Wednesday, October 08, 2008

What do drinking water and the environment have to do with each other

What gets me is that we are spending more and more money on cleaning up water to ready it for drinking. Medicines, herbicides etc, are slipping though the purification plants (which themselves require huge amounts of chemicals and energy).

The reason we are spending more and more is because we are polluting more and more. In most places you cannot even drink rainwater. It would make much greater sense if no business or other organisation were allowed to emit either directly or as a consequence of the use of their products, anything that could compromise drinking water sources.We are also seeing in parts of the world such a lack of water that severe restrictions are in place. Again, no business or other organisation should be allowed to use such quantities of water (or introduce technology that uses quantities of water) that the supply of drinking water is compromised.

On the face of it, it seems a simple task for governments to regulate. Ensuring drinking water would decrease health care costs and increase the supply of healthy workers. It would probably stimulate the development of cleantech at the same time it would be a good export earner.

There are a few other connections between water and the environment. Firstly, bottled water. The environmental burden that comes from transport, processing and the use of plastic containers has been well documented in other places.Tap water has less environmental impact. However, because it needs disinfecting, large amounts of chlorine are used to kill bacteria in the distribution network.

We have the choice between bottled water and its environmental burden, and piped water with its long term negative health impacts and sometimes outbreaks of bacterial contamination.The main health problems from tapwater come from chlorine, trihalomethanes and aluminum. Chlorine is a very efficient poison. In normal cases it kills all bacteria and virus in your tap water. In order to be on the safe side and in order to make the chlorine last until the end of the system, water utilities may sometimes add too much chlorine. That is not healthy.

Trihalomethanes: When chlorine breaks down bacteria, trihalomethanes, such as chloroform, trichloroethylene, bromoform, dibromochloromethane, and bromodichloromethane, result. The American authorities have set the limit of trihalomethanes to 100 micrograms per liter. In tap water, the amount of trihalomethanes is normally below 50 microgram per liter, but there are examples of tap water containing up to 1000 micrograms per liter. As long as the water purification plants continue to use chlorine in order to fight bacteria, there is going to be some trihalomethanes in the drinking water.

Aluminum: Scientific studies, in the USA, Guam, Norway and England, have shown a connection between an the amount of aluminum in drinking water and the number of neural disorders. One of these disorders is Alzheimer’s disease, a serious kind of senility which begins with loss of memory and confusion and ends with death. Aluminum is also suspected of increasing the number of “normal” senile dementia and Parkinson’s.

In my book "Inventing for the Sustainable Planet" I envisage a sustainable society living off naturally distilled water: rainwater.

The blog post on the subject is on this link.

3 comments:

Jack Rabbit said...

I do some work with the American Chemistry Council and so I was really interested in this post on safe drinking water and chlorine. You're right that too much of a chemical such as chlorine isn't a good thing. But the health benefits its had in Western civilization are tremendous. We've been using chlorine in our drinking water for 100 years and it's so safe and effective that most people pretty much take it for granted.

Steve said...

Well, Jack Rabbit...
one hundred years is a short time to understand the effects of the increasingly chemical soup we call drinking water.

The EU is worried. They are doing massive work on the long term effects of exposure to the bi products of disinfection.

http://www.hiwate.eu/

it is not an easy call balancing safety from bacterial infection with long-term effects. Many chemical products have been taken for granted and then proven to be carcinogenic, so I don't buy that argument either.

Joseph said...

I'd have to agree with Jack Rabbit in this instance. 100 years really isn't that short of time, it gives you a chance to look across several generations to see the long term effects. And if you were to compare the death rates due to cholera, typhoid, etc... outbreaks compared to now, and put them next to any negative effects caused by chlorine, the benefits outweigh the risks. I just don't see it any other way

 
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