayfish, turtles or frogs Warning sign near Goodyear, AZ
“Don’t Eat the Frogs, Warning sign near Goodyear, AZ.” Photo by Warren Lauzon on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Michigan

In St. Louis, Michigan, a Superfund site is still the likely culprit for dying birds. The Velsicol Chemical Corporation, formerly Michigan Chemical, manufactured pesticides until 1963. The EPA took control of the site in 1982 and the plant was demolished in the mid-1990s, but it left behind 3 Superfund sites in the small 3.5-square mile town. “Of most concern is the 54-acre site that once contained Velsicol’s main plant, which backs up to the neighborhood where residents have found dead birds on their lawns.”

Velsicol Chemical is infamous for a major chemical disaster in 1973, involving polybrominated biphenyls, or PBBs, a flame retardant compound it manufactured. The company accidentally mixed PBBs with a cattle feed supplement, poisoning thousands of cattle. This led to widespread contamination in Michigan.

There are still studies to monitor the effects of PBBs in the community. But not DDT, even though people find dead birds all the time. “The birds apparently have been poisoned by eating worms living in contaminated soil near the old chemical plant. No studies have been conducted to see whether the DDT has contaminated any vegetables or fruits grown in yards.” Beginning in 2006, the EPA began cleaning up homeowner’s yards to remove DDT and PBBs. But Velsicol was right on the Pine River, and its sediment was also contaminated with DDT and PBBs. “Traces of a chemical that is a byproduct of DDT manufacturing, pCBSA, have been found in the city’s water system, so new water mains will tap into a nearby town’s water supply.”

Aerial Google map showing the Velsicol plant area in St. Louis, Michigan.
Google map showing the Velsicol plant area in St. Louis, Michigan.

DDT Affects Grandchildren

Scientific American published an article in 2021 about the findings of Barbara Cohn, an epidemiologist at Oakland’s Public Health Institute, who studies the long-term effects of DDT. In a past study, she “found that the daughters of mothers exposed to the highest DDT levels while pregnant had elevated rates of breast cancer, hypertension and obesity.” But her newest study focused on the exposed women’s grandchildren and showed that the effects of DDT can persist for at least three generations. “The study linked grandmothers’ higher DDT exposure rates to granddaughters’ higher body mass index (BMI) and earlier first menstruation, both of which can signal future health issues.”23 Given that DDT is a persistent chemical, this makes sense. But humans used it all over the world for decades. How many people had or have long-term illnesses or poor health effects from it?

DDT around the World

Some areas of the world still use DDT today to control mosquitos that transmit the microbe that causes malaria, a disease that kills millions of people. The EPA has been participating in international negotiations to control the use of DDT and other persistent organic pollutants (POPs) used around the world since 1996. Through the United Nations Environment Programme many countries negotiated a treaty, known as the Stockholm Convention on POPs, in order to enact global bans and/or restrictions on POPs, including DDT.24

The Convention allows an exemption for the control of the spread of malaria. The World Health Organization (WHO) also supports the indoor use of DDT in African countries where malaria remains a major health problem. They believe that the benefits outweigh the health and environmental risks of DDT.25

“While it’s illegal to use DDT in this country, it’s perfectly legal to manufacture and export it. Eventually, it finds its way back to us in foods grown abroad that have been treated with the chemical. So in addition to endangering animals around the world, we’re also poisoning ourselves.” -Jeff Corwin

Knowledge is Key

We have to protect ourselves from these chemicals. But it’s not as simple as staying away from contaminated areas, assuming you even know where they are and have the means to live elsewhere (not everyone does). Knowing the facts about DDT and other persistent chemicals is important. We have to fight for remediation and cleanups while protecting our health, children’s health, wildlife, and our own habitats. Thank you for reading. Please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “L.A.’s coast was once a DDT dumping ground: No one could see it – until now,” The Los Angeles Times, October 25, 2020.

Article, “Stunning DDT dump site off L.A. coast much bigger than scientists expected,” The Los Angeles Times, April 26, 2021.

Announcement, “Montrose Chemical Corp. Agrees to $77M in Consent Decrees in 31-Year Lawsuit Over DDT Pollution,” The Recorder, Law.com, October 04, 2021.

Press Release, “EPA Reaches $56.6 million Settlement for Groundwater Cleanup at Los Angeles Area Superfund Sites,” Environmental Protection Agency, August 14, 2020.

Parody, “The Desolate Year,” Monsanto Magazine, October 1962, accessed January 3, 2022.

Article, “Rachel Carson Dies of Cancer,” The New York Times, April 15, 1964.

Article, “Signs Warn Shore Anglers of Contaminated Fish,” Patch.com, June 3, 2011.

Footnotes:

Fireworks on the beach

Fireworks on a beach in Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Fireworks on a beach in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Photo by A n v e s h on Unsplash

I love fireworks. My son loves fireworks. So much so that we drag my (grumbling) husband to watch them every July 4th. However, I do like to leave the annual tradition of blowing up sparkly gunpowder to the professionals. I have never taken much to buying and setting off my own fireworks, especially with a young child around. Since I don’t purchase consumer fireworks, I honestly have never given much thought to the waste they create. But then my best friend, who lives on the coast of North Carolina, sent me this photo the day after July 4th last year:

Fireworks debris collected on a North Carolina beach
Fireworks debris collected on a North Carolina beach, July 5, 2020. Photo by Taylor Notion

She collected that much plastic and cardboard firework waste on a walk where she lives, all left behind by people the night before. That’s the amount she found that hadn’t already washed into the ocean during high tide. That’s from just one section of one beach, in one town. I imagine fireworks at the beach are fun and beautiful, but at what cost to the environment?

