Time to take another look at our water quality

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

One of the goals of the Rock River Trail Initiative is to enhance the river ecosystem through natural resource conservation, stewardship and environmental planning and design.

Recently, we were driving north along Route 2 and saw 10 bald eagles sitting in oak trees just west of the Byron Nuclear Plant’s water discharge site. Our thoughts turned to the original banning of DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) and the resulting recovery of eagles and other predators. A new study has linked exposure to DDT with Alzheimer’s disease. It does not prove that DDT causes Alzheimer’s, but does raise concerns over long-term effects of selected chemicals.

The recent release of 10,000 gallons of MCHM (4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol) along with PPH into the Elk River in West Virginia has once again focused attention on the potential risk of chemicals in the ecosystem and our drinking water supplies. With the passage of the Toxic Substances Control Act in 1976, thousands of chemicals already in use were grandfathered in, meaning they could continue to be used without any safety testing or data. As a result, there are no publicly available hazard or safety data, or only limited data on many chemicals in use, as is the case with MCHM.

Since the chemical found its way into the drinking water supply for 300,000 people in the Charleston area, the public was warned to only use the water to flush their toilets. Some people who had contacted it in their homes before the alert was issued were treated for skin rashes and nausea. Beyond immediate adverse impacts, people were left to wonder what, if any, adverse long-term impacts on people or the environment exist.

The West Virginia incident points out shortcomings of the existing approach to assessing potential risks of chemicals in widespread use. There are calls for reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act to address safety issues.

One reporter summed up the West Virginia situation by stating that it is time for our political leaders to stop bashing regulations, as they are essential to public health and environmental management.

Within the Rock River watershed in Wisconsin, 18 representatives of Dodge County conservation organizations met this past October to explore ways in which the group could become an effective advocate for protection and rehabilitation of lakes, rivers and streams. The group seeks to use the assessed valuations of waterfront properties in the area in discussions with local and county officials when advocating for enhanced protection of water quality and property rights.

While citizen testing of water quality is a useful assessment tool, two existing municipal services — drinking water supplies and sewage treatment — already collect data on water quality, which could prove helpful.

A new research report, “Wastewater Treatment Plants as Chemical Observatories to Forecast Ecological and Human Health Risks of Manmade Chemicals,” from the Center for Environmental Security at Arizona State University, indicates that sewage sludge might provide a useful tool for assessing human exposure and bioaccumulation of potentially hazardous substances. The study identified eight compounds categorized as most abundant and deserving of further scrutiny for their potential adverse effects on biota, including humans. Given the plethora of chemicals in use, this approach, if proven successful, could provide a cost-effective means of identifying some of the toxic chemicals in our environment.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mailsonia@essex1.com.

From the Feb. 5-11, 2014, issue

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