The Real Global Price of What You Wear, Part 1

Interior of clothing store, wooden floor walkway flanked by mannequins, racks, and shelves of clothing.
Image by auntmasako from Pixabay.

The fashion and clothing industries both contribute to climate change, environmental pollution, and human exploitation. Across the world, perpetuated by wealth, and rampant consumerism based on false urgency to keep up with ‘trends,’ the massive overproduction of clothing is killing us and our environment.

Companies have men, women, and even children, working in dangerous conditions with low or no labor standards. They are kept impoverished by low wages. Companies use toxic chemicals in clothing production, and those chemicals end up in the final products. The clothing industry uses unfathomable amounts of water in production, in a world where there isn’t enough water for everyone. Later, that water is discharged, often into the environment, polluting water and soil. Mass amounts of energy are used to produce both natural and synthetic fabrics. Transporting clothing from developing countries to the west uses astronomical amounts of fossil fuels. Worse, there is so much clothing in the world now that we can’t find uses for all of it.

All this so that we can buy $5 t-shirts that we don’t need. It’s called fast fashion, and it’s detrimental on many levels.

Interior of an Old Navy, a clothing store.
Image by DigestContent from Pixabay.

Fast Fashion

Fast fashion is a design, manufacturing, and marketing method focused on quickly producing high volumes of trendy but cheaply-made clothing.1 The term was coined by The New York Times in the 1990s “to describe Zara’s mission to take only 15 days for a garment to go from the design stage to being sold in stores.”2 By the 2000s, brands were taking ideas from the top fashion designers and reproducing them cheaply and quickly. Other big names in fast fashion include H&M, UNIQLO, GAP, Primark, and TopShop.

At one time, there were four seasons of clothing. Today, there are 52 “micro-seasons” per year. Fast fashion was artificially created. The demand “was carefully cultivated by fashion brands to change consumer behavior and make people want more and more, and quickly.”3 

But this disregard for quality has led to clothing going to landfills. “Constantly changing trends have encouraged consumers to discard clothing that’s no longer ‘in style’ even if it’s still wearable.”4 This is not sustainable.

“[Fast fashion] plays into the idea that outfit repeating is a fashion faux pas and that if you want to stay relevant, you have to sport the latest looks as they happen. It forms a key part of the toxic system of overproduction and consumption that has made fashion one of the world’s largest polluters.”5

Exterior of the Zara store in Tokyo, taken at night, lit up and brightly colored with a large digital advertising screen at top center.
Photo by Comunicacioninditex on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Ultra-Fast Fashion

There is an even faster fashion now, referred to as ultra-fast fashion. Brands include SHEIN, Missguided, Forever 21, Zaful, Boohoo, and Fashion Nova. It is a recent phenomenon that is as bad as it sounds.6Ultra fast fashion turns fast fashion’s ‘weeks’ into days and ‘dozens of styles’ into hundreds and thousands. The numbers alone sound sinister. Brands like SHEIN and Boohoo are reportedly posting thousands of new styles to their websites on a daily basis. Sometimes, knockoffs of trending celebrity and pop culture styles will appear online in as little as 24 hours.” Social media, influencer culture, and online hauls certainly stoked the fire in the creation of ultra-fast fashion.7

“A generation now views ultra-fast fashion’s historically low price points and disposable culture as the norm, with many young people considering garments worn out after only a few washes. This overproduction and quick disposal has exacerbated fashion’s waste crisis.”8

H&M Store, Times Square in New York City, photo taken at night with store and billboards bright and lit up.
H&M Store, Times Square in New York City. Photo by Will Buckner on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

Wasteful Overproduction

Companies produce more clothing than can be consumed. Some companies trash or burn the excess. “An estimated 2.2 billion pounds of overstock and unsold clothing are landfilled or incinerated around the world every year, according to a 2018 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation…Two billion pounds of clothes is the equivalent in weight of 5 billion T-shirts, enough leftover stock to dress the adult population of the planet. In 2018, H&M announced that the brand was stuck with 4.3 billion dollars worth of unsold goods.” It’s not just fast fashion companies, either. The same year, the luxury brand Burberry was caught destroying excess clothing and accessories worth around $24 million.9 

A woman reaching for a handbag. sourrounded by racks of clothing in a clothing or department store. The clothes appear to be organized by color.
Photo by Alexander Kovacs on Unsplash.

