I missed PBS’ Frontline documentary, “Poisoned Waters,” which aired Tuesday evening. The program revealed that the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has found new chemical compounds—described by scientists as dangerous to human health—in drinking-water systems across the country. (You can view the full program online.)
“Poisoned Waters” shows that chemicals in our cosmetics, deodorants, prescription medications and household cleaners are finding their way into sewers, storm drains, waterways and drinking water—an environmental crisis that organic consumers have long recognized, but mainstream Americans may find surprising.
“The long-term, slow-motion risk is already being spelled out in large population studies,” explains Robert Lawrence, MD, a professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Public Health. These chemicals, known as endocrine disruptors, compromise normal physiological functioning.
“We can show that people with higher levels of some of these chemicals may have a higher incidence” of disease, as well as problems like lower sperm count, adds Linda Birnbaum, PhD, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. “In most cases, we don’t know what the safe levels are.”
USGS tests of source waters for urban drinking-water systems have documented new contaminants coast to coast. Other scientists say these chemicals are causing fish kills, frogs with six legs, male fish carrying female eggs and other mutations—critical warning signs for humans.
Millions of people are being exposed to endocrine disruptors, Dr. Lawrence tells Frontline correspondent Hedrick Smith, “and we don’t know precisely how many of them are going to develop premature breast cancer, going to have problems with reproduction, going to have all kinds of congenital anomalies of the male genitalia—things that are happening at a broad low level so that they don’t raise the alarm in the general public.”
These emerging pollutants, coupled with well-known industrial contaminants like PCBs, lead, mercury and agricultural pollution from factory farms, have prevented the United States from making many of our waterways fishable and swimmable again.
“The environment has slipped off our radar screen because it’s not a hot crisis like the financial meltdown,” Smith concludes. “But pollution is a ticking time bomb. It’s a chronic cancer that is slowly eating away the natural resources that are vital to our very lives.”