Last year, I read the book, From the Bottom Up: One Man’s Crusade to Clean America’s Rivers by Chad Pregracke. It was about Living Lands & Waters, the organization established by the author to clean up trash along rivers. His story was super inspiring, especially because I love to clean up trash (and would even do it for a living if I could make that work). This organization, based out of Illinois along the Mississippi River, performs large-scale river clean-ups. Since 1998, they have worked on 25 rivers in 21 states, and have conducted more than 1,100 community clean-ups.
“[Living Lands & Waters] hosts dozens of community river cleanups each year to help watershed conservation efforts with the assistance of thousands of volunteers of all ages who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get dirty – individuals, schools, community organizations, businesses and more!”1
So when I discovered that I could get involved with local clean-ups along the Tennessee River, I was more than excited! I was too late to sign up last fall, but this month, I signed up when an opportunity came up near my area.
This one was hosted by Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful and AFTCO (American Fishing Tackle Company) in partnership with Living Lands & Waters. Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful is a nonprofit that serves as the first Keep America Beautiful affiliate in the nation to focus solely on a river. Their mission is to educate and inspire people to take care of the Tennessee River and show the impact of trash. Their volunteer cleanups are held along the 652-mile Tennessee River and its tributaries, an area spanning seven states!2
I took my family with me. My son enjoyed riding in the boats and meeting people. He really fed off of the energy of the crew, who took time out to make him feel included. I’m proud that he understood why we were there and that he gets why it’s important at such a young age.
It was a gorgeous day on Nickajack Lake! We picked up so much trash – hundreds of plastic bottles, Styrofoam pieces, tires, broken fishing tackle and line, plastic lighters, plastic bags, food wrappers, glass bottles, and many other pieces of broken plastic items. Even a section of a plastic dock and an entire plastic truck bed liner.
One of the participating kids, Cash Daniels, also known as the Conservation Kid (@theconservationkid), was there with his family. Cash is an avid environmentalist and ocean lover. He has organized many river clean-ups and is also a published author and public speaker. I had read about him before and it was cool to meet him and his family.
The volunteers all worked hard, and the crewmembers were like superheroes!
Their leadership and positivity are what struck me most. Both the executive director of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful and the crewmembers of Living Lands & Waters were super positive, highly enthusiastic, hard-working, and obviously happy to be doing this!
By the end of the afternoon, we had loaded two full flat-bottomed boats with trash and debris from just a few shorelines.
In the end, it was an awesome experience. I recommend that if you’re able and interested, you join a local clean-up in your area. We can all make a difference!
“That’s how the change for our river will happen: through local partners and individuals who are eager about taking ownership to protect and improve their beautiful river community.” -Kathleen Gibi, Executive Director of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful3
Remember, the most important thing you can do right now is to stop using disposable items. Especially those made from plastic. Even when you think you are properly disposing or recycling something, so much of it inevitably makes its way into our landscapes. We have to turn off the tap when it comes to disposable items.
I hope to meet you on a future clean-up! Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!
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.
Fast fashion is a design, manufacturing, and marketing method focused on quickly producing high volumes of trendy but cheaply-made clothing.1The 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
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.6 “Ultra 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
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
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.11The 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 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
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
Each of the following countries exports billions of dollars of garment products annually:
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
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 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 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.
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
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.
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
“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!
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.
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?”1
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
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.2 Companies in the oil and chemistry industries, among others, contributed to decades worth of disagreement, which in turn created division. When they create doubt, they also create space for denial.
“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.”3
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.”4 The Earth is warming but this doesn’t mean it only causes extremes in heat – it causes extremes in all types of weather.
Winters are harsher, summers are hotter, and storms are stronger. This is evident everywhere across the planet. As Erin Brockovich wrote, “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
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.”6 The more humans on the planet, the more stretched our resources will become.
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!
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
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
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.
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
“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:
“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
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!
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.