“That will be one dollar and eighty nine cents, will you be paying in cash?” A bottle of soda or water on a hot day is the ultimate refreshment. We assume the water in that drink is clean, or else they would not sell it. A simple act like buying a bottle of water or soda can change everything – when done with enough frequency. What would you do if you found out the water you drink every day was contaminated with chemicals that can make you sick over time?
Recently, the staff here at MadSciMag discovered that our water sources are being contaminated with chemicals that confuse our bodies (and those of the animals we eat). As we learned from scientists such as Dr. Joan Ruderman, these chemicals are the result of plasticizers in our cans of soup, bottles of soda, and collecting in the water. Pharmaceuticals are not being properly disposed of, and are excreted from our bodies, ending up in our sewage system and finally our water. Seeing that the Clean Water Act, a law that governs water pollution in the United States, has not been updated in twenty years, since before tests for these hormones were commonly available, the EPA doesn’t even require our water to be tested for these chemicals (http://www.epa.gov/lawsregs/laws/cwa.html). Every morning all around the world, mothers throw water bottles into their children’s lunch bag with the intention of keeping them healthy and hydrated. But little do they know, there are hidden harms within these water bottles that are affecting their children. Some of the chemicals found in water today are known as “endocrine disruptors,” and the extent of their effects on our health is still barely understood.
What is an Endocrine Disruptor?
Endocrine disruptors are complex chemicals that get into your system and act like the hormones in your body, disrupting the natural balance of hormones and sometimes causing health problems. According to John Reinhardt from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, the problem with endocrine disruptors is that they “trigger bodily functions that are normally triggered by real human hormones, which cause the body to react as if there are real human hormones there. The body gets confused – is it real?” Reinhardt goes on to explain that “[e]ndocrine disruptors are very complex chemicals” but, given that the endocrine glands are small, “and the amount of hormones that these glands secrete is really small, to disrupt them takes a very small amount as well.”
These thousands of potentially harmful chemicals are generally byproducts of textiles in clothing, paper, plastic and other manufacturing processes, along with pharmaceuticals that people take. It’s like taking prescription medicines that belong to someone else – it messes up your body because its not for you, and makes your body perform certain functions that are not normal or healthy (http://www.nrdc.org/health/effects/bendrep.asp).
Different communities have different levels and routes of exposure to these hormones. Reinhardt explains that although the water that comes into Boston and Cambridge taps is generally considered very clean, “[a]n example of a water supply that’s not as good as this is up in Northeastern Massachusetts in Lowell,” because “[t]hey get their water from the Merrimack River directly.” Though he has not tested to determine whether the Quabbin Reservoir, which serves the Boston Area, has noticeable levels of endocrine disrupting chemicals, given his long history analyzing industrial discharge he is confident the Merrimack has its problems. The Merrimack is the second largest surface drinking water source in New England. It serves a total of 300,000 people through four water treatment plants. The Merrimack has sewage treatment plants upstream of the river where drinking water is collected for the city of Lowell – but these plants do not treat for endocrine disruptors (http://www.nps.gov/lowe/planyourvisit/upload/River.pdf). “Lowell picks it up, treats it, and then distributes it,” Reinhardt explains, so the treated product likely still contains the estrogen from discharged pharmaceuticals and other endocrine-disrupting waste. Another city drinking this water? Our sister program’s hometown of Lawrence, nine miles downstream from Lowell.
Another way our bodies are affected by the chemicals is by the food we eat. To be specific, eating fish. As fish swim around in the water, they pick up all the little bits of chemicals that would not usually affect humans at those levels, but affect them and will affect us on a large scale. For example, zebrafish or herring living upstream from a sewage treatment plant and downstream from factories will take in raw chemicals from manufacturing, many of which are endocrine disruptors. Even the ones downstream from the freshly treated sewage water still show problems. Sometimes it changes the gender of the fish because these endocrine disruptors mimic estrogen, turning some of the fish into females (http://gallery.usgs.gov/audios/3). Even though we may not be eating zebrafish we need to take into consideration the food chain. Fish eat fish. We might be eating a cod fish, which has eaten a lot of smaller fish. Now think about all of the even smaller fish that those fish ate. If you add up all of those chemicals through the food chain, it can affect humans in just the same way that it affected the zebrafish. With all of that extra estrogen, researchers believe females may be getting fertile at earlier ages and males might start gaining female characteristics. This is called bioaccumulation, and as you see though small amounts of these endocrine disruptors may not affect us but when we consume large amounts is can confuse you body.
What are the ways that we can avoid the affects of poor water quality?
In order to prevent being affected from the poor water quality, people should have their water filtered and stay away from the bodies of water that are known for poor water quality. Another way is by disposing prescription drugs properly at a local pharmacy, disposing chemicals properly, and using environmentally friendly products when they can. All of this has to do with whether or not waste is being thrown out in the right way, and if people care enough for their environment to take care of it.
We believe that the people need to live where they can enjoy a natural healthy environment. Time is of the essence. How long do the people have to wait until they are assured their safety from water that they use every single day?
What are your final thoughts? Send us your opinion.
Writing and research questions by Tamarra Pierre-Louis, Eniola Tuby Lukan and Imani V. Abraham, with research and additional writing contributed by Olivia Porte, Courtney Ertillien and Cassandra Renaudin.