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Getting Clear About Wastewater

Getting Clear About Wastewater

My husband once suggested that we should all litter—his theory being that if we had to live among our trash, we would become more conscientious about our waste. As is, it’s out of sight, out of mind. With the water supply it is even more of a problem. Groundwater and ocean depths are unseen to us, and the ways in which they become polluted are more abstract. We can pollute them mightily and not even know it. Have you ever flushed unused medication down the toilet? Swam in the ocean with sunscreen on? Rinsed shampoo out of your hair and down the drain? You get the picture.

Our fresh water and oceans are polluted in any number of ways, with much of the pollution coming from industry and agriculture. But studies are showing that an increasing amount of water pollution is the result of the day-to-day habits of normal life. Seemingly innocent products are introducing a variety of deleterious household chemicals into our water.

In a study published in 2002, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) collected and analyzed water samples from 139 streams in 30 states. The goal of the study was to measure concentrations of 95 wastewater-related organic chemicals in water. And guess what? One or more of these chemicals were found in 80 percent of the streams sampled. Half of the streams contained seven or more of these chemicals, and about one-third of the streams contained 10 or more of these chemicals.

Pharmaceutical and personal-care products are to blame for many of the chemicals found in the USGS study. Many of these make their way into the oceans, which also suffer from a staggering array of pollutants. Southern California toxicology researchers found chemicals from wastewater in coastal oceans that have been found to affect the hormone levels of fish. Male fish in the ocean are developing female characteristics.

The California study shows that a range of pharmaceuticals and beauty products, flame retardants and plastic additives are ending up in the ocean and appear to be working their way up the marine food chain. Culprits include phthalates, bisphenol A, and triclosan (found in antibacterial products).

The study goes on to explain that women taking birth control pills excrete estrogen in their urine, which is flushed down the toilet and ends up in the ocean. The same is true of antidepressants, tranquilizers, anti-inflammatory medicine and other drugs, as well as musk fragrances, sunscreens, soaps and additives to plastics, which are known to mimic or disrupt hormones.

Sewage treatment plants remove 50 to 70 percent of these chemicals. Fortunately, this study is expected to prompt more advanced forms of sewage treatment, which is within reach.

Environmental Working Groups suggest these steps to reduce pollution from phthalates, bisphenol A and triclosan.

Little Steps to Make a Difference

  • Use nail polish and other personal care products that do not contain dibutyl phthalate (DBP).
  • Use personal care products, detergents, cleansers and other products that do not contain fragrance in the ingredient list, which commonly includes the phthalate DEP.
  • Avoid products made of PVC or vinyl plastic. A few examples of these products include PVC lawn furniture, vinyl raincoats, PVC pipe and other building materials, vinyl shower curtains and toys for kids or pets made of PVC.
  • Cut down on canned foods. To keep food from reacting with the metal of the can, a plastic coating made from bisphenol A is commonly applied to the inside of the can.
  • Avoid eating or drinking from polycarbonate plastics, used in such products as hard plastic baby bottles, five-gallon water cooler bottles, hard plastic water bottles, plastic silverware and Lexan products.
  • Avoid unnecessary use of “antibacterial” products. Studies indicate that households that use these products are no healthier than those that use soap and water and other typical cleansing products.

You can do a search in the Care2 Green Living search box to find DIY formulas for any number of water-safe, personal-care and cleaning products made from kitchen cupboard ingredients.

Other Steps to Take

  • An estimated 4,000 to 6,000 tons of sunscreen is washed off swimmers every year and is doing irreparable damage to the world’s coral reefs. Use sunscreen that doesn’t contain any of these four coral-harming ingredients: Parabens, cinnamate, benzophenone, or camphor derivatives.
  • Even if we just focused on not flushing unused medications down the toilet, it could make a difference. Individuals aside, one study estimated the nation’s nursing homes discard anywhere from $73 million to $378 million worth of drugs a year. Some are incinerated, but many are flushed. Australia began a program to collect unused medication and has collected more than 760 tons of medicines since 1998. Imagine all of those chemicals kept out of the wastestream.
  • See if your local household hazardous-waste collection program accepts expired or unused medicines.
  • Ask if your pharmacy will take back expired drugs, as is common in Canada and Australia.
  • If you must dispose of old medication yourself, it is better to let it decompose in a landfill than in the wastestream. Don’t flush it. Break up capsules and crush tablets, then put them back in the original container with the child-resistant cap.

We’d like to hear about the steps that you take to reduce water pollution. Please leave a comment.

Read more: Community, Health & Safety, Life, Reduce, Recycle & Reuse

By Melissa Breyer, Senior Editor, Care2 Green Living

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Melissa Breyer

Melissa Breyer is a writer and editor with a background in sustainable living, specializing in food, science and design. She is the co-author of True Food (National Geographic) and has edited and written for regional and international books and periodicals, including The New York Times Magazine. Melissa lives in Brooklyn, NY.

2 comments

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4:18PM PDT on Apr 9, 2008

I was also told today by the uniform-supply company that provides our shop rags (yes, they also recycle the hazardous waste through EPA-approved channels), that 2 of the competing uniform-supply companies in this county send their dirty shop rags to Tijuana to be cleaned in order to save paying the EPA fees for processing hazardous waste. Those plants in Tijuana just dump the waste directly in the ocean. Mexico turns a blind eye to pollution.

The local repair shops who do business with those 2 companies probably don't have a clue how much damage is being done, all they see is their bill is a few cents less every week because they do business with a company that doesn't care about anything BUT the money.

We have to educate everybody that when they throw something away, it isn't gone - it's just become someone else's problem. We have to teach people that every buying decision they make has the power to do good or to do harm, and that it is each individual's responsibility NOT to harm the environment.

3:54PM PDT on Apr 9, 2008

I have always been water-conservative & careful not to pollute - I refuse to allow poison of any kind or even chemical fertilizer on my property and am careful not to allow runoff when I do need to water. My plants are fed with the compost I make. However, I was stunned to realize that if I take ibuprofen, I am ultimately medicating the fish. OMG!! :-( I'm sorry, fish! I promise to redouble my efforts to only take natural anti-inflammatories like flax oil.

Also, as the owner of an auto-repair shop near the ocean, I am acutely aware of how much damage is done by commercial operations. At my shop, we religiously recycle everything possible - waste oil, used coolant, broken parts, dirty filters, batteries, even the cardboard boxes the new parts come in and junk mail - hazardous waste goes to EPA-approved recycling companies (for which I pay a fee), and everything else goes to the local recycling center. I am happy to do this - it is my moral obligation.

But it breaks my heart to see how much of these items are thrown in the trash every day by my competitors.

My observation is, the lower the prices the company advertises, the more likely they are to throw hazardous waste in the trash rather than pay to recycle it properly.

Please keep that in mind next time you are shopping for the cheapest oil change - your dirty oil just might end up in the ocean the next day. Ask the repair shop you go to what recycling efforts they make - I am proud to show my customers what we do.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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