You might drink what you put down the drain

Published 7:37 am Thursday, September 17, 2009

I recently heard from people who saw the “Frontline” episode “Poisoned Waters” and how our lakes, rivers and streams are being polluted. I found additional information that confirms what the show told us and studies that have revealed other problems and sources of contamination to our environment.

There is new evidence that today’s growing environmental threat comes not from the giant industrial polluters of old but from chemicals in consumer’ face creams, deodorants, prescription medicines and household cleaners and are getting into our waterways and drinking water. Unfortunately, in today’s world, we are all polluters. An average consumer uses about 10 cosmetic products a day, including makeup, soap, shampoo, lotion, hair gel and cologne. People are exposed to roughly 126 different chemicals daily.

A few years ago the deformed frogs found in Minnesota were of great concern about the condition of our environment. As abnormalities were investigated and possible causes for the deformed organisms in our environment were documented, scientists worldwide looked closer at the parts per million of exposure limits for all kinds of products. Most of them have unknown health effects. Many of these deformities may be caused by exposure to “endocrine disruptors,” or chemical compounds that mimic the body’s natural hormones. The endocrine system of fish is very similar to the endocrine system of humans, which is why they are used as an indicator species where pollution or toxins are involved or suspected.

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Some of our greatest pollution threats stem from urban sprawl and overdevelopment that send contaminated storm water into rivers and bays from homes. These pollution threats are not just from new development, but from every street and dwelling. People are accustomed to throwing things into the trash, washing or throwing it into the street or flushing them down the sink or toilet instead of proper disposal through an established program.

Also, our population is accustomed to purchasing products that will do the job quickly and easily without concern about overuse or end disposal of excess. (Reading labels would reduce much of these problems.) An example of this are the toxic cleaners used on barbecue grills. Instead, put the grate on the grass over night and use soap and water to finish the cleaning in the morning.

Studies conducted over the past several years have shown that trace amounts of pharmaceuticals and personal care products are present in the environment that may end up in our drinking water.

So far these chemicals have shown up in extremely low concentrations, but researchers do not yet understand the exact risks from decades of persistent exposure to minuscule levels of these chemicals in our drinking water.

Pharmaceuticals are not regulated under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, so testing for their presence is not required by government agencies. In other words, if you are flushing any drugs or personal care products into the sink or toilet, you are adding to the problem of “treatment” of your wastewater treatment system. Waste treatment facilities are not designed to treat chemicals; they treat human waste.

Cosmetics do not have to be approved by the FDA before they hit the stores and the system for regulating cosmetics in the U.S. is virtually nonexistent. Claims such as “natural,” “organic” or “hypoallergenic” have no specific legal definition and may only mean what the company wants them to mean. Consumers should look for fragrance-free cosmetics with short lists of ingredients.

The founding director of the Environmental Protection Agency, William Ruchelshaus, said it best: “You have to change the way you live in the ecosystem and the place that you share with other living things. You’ve got to learn to live in such a way that it doesn’t destroy other living things. It’s got to become part of our culture.”

Randy Tuchtenhagen is the solid waste officer for Freeborn County.