Waste

After reading multiple news articles from coastal states, particularly Florida, I discovered that the Independence Day firework waste collected is measured in tons. Tons! Even on beaches where fireworks are illegal, such as on Hilton Head Island, beach patrol collected seven trailers’ worth of fireworks debris in 2019.

“Any regular beach walker will tell you about encountering little ribbons of plastic along the tide line in the days and weeks after the Fourth of July. All waiting for the high tide that will be their ride to join that vast swirl of ocean-borne plastics.” -Mark Lane, The Daytona Beach News-Journal

Since these are set off in the dark, it’s difficult to find all of the scattered pieces once exploded. “Fireworks launchers are big and easy to spot and haul away, but each rocket launched and bomb exploded rains tiny shards of plastics and cardboard along with a smattering of metals like lead and copper.”

Plastics

The plastic bits break down into smaller pieces called microplastics, which are then ingested by fish and marine animals. The toxins from those plastics make their way through the food chain, all the way into our bodies.

Saturn Missile Battery fireworks
This 25 shot Saturn Missile costs under $2.00 but will leave microplastics for hundreds of years.

Here is just one example. The Saturn Missile Battery (SMB), which I’ve seen debris from in a lot of Fifth of July clean-up images, is a common type of aerial firework. It consists of a cardboard base packed with between 25 to 1,000 shots. These shots are small plastic tubes filled with explosive powder. “When an SMB is detonated, each of those tubes shoots into the air with a shrill whistle, shatters apart and falls back to earth, creating a shower of litter that’s hard for even the best-intentioned reveler to clean up. Unlike colorful caps and wings, the dull gray or green SMB litter blends into sand and soil.” These bits of plastics and microplastics will last for hundreds of years.

Fifth of July Clean-ups

For all celebrations at the beach, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recommends cleaning up after ourselves, participating in coastal clean-ups, and educating others. “By celebrating the Fourth of July and enjoying fireworks responsibly, we can honor our country through protecting our beloved coastal environments, and the marine animals who rely on these habitats.”

Fireworks on a road
Photo by Alexander Kagan on Unsplash

Wildlife Disturbance

Left on the beaches, fireworks debris harms marine life. They block the paths of sea turtles and crabs. Not to mention birds and marine animals ingest these small pieces of debris. Additionally, there are dangers to all wildlife from injury and entanglement from the plastic garbage. Unfortunately, July 4th is during prime sea turtle nesting season.

The noise from fireworks disturbs animals everywhere, from eagles and other birds to our domesticated love ones. The loud explosions cause panic and despair in many animals. Just think of how your dog or your neighbor’s dog reacts every 4th of July.

“Environmentalists from Clearwater Marine Aquarium and Audubon Bird Stewards reported that the noise, debris, and lights from fireworks were negatively impacting both sea turtles and beach nesting birds. Fireworks cause aborted nesting attempts, ingestion of plastic residue, and disturbed and disoriented hatchlings, all of which significantly reduces the number of successful births.”

Seal with a plastic or rubber ring growing into the skin around its neck.
Any litter you leave on the beach can potentially harm another species. Image by Noutch from Pixabay

Other Problems from Fireworks

Consumer fireworks cause thousands of injuries annually in the United States. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, in 2019 there were approximately 10,000 injuries from fireworks treated in emergency departments, with about 73% of those during just a one-month interval surrounding July 4th.

In addition, fireworks, both consumer and professional types, are potentially toxic to the air and water, hence to us, wildlife, and the water we drink.

Fireworks from gender reveal parties have caused massive wildfires.

Did you know that Americans spend close to $1 billion annually on consumer fireworks? This number astonished me for many reasons. Do you know how many problems we could solve for ourselves, wildlife, and the planet with $1 billion? Make a list, pick one, and I bet it’s money better spent than just blowing it up.

Fireworks debris piled up on sand.
Photo by Karen Montgomery on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Environmentally Friendly Fireworks

There have been some developments with making more environmentally friendly fireworks, but these changes have not been significant enough to make large-scale differences. These include fireworks released with compressed air as an alternate propellant and changing the chemical make-up to reduce pollutants, but the studies on the latter are still new and the impact is not clear. In consumer fireworks, some companies are trying to switch to recycled paper and cardboard components over plastics, but testing new products takes time and money.

Fireworks debris on the coast of New Zealand.
Photo by Murray Adamson on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0)

New Traditions

July 4th is no celebration for the environment and wildlife. We can do better. Especially with something that is so non-essential to our lives.

I argue that we don’t need to set off consumer fireworks or sparklers on the beach or anywhere else in nature, at all. In fact, I began this article as a person who loved to drag her family to professional fireworks every summer, but after researching the problems even they create, I’m starting to think differently. Are there new traditions we can create? What about laser light shows?

If you do set off fireworks on the beach or in a natural area, please take safety precautions and clean up the debris. It really matters! We can all make a difference and encourage others to do the right thing. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe.

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Let Freedom Ring and Fireworks Fly, but Keep Debris off the Beaches and Out of the Sky!” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Debris Program, July 1, 2019.

Article, “Fireworks: Can they ever be eco-friendly?” Deutsche Welle, accessed June 19, 2021.

Article, “Are Fireworks Bad for the Environment?” by Russell McLendon, Treehugger.com, updated February 23, 2021.

Footnotes: