What’s In Your Water? Part 2

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

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.”11 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 Brockovich12
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 Guide to 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:

Book review: “100 Heartbeats: The Race to Save Earth’s Most Endangered Species” by Jeff Corwin

“Every year, more than 20,000 species tragically disappear from our planet.”

If you’ve never heard of Jeff Corwin, I want to introduce you to him. For many years I thought he was just another popular tv show host but it turns out that he’s much more. He’s a biologist, wildlife conservationist, educator, advocate, and voice for endangered species across the planet.

This book caught my eye at the local used bookstore and I had to buy it. This is a very intelligible book for anyone and is meant for all audiences. It’s not written academically but it cites an immense amount of research and scientific studies. I honestly had a hard time putting it down even though it deals with subject matter that is depressing. But Corwin countered much of the sorrowful information with stories of progressive movements and hope. And all of it is so important for us to know.

The Title

The title comes from the most critically endangered species we are about to lose which have fewer than 100 individual living members left. All are direct consequences of the actions and behaviors of humans. Here, Jeff Corwin talks about the film and book:

I have not been able to find the companion documentary they referred to yet, but if I do I will update this post.

The Contents

Corwin explained the story of each species delicately yet methodically. I did read one review where Corwin was criticized for jumping around from one species to the next in different regions of the world. But one glance at the table of contents reveals that he was clearly dividing his book into thematic sections about the major human causes of endangered species. The sections were:

  • Global warming and habitat loss;
  • The introduction of non-native species, pollution, and disease;
  • The exploitation of animals for products and economy.

I will say that that same review applauded Corwin for his genuineness and for highlighting how we can motivate people around the world to change.

“If you’ve ever doubted that a small group of people can make a big difference in the face of a tide that seems inexorable, organizations like the WWF and the IRF are proof that such a change is possible.”

The Endangered Species list is vast

At the time this book was written, there were 16,928 endangered species in the world. I was hoping that that number had decreased since 2009, but I figured it probably increased at least slightly.
But I was devastated to discover that there are now 27,000 endangered species according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). They are generally accepted as the global authority on endangered species. Corwin cited the IUCN heavily in this book. If you’re not familiar with the IUCN, please check out this 3-minute video that will help you learn about them:

Corwin explained that there were 3,246 critically endangered species (the highest risk category for endangerment of extinction by the IUCN) in 2009. He wrote: “Whether we realize it or not, we need them…We’re inextricably bound with nature. When we put the survival of the natural world in jeopardy, we simultaneously put our survival in jeopardy.” We’ve harmed landscapes and habitats and entire ecosystems, and it’s going to hurt every species, ourselves included.

“We can’t fall back on letting nature take its course when we’ve changed the land and its inhabitants in ways that nature never intended.”

Habitat Destruction

I was surprised to learn that habitat destruction is the number one cause of species extinction worldwide. It makes sense – as the human population increases, human activities spread and drive the land to a state in which the land can no longer support the indigenous species. Urban sprawl, logging, mining, commercial fishing, homesteading are all culprits, but agriculture is the main source of habitat destruction.
Deforestation and habitat destruction is the number one cause of species endangerment. Image by Robert Jones from Pixabay.
Deforestation and habitat destruction is the number one cause of species endangerment. Image by Robert Jones from Pixabay.

Oil & Drilling

We all know oil spills are bad. When animals try to lick off oil from their fur or feathers, “the effect is toxic and can induce kidney failure.” They also rely on their fur or feathers for warmth, but when they’re coated in oil, the animal can freeze to death. “Unless they’re rescued – a monumental feat in remote regions – animals affected by oil spills typically die of hypothermia.” This makes me want to stop driving immediately. How do I stop supporting this global greed for oil? That’s a discussion for a future series of blog posts.

Gas pumps. Image by David ROUMANET from Pixabay.
Image by David ROUMANET from Pixabay.

Poaching, Slaughter & the Exotic Pet trade

Poaching is another major cause of species endangerment and extinction, although it is not always defined as just the slaughter of wild animals. It often includes animals captured for the exotic pets trade, for which there is a huge demand on the black market. Those animals are removed from their habitats, affecting the ecosystem. This reduces the populations in more ways than one – since they do not reproduce in that ecosystem, their numbers obviously decline further.

Slaughter for commercial profit is most visible from the slaughter of elephants and rhinoceroses. These large animals are killed for only one body part, the tusks or the horns. The rest of the animal is left to rot. National Geographic recently featured an informative article on poaching. My family and I recently visited the Nashville Zoo and I was impressed with their exhibits about critically endangered species. I took a photo of one about the rhinos because the image so shocked me that it moved me to tears:

Exhibit of a slaughtered rhino from the Nashville Zoo. Photo by me.
Exhibit from the Nashville Zoo. Photo by me.

We can do better, I know we can!

“While the dinosaurs disappeared as the result of a natural but catastrophic event, the current causes of extinction are largely the result of human behavior.”

African elephant. Image by Christine Sponchia from Pixabay.
African elephant. Image by Christine Sponchia from Pixabay.

Inspiration

Even though the book made me quite depressed about the state of species across the Earth, the book was very inspiring. It inspired me to feature this review of the book, to read more on the topics, and to write future posts on the subject. Corwin offered hope at every turn in the book and that is why I loved the book.

“We’re not powerless, though. As demonstrated by the success story of the American bald eagle, great strides can be made through compassion and dedication.”

Bald eagle nest. Image by skeeze from Pixabay.
Image by skeeze from Pixabay.

I found the dedication Corwin wrote to his daughters particularly inspiring. Here’s part of it:

“To my daughters…you are both so very precious to your mother and me; your optimism and trust, reflected through a lovely lens of innocence, inspires us…While at present the creatures who share Earth with us are in jeopardy, I have faith that my generation will make things right so you and your children will have the opportunity to thrive upon a rich, healthy, and diverse planet. We will not fail you.

That’s beautiful, and it’s exactly how I feel about my own child. My son is precious to me and I do not want to leave a devastated planet behind for him to deal with. I want to be part of the change!

I will not fail him.

This post does not contain any affiliate links.

Homeschool Pre-K Lesson on Pollution & Environment

In 2015, I began doing homeschool pre-k lessons with my son. I would put together little thematic lesson plans that we would do together one morning per week. Each lesson would usually incorporate art activities, sensory activities, books related to the topic, a play activity, and writing. I mixed these up with the occasional music component, educational video, trip to a related museum, or nature adventure.

In late 2016, I decided to broach the topic of environmental issues and pollution. Even though he was only 3, I thought my son would get something out of it, and in retrospect, he did! So I thought I’d share some of the activities we did. Feel free to use or share any of these ideas!

Oil Spills

My son still recalls the activity where we put toy animals into blue water polluted by an oil spill. I was inspired by Almost Unschoolers which I found through Pinterest. They used feathers in their experiment, which I did as well as adding toy animals. Both showed how oil spilled in the water stayed on the animals. Here’s what we did:

We started with plain blue water to represent the ocean.

We started with plain blue water to represent the ocean. I used Sargent watercolor magic to dye the water but you can use blue food coloring too. Definitely place a towel under your container – it’s going to be messy and oily!

Next, I mixed cocoa powder with vegetable oil, as recommended by Almost Unschoolers. We started with feathers but then I quickly realized that he’d love playing with his toy animals even more.

My son experimenting with toy animals in the "oil spill."

We added a few more animals as we continued to play and experiment. He observed several times that the oil wouldn’t simply rinse off of the animals nor his hands.

My son experimenting with toy animals in the "oil spill."

My son experimenting with toy animals in the "oil spill."

My son experimenting with toy animals in the "oil spill."

My son had so much fun that he asked me to do it again several months later!

Recycling & Composting

Recycling sticker game from the Dollar Tree.I bought a sticker set from the Dollar Tree which included four disposal cans with stickers. The cans represented plastic, paper, aluminum, and compost. My son took the stickers and placed them on the appropriate can and he only needed a little help. It was a fun activity to do together! I also found a similar printable game here.

 

 

Pollution Jar

The last activity we did was to create a pollution jar. I got the idea from Pinterest but cannot credit the blog because it no longer exists. I asked my son to help me choose pieces of trash of various types of materials. We chose different types of plastics, papers, string, etc. We did not use any food waste.

Our pollution jar.

Then we filled the jar with tap water and put the lid on.

Our pollution jar.

We kept this jar for over a year. Over time the materials did not break down, especially the plastics. While that may be obvious to an adult, this was new and interesting information for a preschooler. He thought it was cool. I will say that when I disposed of it, the smell of chemicals from that jar was disturbing.

Other Ideas

We took a walk along the Tennessee River for that lesson as well, just to notice our surroundings. What sounds did we hear? What animals did we see? Did we notice any litter along the river? We talked about how the rivers and oceans are connected; that oceans are full of life; and that water and air are our most precious resources. Even if a young child doesn’t understand everything you’re explaining, know that they are absorbing some of it and admiring your knowledge.

Photo of my son at the Tennessee Aquarium.
We also managed a trip to the Tennessee Aquarium!

If you search “pollution lesson preschool” on Pinterest or Google, you’ll find a ton of additional great ideas!

I hope you can use some of these ideas with your little one. Feel free to ask questions or leave your own idea in the comments below! Thanks for reading, and please subscribe below!

All photos in this post were taken by me.

 

 

Breaking Up With Dawn

Last updated on November 28, 2021.

Dawn soap
Dawn dishwashing liquid soap

I’ve used Dawn dishwashing detergent my entire adult life. It seemed to work better than every other brand I  tried. The concentrated version seemed to go a lot further than other brands, therefore giving me my money’s worth. Even after I started reducing the number of products in plastic packaging that I buy, I kept buying Dawn. I used it not only to wash dishes but also used it in my Easy DIY all-purpose cleaner.

And, I was supporting clean-up efforts and saving wildlife after oil spills, right?

I believed that Dawn products were helping clean and save wildlife after oil spills. And I think they do in some cases, as well as raise money to donate toward rescue efforts. According to a 2010 article in the Washington Post after the major BP Deepwater Horizon spill, Dawn is legitimately used by the International Bird Rescue. “After a 1971 oil spill, the California-based nonprofit group began experimenting with products including paint thinner and nail polish remover to find the least traumatizing method for cleaning oiled animals.”1 So in 1978, the International Bird Rescue started a relationship with Procter and Gamble, the makers of Dawn. “Through trial, error, and our tenacity to find a solution, we discovered that Procter and Gamble’s Dawn dish soap, was the golden ticket! It was inexpensive, effective, readily available, and Procter and Gamble was excited to learn about this somewhat unusual use of their product.”2

Procter & Gamble heavily markets Dawn’s Saving Wildlife campaign toward conscientious consumers. Their advertisements pull at our heartstrings. One moved me to tears, which I originally shared in this post. The URL for that specific video changes frequently, so I decided to just let you search “dawn oil spill commercial” on YouTube where you’ll find many of these commercials. But the footage was not of wildlife actually affected by an oil spill. The commercials are a “simulated demonstration” and some have a caption indicating “no oil used.” I’ve read they coat the animals with a mixture of tempera paint and corn syrup so they can simulate cleaning the animals on camera. I find this to be a questionable practice.

Oil covered bird. Photo by Mike Shooter on Shutterstock.
Oil-covered bird. Photo by Mike Shooter on Shutterstock.

But Dawn is petroleum-based – so does that mean they’re part of the problem? 

NPR did a segment on this very issue after the BP oil spill disaster in 2010, looking at the story in detail and interviewing people from both sides. The overall conclusion was that yes, Dawn does help remove crude oil from the animals. But this is because the grease-cutting part of the solution is made from petroleum, according to Procter & Gamble, who was interviewed for the segment. There are alternatives to using petroleum products but that needs testing. Meanwhile, rescuers and veterinarians are sticking with what works, because, in the end, they are trying to save the animals’ lives.3

Yet others find the product to be hypocritical because Dawn is a petroleum-based soap.4 A writer for Treehugger.com wrote:

“The sad irony of the whole thing is that Dawn is petroleum-based. Every bottle of Dawn used to clean a bird actually adds to our nation’s demand for oil. Not only are we using an oil-based product to clean oiled birds, but we’re increasing the incentives for companies to drill for more oil, making it more likely that there will be another spill. Which, incidentally, will be great for Dawn’s marketing. It’s one big beautifully incestuous circle.”5

oil rig, Photo by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash
Photo by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash

What about animal testing?

Procter & Gamble, owner of the Dawn brand, does do animal testing. They have committed to the #BeCrueltyFree Campaign in recent years but have not yet achieved that status. If you want non-animal-tested and cruelty-free products, avoid Procter & Gamble brands and products.

An oiled gannet getting cleaned at a rehabiliation center after the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
An oiled gannet getting cleaned after the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, at the Theodore Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, June 17, 2010. Image by Deepwater Horizon Response on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0).

What about the ingredients in Dawn?

I decided to check into the ingredients of Dawn through the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Dawn Ultra Concentrated Dishwashing Liquid (Original), the very product I used to regularly buy, received a D rating (on A-D, F grading scale). One of the main concerns was the lack of ingredient disclosure. There are not many laws in the United States regarding chemicals in household ingredients and products. Procter & Gamble is not required to tell us what is exactly in their product. Many companies like to keep their ingredients and formula a secret, to prevent others from copying. EWG’s Top Scoring Factors for this Dawn product were “Poor disclosure; May contain ingredients with potential for acute aquatic toxicity; general systemic/organ effects; bioaccumulation.”6

Procter & Gamble claims to be using biodegradable surfactants in Dawn and claims to be trying to improve and reduce packaging. But this giant corporation has made only a few changes over the last decade – it’s too little, too slow.

Before (left) and After (right) oiled Brown Pelican washed at the Fort Jackson, LA Oiled Wildlife Center.
Before and After oiled Brown Pelican washed at the Fort Jackson, LA Oiled Wildlife Center, May 14, 2010. Photo courtesy of the International Bird Rescue Research Center on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

Plastic-free dishwashing?

Dawn dishwashing soap has been one of my hold-overs from going plastic-free that I haven’t been able to kick yet. Then one weekend, I ran out. I used to buy the economy-size bottles, tricking myself into believing that buying a larger plastic bottle was better than lots of little bottles. But I was unable to find that size again at my regular grocery store. And short of running around to Target or Walmart or searching online, I decided maybe this was a good opportunity to try something different. Here were my options:

Seventh Generation dish soap. Photo by me.
Seventh Generation dish soap. Photo by me.

Ugh! My only choices were plastic, plastic, and more plastic. However, this store also carries Seventh Generation brand dish soap. If you’re not familiar with this brand, they use ingredients they believe to be safe and healthy as well as using post-consumer recycled packaging. This bottle that I purchased is a plastic bottle marked “100% recycled plastic.” They also list all of their ingredients on the back of the package. Last, Seventh Generation does not test on animals.

Unfortunately, before using this product at home, I checked the EWG’s site to see if they’d tested it. Sadly, it only received a C rating, meaning “some potential for hazards to health or the environment. At least some ingredient disclosure.” While they found their ingredient disclosure good, they found that this dish soap has ingredients that have some concerns, mostly aquatic toxicity, respiratory effects, and skin irritations. Seventh Generation does follow the regulations for the EPA Safer Choice certification, but EWG still found concerns. But it has much safer ingredients than most of the brands on the shelves of most stores.

washing a fork, Photo by Catt Liu on Unsplash
Photo by Catt Liu on Unsplash

What am I going to do next?

Dawn and most other major brands of dishwashing soap are going to have the same issues with plastic packaging, animal testing, and unsafe ingredients. With all of those things combined, I am going to try going plastic-free on dish soap after I use this bottle of Seventh Generation. Because even that 100% recycled bottle has an afterlife. And there is no guarantee that that plastic bottle won’t end up floating in the ocean someday.

I am experimenting with using bar dish soap and baking soda. I’ll update this post once I’ve experimented and have some good results to share. What about you? Can you try a new solution for washing dishes plastic-free, toxic-free, and animal-friendly? Join me in the adventure and be the change. Please share and subscribe, and thanks for reading!

Update, March 15, 2019: We have been using plastic-free bar soap for a couple of months now to wash dishes. And it’s working good! We just rub the scrub brush and Skoy cloth against the soap and then wash our dishes and pots. I’ve been trying different brands.

I’m also now using baking soda for cleaning pots, especially those that have stains or black areas. I learned this advice from Beth Terry at myplasticfreelife.com, and it does work – look how clean I got this pot!

Footnotes: