Last week, I wrote a column extolling the virtues of tap water as an alternative to bottled water. In the interest of journalistic fairness, I feel I must report to you this latest news from The New York Times.
On Monday, the Times ran a story saying that more than 20 percent of the nation’s water treatment systems have violated key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act over the past five years. Water contaminated with unsafe levels of arsenic, uranium and some bacteria found in sewage has been provided to millions of people.
Furthermore, very few of the water systems in violation were fined or punished. In some instances, technical assistance was offered by the EPA, which is charged with enforcing the Safe Drinking Water Act. However, many water systems remained out of compliance.
We are being let down by the institutions intended to keep us safe.
But arsenic, uranium and bacteria are only the tip of the iceberg. About 100,000 other chemicals on the market today are floating beneath the surface.
Thousands of chemicals are produced in this country that no one knows much about. Even the companies that make them are unaware. Yet some of these chemicals are manufactured at the scale of millions of pounds a year. This is because the EPA has failed in its task to test these chemicals for their effect on human health and the FDA relies on companies to test the chemicals themselves.
Bisphenol A (BPA) is one of those chemicals.
In numerous studies published earlier this year, including one from the National Institutes of Health, BPA has been linked to neurological defects, diabetes, breast and prostate cancer and heart disease. These studies led Wal-mart to stop selling baby bottles made with the chemical and prompted Nalgene to offer BPA-free water bottles.
Nevertheless, the FDA maintains that BPA is safe at current levels of exposure. The FDA has relied almost exclusively on industry-funded studies to reach this conclusion, while ignoring other studies. In fact, FDA regulators appeared to be unsettlingly cozy with industry lobbyists, based on e-mails obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in their award-winning investigation “Chemical Fallout.”
BPA belongs to a class of chemicals known as endocrine disruptors. These chemicals are found in a wide array of products including pharmaceuticals, pesticides and plastics. Once in the human body, they behave like estrogen and other hormones.
Scientists were first alarmed by endocrine disruptors when animals in the wild began developing sexual abnormalities. Crocodiles’ penises shriveled, male fish were changing sex and frogs and salamanders grew extra legs or sprouted eyes in their mouths.
Researchers connected this evidence with declining sperm counts in men and an increase in genital deformities among newborn boys.
Through further testing on lab animals, endocrine disruptors were found to cause cancers of the breast, brain and testicles; lowered sperm counts, early puberty, miscarriages and other defects of the reproductive system; diabetes and obesity.
All of these disorders have increased markedly in people since many of these chemicals first entered the marketplace.
The American Chemistry Council would like me to note that a causal link between these chemicals and any human health problems has not been unequivocally established and that we should continue using these chemicals until undeniable scientific evidence becomes available, which they of course will provide.
Legislation has been proposed in Congress that will require the EPA to monitor endocrine disruptors – a redundant mandate for an agency already struggling in its duties – and update the Clean Drinking Water Act to define limits on endocrine disruptors in municipal water.
For now, I will continue drinking Fort Collins tap water. I know its source, the Cache la Poudre River. That is more than I can say about the 25 to 40 percent of bottled water, including Aquafina and Dasani, which is actually just tap water from who knows where.
Erik Anderson is a senior natural resources major. His column appears Wednesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.