I once visited a diamond mine in rural Africa to supervise a project. While onsite, our hosts were very careful to warn us not to use any of the onsite water for any purpose, as it was contaminated with human feces. Not being a water-guy at the time, I was somewhat surprised, since I knew that they pumped water from a picturesque river a few miles from the plant. Inquiring further, my host taught me that an informal settlement upstream had recently been upgraded by the local government, and the newly installed centralized toilets were discharging their “load” directly into the river. With a wry smile, he reminded me that it’s “…pretty sh**ty living downstream”.

In Beijing this year at the Global Water Purification Summit, I had the opportunity to reflecting back on that conversation while discussing groundwater contamination with a Chinese government representative. Speaking with other delegates from the Pacific Rim about the massive increase in the number of human-related contamination issues that we’re having to deal with, the conclusion was that no matter where you live, we all live “downstream”.

I recently analyzed a surface water body at 8,500 ft. and found algae previously unseen at that location. The nearest body containing the same strain of algae was located at 6,000ft and almost 50 miles away. – the algae had traveled with the wind and finally settled in a new home at higher altitude to provide a fresh source of contamination and disruption to the previously stable ecosystem. We have to open our eyes and realize that waterborne contamination goes UP, as well as down.

A new study from the U.S. Geological Survey titled, “Pesticides in Mississippi air and rain: A comparison between 1995 and 2007,” reveals that glyphosate herbicide and its still-toxic degradation byproduct Aminomethylphosphonic Acid (AMPA) were found in over 75% of the air and rain samples tested in 2007.

The researchers evaluated a wide range of commonly used pesticides through weekly composite air and rain sampling during active growing seasons in the Mississippi Delta agricultural region. The researchers disclosed the following:

  • Thirty-seven compounds were detected in the air or rain samples in 2007; 20 of these were present in both air and rain.
  • Glyphosate was the predominant new herbicide detected in both air (86%) and rain (77%) in 2007, but were not measured in 1995.

Please note that the levels of detection were very low and well within regulatory-acceptable limits at the time of testing. This information helps to illustrate that our environment is constantly in flux, and that natural forces will “stir-up” latent contaminants, and possible transport then many thousands of miles away from the point of origin.

Everything we do affects another, everything they do affects us, and as global citizens we need to consider the impact of our activities. In 2010, Linda Birnbaum’s testimony before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment illustrated the dramatic impact of endocrine-disrupting contaminants found in water and the environment in general.   Specifically, she testified that “Both naturally occurring and manmade substances can be endocrine disruptors. Some, e.g., arsenic and agricultural chemicals, are ubiquitous in the environment. In addition to the growing use of hormonally-active pharmaceuticals that pass through the bodies of those taking them and end up in water treatment systems and surface waters, many of the chemicals that are being found to have endocrine effects are components of a wide range of consumer products, including some water bottles, cosmetics, sunscreens, and other personal care products. Substances applied to the skin can be directly absorbed but also end up getting washed off our bodies and into our water systems. As a result, chemicals with endocrine disrupting activity are widely dispersed in our environment, often at levels plausibly associated with biological effects; exposure to humans is widespread”.

At the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, the world was reminded about the delicate relationship between water quality management, sanitation, and our impact on the environment at large. We heard reports of raw sewerage in the Marina da Gloria containing hazardous levels of bacteria and viruses. Water in Rodrigo de Freitas Lake showed test data ranging from 14 million adenoviruses per liter on the low end to 1.7 billion per liter at the high end. We also marveled at a swimming pool that was colonized overnight from clear to green. Some people in other developed nations used these incidents as an opportunity to deride the plucky nation that has grown into a global economic powerhouse. This hubris belies the fact that no nation is entirely immune from failures in infrastructure or overloading of established systems, and that we must always remain ever-vigilant to protect for waterborne contamination.

As water quality improvement and management professionals, it is our responsibility to learn and understand the impact of anthropogenic and natural environmental contamination, especially comprehending the fact that water in the air, water on the ground, and water under the ground is subject to constant change and movement. Levels of contamination can fluctuate dramatically. We can no longer glibly tell people that “deep water is safe”, or that “high mountain streams are good”; it is irresponsible to ever categorize any water as safe or unsafe without adequate testing and appropriate treatment.

We frequently hear new disclosures about disinfection, treatment, and distributions systems maintenance failures at the municipal level. Heavy metals, industrial chemicals, bacteria, viruses, and other contaminants were served to unsuspecting customers, often for days or weeks after initial discovery. This is not meant to be an indictment of the hard-working and under-appreciated municipal water department workers who do the very best job they can with the tax dollars that they are given, but rather a solemn reminder that we can’t rely on central facilities all the time, and that a wise person will invest in controlling the aesthetics and safety of the drinking, bathing, and working water being used in their home or business.

Market research worldwide indicates a significant increase in consumer awareness about water quality issues, and that there is an increasing demand for bottled water, ultrafiltration, ultraviolet disinfection and other “final barrier” technologies to give them the peace of mind that they want while improving the taste, odor and mouthfeel of their water.

Technological improvements continue to drive down the acquisition cost and total cost of ownership of water quality improvement systems. As a water quality improvement professional, you can no longer be satisfied with “just” selling softeners, you need to leverage the latest technologies for your clients, it is in their very best interest.