Environmental Costs

The world produces around 100 billion articles of clothing annually, and “92 million tonnes end up in landfills.”10 Fast fashion causes extensive damage to the planet, exploits workers, and harms animals.11 The fashion industry produces 10% of all carbon emissions and it is the second-largest consumer of water.12 

Clothing production requires tons of water. For example, it takes almost 2,000 gallons of water to produce a single pair of jeans. Worse, “the fashion industry is responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution worldwide.”13 Textile dyeing is the world’s second-largest polluter of water as the wastewater from it is often dumped into bodies of water.

“The way we manufacture new clothes is truly unsustainable, commanding a staggering level of resources, especially water, chemicals, and fossil fuels, that can’t continue. Each year, clothing production requires 24 trillion gallons of water, enough to fill 37 million Olympic-sized pools. And the fashion industry spews more globe-warming carbon dioxide annually than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.” -Elizabeth L. Cline14

Stacks of blue denim jeans on a table in a clothing store.
Image by Linda Lioe from Pixabay.

Poor Labor Standards and Pitiful Wages

“Only 2 percent of the 40 million garment workers around the world earn a living wage – it effectively amounts to modern-day slavery.”15

Across the world, workers experience unsafe working conditions and low wages that are far below the minimum wage. Companies require garment workers to work long hours through forced overtime, often apply impossible quotas to their daily production, and sometimes even inflict abuse. They also expose workers to many chemicals and pollutants, which jeopardize their health. Unionization attempts and campaigns for improvements in safety, conditions, wages, sick pay, and job security are often barred by the threat of job losses and sometimes violence.16

The garment, textile, and footwear workers around the world deserve better. “Fashion is a powerful industry, one that can and should lift people out of poverty rather than trap them in it. It is a multitrillion-dollar business, with plenty of wealth to go around. And yet, according to Oxfam, the top fashion CEOs earn in four days what the average garment worker will make in a lifetime.” Increasing wages would require only a 1 to 4 percent increase in retail prices.17

“The difference in what it would cost for people to not to have to make these kinds of choices between paying rent and putting food on the table is less than a dollar per garment. Why in the world would any company choose every day to prioritize their profits and paying the lowest price possible over ending that kind of human suffering? Especially when it’s not complicated or unaffordable to fix it.” -Sarah Adler-Milstein, co-author of Sewing Hope: How One Factory Challenges the Apparel Industry’s Sweatshops18

Photo of the Eastex Garment Co. Ltd factory in Cambodia, one of garment factories that supplies Swedish company H&M. Shows women sitting at sewing machines in a large factory room with a conveyor belt running through the center.
Photo of the Eastex Garment Co. Ltd factory in Cambodia, one of garment factories that supplies H&M. Photo by U.S. Embassy Phnom Penh on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0).

World Exports

World map showing clothing exports with monetary amounts.
Map courtesy of HowMuch.net, a financial literacy website.

Each of the following countries exports billions of dollars of garment products annually:

China:

China is the largest clothing manufacturing country in the world, employing over 15 million people, mostly women. Companies in this country pay the highest wages but that still does not equate to a living wage for all.19

List of companies that source their clothing from China.
List of companies that source their clothing from China. Screenshot from the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.

Bangladesh:

Bangladesh is the second-largest garment manufacturing country, but they are among the lowest-paid in the world. This is where the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse happened, which killed 1,134 and injured another 2,500 people. While “the disaster brought international attention to the alarming labor conditions in overseas garment factories,” only some improvements in safety issues came from it.20 H&M and the VF Corporations (Vans, North Face, Timberland, etc.) are two of the many companies sourcing from Bangladesh.21

India:

India employs millions of people but often under conditions of forced overtime, less than half of a living wage, and even child labor.22 There have been some improvements but many workers, of which the majority are women, experience physical abuse and sexual harassment. Companies sourcing from India include American Eagle Outfitters, H&M, Levi Strauss & Co., and VF Corporation. 

Vietnam:

Vietnam has a communist government that forbids labor unions, and wages are 60 percent below a living wage. There are around 6,000 textile factories that employ about 3 million people. Nike employs 450,000 people there.23 “Many of us are familiar with the news about Nike sweatshops, but they’re just one of the many fast fashion brands violating human rights for the sake of fashion. The people who make our clothes are underpaid, underfed, and pushed to their limits because there are few other options.”24 Zara and H&M are two of the major brands that source from there.

Cambodia:

There are about 600,000 garment workers in Cambodia. Women experience a great deal of abuse, sexual harassment, and low wages, which are 50 percent below a living wage. Many companies, including H&M, Gap, Nike, and Puma, source from there.25

“Brands are interested in getting clothing as cheaply and quickly as they can. They have consciously chosen to locate production in countries that do not enforce their labor laws. A factory that scrupulously complied with the labor law, respected the right to organize, paid all required wages, didn’t force people to work overtime: That factory will not be able to meet brands’ price demands. You can’t survive as a supplier unless you operate a sweatshop, because the brands are only willing to pay sweatshop prices.” -Scott Nova, Executive Director of the Worker Rights Consortium26

Photo of garment workers sewing on sewing machines in a a large factory room in Bangladesh.
Photo of garment workers sewing on sewing machines in a a large factory room in Bangladesh. Photo by Musamir Azad on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Fashion Production in the U.S.

The United States produces little clothing domestically today: Less than 3 percent, which is down from 50% in 1990. “And a Made in USA garment is no longer a guarantee of ethical working conditions.” The largest part of the garment business is in Los Angeles, where there are approximately 45,000 garment workers, many of them undocumented immigrants. “A 2016 US Labor Department investigation of LA’s factories found that 85 percent of inspected factories violated labor laws. Workers are being paid as little as 4 dollars an hour sewing clothes for well-known fashion brands, including Forever 21, Fashion Nova, Ross Dress for Less, and T.J.Maxx.”27 Another investigation found that companies paid sewers as little as $2.77 an hour.28 Even sadder, US garment workers are some of the highest-paid in the world.

Department store clothing mannequins showing clothing.
Image by Photo Mix from Pixabay.

The Role of Companies

Companies have the power to make real, humane, sustainable changes. “It’s time for more big brands to step up to the plate,” wrote Elizabeth L. Cline. “Big companies are the ones with the huge economies of scale that could bring down the price of sustainable materials and fund the research and development of eco-friendly innovations, from textile recycling and nontoxic dyes to factories powered by clean energy. They can certainly afford to pay higher wages.”29 But we consumers need to hold these companies accountable.

Fast fashion companies sometimes use greenwashing to make consumers feel better about purchasing their items. Greenwashing refers to when companies deceive consumers by claiming that their products are environmentally friendly or “have a greater positive environmental impact than they really do.”30 “Fast-fashion companies tell their customers that it’s possible to buy their products and still have a clean conscience. H&M has ramped up its use of organic cotton and sustainably sourced materials; Boohoo sells 40 or so items partially made from recycled textiles.” Aja Barber, a fashion-sustainability consultant, called this greenwashing in an interview with The Atlantic: “It’s like, ‘Oh look, these five items that we made are sustainable, but the rest of the 2,000 items on our website are not .'”31

“The issues are systematic: responsibility must travel up the chain to be shouldered by both the brands themselves for their commitment to keeping the cost of their products so low and by the consumers who have got used to paying so little.”32

Man wearing coat with "Sale" tags all over it, as well as shopping bags. Depicts shopping for clothing at clothing or department stores.
Photo by Sora Shimazaki from Pexels

Our Role

“Fast fashion makes us believe we need to shop more and more to stay on top of trends, creating a constant sense of need and ultimate dissatisfaction.”33

We’ve all supported it at some point, probably mistakenly. We found a great deal on a cute cardigan or funny t-shirt and bought it. Buying new clothes, especially when they’re on sale, brings pleasure to our brains. “This means of instant gratification from the fast fashion complex is a recipe for disaster for our brains, our wallets, supply chains, and the planet.”34 But we have to stop supporting fast fashion now. 

Think about the human factor. Every time we purchase from a company that does not follow ethical labor standards or pays poor wages, we are supporting the mistreatment of our fellow human beings. “We are rarely asked to pay the true cost of fashion. The pollution, carbon emissions, waste, and poverty our clothes create aren’t tallied up and included in the prices we enjoy. It does cost a bit more to do things the right way, to operate safer, well-paying factories and farms and to use longer-lasting, sustainable materials and craft more durable products. Ethical and sustainable clothing doesn’t have to be unaffordable, though,” wrote Elizabeth L. Cline.35

We can do better. Follow my upcoming series to learn more about clothing production and learn what you can do differently. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

Large well lit clothing store with racks of clothing and stacks of shoes.
Photo by Alexander Kovacs on Unsplash.

Additional Resources:

Article, “10 Fast Fashion Brands We Avoid At All Costs,” by Christine Huynh, Good On You, April 30, 2021.

Website, The Magazine of the Sierra Club: Elizabeth L. Cline author page.

Blog, Elizabeth L. Cline Books.

Publication, “A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning fashion’s future,” Ellen MacArthur Foundation, November 28, 2017.

The True Cost cover artFilm, The True Cost (2015)

 

 

 

 

Footnotes:

Climate Change is no joke

Climate Change: A Timeline funny chart/infographic
Permission to use granted by the author, Brendan Leonard/Semi-Rad(https://semi-rad.com/).

Climate change is no joke, though I have to admit, the above comic is pretty funny – but too true to reality. We spent decades arguing about whether it was a real issue, though the science was always there. Then we argued about whether or not humans were inducing or speeding up climate change, though the science was always there. Then came oops, when we realized that the science was correct and had always been there. Now we are at f***, though the science was always there.

As scientist F. Sherwood Rowland, who with Mario Molina first predicted ozone depletion, said in 1989, “What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?”

We wasted decades arguing. Decades when we could’ve put sustainable changes into practice, when climate change was a future problem, long before there was a crisis.

“The ice we skate is getting pretty thin. The water’s getting warmer so we might as well swim.” -Smashmouth, All Star, 1999

A polar bear, face palming, in a desert on a tiny patch of ice.
Image by Peter Schmidt from Pixabay.

Climate deniers

Ninety-seven percent of the scientific community agrees that the planet is warming as a result of human action, specifically from fossil fuel emissions. “The fossil fuel industry and their proxies in denier groups like the Global Climate Coalition have used the imagined disagreement in the scientific community as a public relations talking point for years. ‘Emphasize the uncertainty in scientific conclusions’ and ‘urge a balanced scientific approach,’ reads an internal memo from Exxon in 1988,” Kale Williams wrote.

“A climate scientist and a climate change denier walk into a bar. The denier says, bartender, show me your strongest whiskey. The bartender says, this one here. It’s 95 percent alcohol. The denier slams down his fist and leaves the bar in a hurry. The scientist says, you know, that’s the problem with these guys. You show them the proof, and they still don’t buy it.”

But the Weather Is Changing

“Cold weather is proof that the climate isn’t warming, they argue, but extreme weather on the other end of the thermometer – heat waves and droughts – doesn’t prove anything. They point to the fact that the climate has always changed, which is true, but refuse to acknowledge the rate at which it’s currently changing, that temperatures are predicted to rise twenty times faster over the next hundred years than they did during previous periods of warming. They cherry-pick data, choosing specific statistics that support a contrarian opinion, when all the data taken together points to a different conclusion.”

“Many, many volumes published by thoughtful people have covered the ways in which man-made carbon emissions are changing the environment and the planet we live on. I have no interest in reciting what is settled science. And the truth is, you don’t need to study the science to see its effects. In nearly every place I travel in the United States, people come up to me and discuss how different the weather has become, even in the last decade.”5

“We haven’t found a solution for climate change yet, but… …we’re definitely getting warmer.” -Unknown author

Black and white image of two men talking in a room, with an elephant on a pedestal in the room, in the background.
Image by David Blackwell on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0).

The Elephant in the Room

Few people seem to want to confront the fact that the Earth is largely overpopulated. We are now at 8 billion people across the planet, and that stretches the planet’s resources. Resources that we already overexploit and pollute. As Andrew Knoll, Harvard Professor of Natural History, wrote, “The very innovations that have allowed us to feed and clothe more than seven billion people now grip the Earth in an increasingly tight vise…agriculture now takes up half of Earth’s habitable surface, displacing plants, animals, and microorganisms that once thrived on these lands. We also challenge natural ecosystems through pollution, affecting air and water, soil and the sea. Of course, pollution exacts a human toll, be it unbreathable air in Delhi or undrinkable water in Flint, Michigan.”

Protest sign, Who Let The Smog out? Who, who, who, who?, as a parody of the song Who Let the Dogs out
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash.

The Earth Will Go On

We don’t need to save the planet; we need to save ourselves. We need to protect humans. The Earth will remain without us. Why won’t we do what we need to do to protect ourselves? As filmmaker and environmentalist Rob Stewart wrote, “We are our own asteroid. Our consumption of fossil fuels has released – is releasing – a store of carbon into the atmosphere that has been accumulating for hundreds of millions of years. Corals, plankton, predators: everything in the ocean is screaming at us to stop. If we don’t listen and take action right now, we could be witnesses to the death of most life on earth. We will be the cause of that death. What will survive are the hangers-on, the muck dwellers. The ocean – dark, barren and unproductive – will remain much the same for them. Over time they will evolve and very gradually repopulate. In millions of years, new animals will once again develop the capacity to build reefs, the oceans will neutralize themselves and life will return to normal.”7 The Earth has already gone through five mass extinctions, and it will survive our own extinction.

It’s Up To Us

We are the only ones that can fix our problems. At this point, it is unlikely that we can reverse the effects of climate change. But we can try to slow the avalanche of coming problems in the forms of sea level rise, weather extremes, and fossil fuel consumption. We can do it. As Nancy Knowlton, former Sant Chair for Marine Science at the Smithsonian Institution, wrote, “Big scary problems without solutions lead to apathy, not action…small steps taken by many people in their backyards adds up.”8 We have the power and we need to come together as a globe to save ourselves.

In the meantime, enjoy some additional climate humor! Maybe if we can laugh together, we can also work together.

Climate change is no joke, but climate change denial can be almost comical. This Gus Speth quote says it best:

“I used to think that the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.” —Gus Speth, Author and Top U.S. Advisor on Climate Change

Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Footnotes:

Laws Regulating Contaminants in Our Water

Last updated on November 18, 2022.

Dirty brown water flowing from the faucet of a white sink.
Image by Jerzy Górecki from Pixabay.

Now that you’ve read What’s in Your Water? Part 1 and Part 2, Water Filtration Systems, and my list of Common Water Contaminants, you have probably assessed what is in your water and chosen a water filter system. But you may be wondering, what laws protect our drinking water?

How did all of those chemicals get into our water?

In an effort to improve human life, the corporations and industries of the post-World War II era invented, produced, and disposed of hundreds of chemicals. As Elizabeth Royte, the author of Bottlemania: Big Business, Local Springs, and the Battle Over America’s Drinking Water, wrote: “[Contaminants] come from industry (plasticizers, solvents, propellants), agriculture (fertilizer and pesticide ingredients), from development (runoff polluted by auto emissions and lawn chemicals, and effluent from sewage treatment plants), and from water treatment itself.”1

Obviously, long-term studies into how chemicals affect the body weren’t available then. Later, corporations and government representatives discouraged those sorts of studies because they considered them bad for business. Further, government regulations for many things are usually woefully behind, because they often require proof, not just evidence, before legislators will pass any laws. Proof means that a study is required, which adds years or even decades before any action is taken.

In the capitalist society of the United States, chemicals are innocent until proven guilty.

Stopping the improper disposal of chemicals or pollutants costs industries and corporations money. And outlawing the use of specific chemicals and pollutants can cause those businesses to lose millions of dollars. So instead, they spend millions on preventing government regulations.

All at the cost of our health, our families, and our lives.

“It was, after all, the chemical age in the decades following World War II. About all that was known about the thousands of new products brought to the market by new compounds and processes was that they greatly improved the quality of life for millions of people. As for the waste that these advancements produced, an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality prevailed across America.” -Mike Magner, author and journalist2

Bird's eye view of a riverfront with multiple industrial complexes.
Photo by Kelly on Pexels.

A Brief History of Regulation

The Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948

This was the first major federal water pollution law in the United States. Legislators had made numerous attempts to pass legislation in the first half of the 20th century but without success. In the years after World War II, industrial and urban growth was polluting rivers and lakes, so Congress passed this act. “Unfortunately, the act was not well designed and achieved little.”3 At the time, “water pollution was viewed as primarily a state and local problem, hence, there were no federally required goals, objectives, limits, or even guidelines.”4

According to a Public Health Report from 1962, the 1948 act was meant to be temporary and experimental, but extendable and revisable “on the basis of experience.”5 And it was extended and revised several times throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but the pace of progress was slow. Frustration, “along with increased public interest in environmental protection set the stage for the 1972 amendments.”6

Blueish gasoline 'goo' in a Michigan state conservation area.
Image of blueish gasoline ‘goo’ in a Michigan state conservation area. Photo by Hayley Murray on Unsplash.

The Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972

This was created to protect large bodies of water (streams, rivers, lakes) from sewage, biological waste, radiological waste, industrial waste, and agricultural waste.7 Until the 1970s, there were no state or federal regulations for chemical contaminants. Though initially vetoed by President Nixon because he felt it was too costly, Congress totally rewrote the Federal Water Pollution Control Act and passed the Clean Water Act of 1972. It created the structure for regulating pollutant discharges and established drinking water qualities.8 It “required all municipal and industrial wastewater to be treated before being discharged into waterways, increased federal assistance for municipal treatment plant construction, strengthened and streamlined enforcement, and expanded the federal role” within water pollution issues.9 The act’s major goals were zero discharge of pollutants by 1985 and water quality that was both ‘fishable’ and ‘swimmable’ by mid-1983. While those dates were not met, the goals remain the same.10

But the act did not address runoff of stormwater or snowmelt from agricultural lands, forests, construction sites, and urban areas. This is “despite estimates that it represents more than 50% of the nation’s remaining water pollution problems.” As water travels across land, it picks up pollutants, sediments, toxic materials, and other waste that can pollute the water. In 1987, new amendments to the Clean Water Act addressed these issues. They also set up financial assistance to help states implement programs to control such pollution.11

Another exception that allows companies to legally dump their waste into waterways is an NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permit. While the permit limits what a company can discharge and requires monitoring and reporting, it does allow them to dump some pollutants “through a ‘point source’…[which] includes pipes, ditches, channels, containers, and concentrated animal feeding operations.”12

Safe Drinking Water Act, 1974

Congress passed this act in 1974 since the Clean Water act does not directly address groundwater contamination. It authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set national health-based standards for contaminants in drinking water. It delegates the responsibilities of monitoring and reporting to the states. The EPA started developing limits for microbiological contaminants, ten inorganic chemicals, six organic pesticides, turbidity (or murkiness), and radiological contamination. Those safe drinking water standards went into effect in mid-1977, and required community and public water utilities to test their water on a routine basis. It also required utilities to notify consumers if there were problems with health standards or sampling requirements.13 Congress amended the act in 1986 and 1996.

Black and yellow liquids running off on the ground to a water source.
Image by Jolande from Pixabay.

Chemicals & Contaminants in Water

While it sounds like we have the right legislation, agencies, and testing in place, it actually isn’t enough. There are hundreds of chemicals on the market that have never been assessed for human health effects. Those types of studies take years and a lot of money. Public utilities typically test only for the contaminants they are required to. Why isn’t the EPA or the government doing more? Elizabeth Royte explained:

“It’s expensive to identify and detect these contaminants, to determine their health effects, and then to treat the water. Any changes are likely to require massive capital projects with long lead times – exactly the sort of projects that drinking-water plant managers, concerned with meeting current state standards, are unlikely to propose to their boss, who’s usually an elected official. Moreover, any ultimate improvements in drinking water are unlikely to be noticed by the folks who will end up paying for it. All in all, not a formula for improvement.”14 

Unfortunately, in the U.S., chemicals are innocent until proven guilty. Regulation requires hard scientific proof to set an enforceable regulation. “If the [Environmental Protection Agency] establishes a regulation for a contaminant, then public water systems need to comply with it. But if the EPA decides not to regulate a contaminant, then it may issue a health advisory, which is a non-enforceable federal limit that serves as technical guidance for federal, state, and local officials.”15 But the water treatment facilities are not required to follow health advisories.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) started investigating tap water in the early 2000s. In 42 states, they found 255 contaminants and chemicals, and 141 of those had no government standards or regulations. Some of those chemicals were used in water treatment. The medical community has now linked these unregulated contaminants to many illnesses and diseases including cancer, reproductive toxicity, developmental toxicity, and immune system damage. Those in vulnerable stages of life (fetal, infant, immune-deficient, elderly) have a higher risk of chemical effects.16

Monitoring Our Water

In 2013, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) designed a tap water database to analyze more than 31 million state water records, information obtained from water utilities’ own testing. EWG maintains and regularly updates this database and it is accessible to everyone with internet access.17

The EWG acknowledges that “the EPA and states do have some standards in place to protect drinking water supplies, but these limits on specific pollutants are often too weak to make the water safe to drink.” But even when the standards are sufficient, they are often unable to enforce those limits. Or, the water utilities do not have the funding to upgrade their systems. The EPA hasn’t set a new legal limit for a drinking water pollutant since 2000. “For some other chemicals, the EPA’s maximum contaminant levels, or MCLs – the upper limit on a pollutant legally allowed in drinking water – haven’t been updated in 50 years.”18

“Progress on regulating pollutants has stalled instead of keeping up with current science.” -Environmental Working Group (EWG)19 

Bird's Eye View of a Polluted River, next to a dirt road.
Photo by sergio souza on Pexels.

“Legal doesn’t necessarily mean safe.”

Most of the water utilities in the U.S. pass federal and state regulations. There are hundreds of chemicals the EPA hasn’t yet assessed, so there is nothing preventing those from entering our water supply. But “even for chemicals that are regulated, the legal limit is often hundreds of times higher than the health standards recommended by scientists and public health agencies. Too often, legal limits are based more on what can be achieved in terms of treatment costs, and less on public health.” 20

Some “suggest the sky’s the limit when it comes to unregulated contaminants – industry pumps out new ones faster than regulating agencies can test them.” -Elizabeth Royte21

Since ‘legal’ sometimes means unregulated (therefore, allowed), we should consider the amounts of unregulated contaminants that end up in our water systems. The chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and hormones we excrete, pour, or flush, combine with the pesticides, drugs, and hormones from agricultural production that flows into rivers and groundwater. Hormones, especially, do not break down easily. Many species, including humans, experience adverse reactions to endocrine disruptors, such as estrogen and synthetic hormones.

Tap Water is an Example of Climate Injustice

Marginalized, low-income, and rural communities often have the least access to safe drinking water. Rural communities drink water from wells that were polluted by industrial agriculture. Underserved urban communities that have contaminated water are not receiving the resources and funding they need to fix the problems, such as the replacement of pipes and outdated equipment. Instead, governments often shift responsibility to citizens, encouraging them to buy bottled water (which is often just tap water and does have contaminants) or water filtration systems, which those citizens cannot necessarily afford. Nor should they have to shoulder the cost.

“EWG’s research finds that people living in such areas might have a greater collective risk of cancer from the contaminants in their drinking water supplies than people in other parts of the country…particularly those with higher Black or Latino populations.” – Environmental Working Group (EWG)22

Even in the most egregious cases, such as in the lead poisoning of Flint, Michigan’s water supply (where the majority of Flint’s citizens are black and 45% live in poverty), the state government provided Flint residents with bottled water. However, citizens were responsible for going to the distribution centers to pick up water and haul it home. This was not possible for elderly or disabled people, so either neighbors or small state-funded programs assisted them.

“The Michigan Civil Rights Commission, a state-established body, concluded that the poor governmental response to the Flint crisis was a ‘result of systemic racism.'” -Natural Resources Defense Council23

Also, consider the long-term costs of health care for those with lead poisoning or any other health problems caused by contaminated water. Some, including children, will have life-long health problems from it. Will those with health problems be able to work full-time and afford healthcare? The suffering, both financial and physical, can last a lifetime.

“Disadvantaged communities that have shouldered an unfair burden of some of the most-polluted drinking water in the country must finally get the help they need, and only a major federal funding boost can achieve community-level improvements.” -Environmental Working Group24

Who is to blame?

“As we hurtle into the future, all of our drinking-water choices seem to be problematic. If only we’d taken better care of our resources yesterday, we wouldn’t be in this mess today. And while my first instinct is to blame the government for letting agriculture, industry, and developers off the hook, I have to admit it’s all of us; it’s the way we’ve come to live. We want convenience, cheap food, a drug for every mood, bigger homes, and faster gadgets.” -Elizabeth Royte25

There is no one entity to place singular blame on for the pollution in our water. We all contributed in some way – consumers, corporations, local, state, and federal governments, lobbyists, politicians, and lawmakers. In the same way, there is no one entity that can fix it all, either. We all have to change our practices and demand that corporations and industries do as well. Because everything we do takes a toll on our water. We can’t wait around for the politicians and lawmakers and corporations to do something. We can’t wait around for the science to catch up, either. As Erin Brockovich noted, “Academic scientists do not have clout with the regulators who ultimately must determine the kinds of studies that can help oversee these chemicals and their impact on human health.”26 So we, as consumers, must demand it.

For example, how has it become regular, legal practice to dump sewage into rivers and oceans? While that’s an article for another day, here are some examples from my city:

Permanent sign along the Tennessee River from Tennessee American Water's treatment plant indicating point of sewage wastewater discharges.
Permanent sign along the Tennessee River from Tennessee American Water’s treatment plant indicating a point of sewage wastewater discharges. Photo by me.
Sign along Tennessee River, "Sanitary Sewer Overflow" area, from Tennessee American Water's water treatment facility.
Sign along Tennessee River, “Sanitary Sewer Overflow” area, from Tennessee American Water’s water treatment facility. Photo by me.

“So there is shit in the water; I’d have to make peace with that.” -Elizabeth Royte27

Updates to Existing Laws

Though environmental issues have always been somewhat partisan, the divisions have increased in recent years. The George W. Bush administration scaled back enforcement of the Clean Water Act. “The EPA, on Bush’s watch, declined to set and enforce limits for dozens of industrial contaminants…In 2006, Bush rolled back the Toxics Release Inventory,” which meant that industries reported less frequently on the contaminants they released into the environment.28

“Polluted tap water is not and should not be a partisan issue; it affects everyone.” -Environmental Working Group29

Waters of the United States

In 2015, under President Barack Obama’s administration, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) introduced the Clean Water Rule (also called Waters of the United States). Its goal was to address “the 117 million people getting drinking water from waterways not explicitly protected by the Clean Water Act.”30 It increased the number of protected waterways and limited the dumping of pollutants (including fertilizers, pesticides, and industrial chemicals) into those waters.31

President Trump tried to reverse this with the Navigable Waters Protection Rule in 2020. But the EPA halted its implementation in late 2021.32,33

“There is a threat affecting millions of Americans – drinking contaminated water in this country – and it is business as usual.” -Erin Brockovich34

What’s Next?

Recall that the last time the Environmental Protection Agency set a new legal limit for a drinking water pollutant was in 2000. They have not yet addressed regulating PFAS, hexavalent chromium, and 160 other contaminants. Other contaminant levels, though studied, have not had their limits in drinking water updated in 50 years.35 The EPA planned to release a proposal designating PFAS as hazardous substances under the Superfund law in June 2022. But they missed that deadline and it is not clear when they will finalize the proposal.36

We’ve got to do better. Please learn, read, and educate! Go vote for representatives that actually care about our health and safety! Call your water board or utility and ask for information! Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Publication, “Understanding the Safe Drinking Water Act ,” Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), June 2004.

Factsheet, “U.S. Wastewater Treatment Factsheet,” Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan, 2021.  Pub. No. CSS04-14.

Press Release, “Protecting America’s Drinking Water: Our Responsibilities Under the Safe Drinking Water Act,” by James L. Agee, EPA Journal, March 1975.

Footnotes:

What’s In Your Water? Part 2

Last updated on November 18, 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

Many water treatment facilities now use an alternative disinfectant method, a mixture of chlorine and ammonia, called chloramine. They’re doing this increasingly in order to meet federal disinfection byproducts requirements. It is the cheapest way but it is dangerous. Chlorine normally evaporates somewhat quickly, but chloramine lasts longer in the water. Chloramine is “a known carcinogen and causes more rapid deterioration of the municipal infrastructure and degradation of water system valves and fittings. In systems that still use lead pipes or lead components (which means millions of homes and buildings), the chloramine causes lead and other metals to leach out of faucets and showerheads and into our drinking water. Studies indicate the formation of toxic byproducts in drinking water may be higher when utilities use chloramines.”3

Chlorine Burnouts

These happen when the water utility is trying to meet testing standards. It makes the water strongly smell like chlorine. “It’s a dirty practice that cheats the system,” wrote Erin Brockovich. A burnout is when the water treatment changes from chloramines to free chlorine. “They do this to clean the water pipes and essentially flush the entire system,” and then test the water before and after, but not during. “The regular use of chloramines doesn’t remove all the harmful organics and dirt from the water supply, so the system gets ‘flushed’ with chlorine, forming thousands of chemical combinations that cause cancer and other health issues…The levels of chlorine used in a burnout produce chloroform, which if inhaled in a hot shower or through medical devices (humidifiers, CPAPs, or nebulizers) can cause chemically induced asthma and pneumonia.”4

“It’s important to know that chlorine in clean drinking water doesn’t smell. When you smell what you think is chlorine in water, it’s due to exceedingly high levels of toxic chemical compounds reacting with the chlorine.” – Erin Brockovich5

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 2022.6 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.7

“How much of any toxic substance can a human body ingest and still be well? -Erin Brockovich8

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.9 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.10 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 Brockovich11

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 Brockovich12

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.”13

“It’s enough to make a tap lover cry.” -Elizabeth Royte14 

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.”15 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 Brockovich16
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: