In particular, they mentioned agricultural waste — animal manure, but also industrial waste, harder problems because the sources are dispersed and tend to leech into the groundwater system, rather than be poured directly from the end of a pipe, as in the case of sewerage treatment plants.
One frightening aspect of the show focused on how new chemicals that mess with our endocrine systems are in the water, but not being taken out of public drinking water supplies … partly because scientists cannot yet quantify theirs effects. Thus, there are no regulations or standards for these chemicals, yet ample evidence to suggest they are harmful not only for the numerous fish turning up dead in the water, but for people. And chemicals we know are harmful are still around, like PCBs. One person working at the Washington, DC water supply said she would not drink the water out of the tap.
It occurred to me that information like this could cause people to say “see, it’s a good thing I am drinking bottled water”. This is a huge issue, as the amount of waste is staggering — in the US 25 Billion single-use plastic bottles are used annually, and only 20% are recycled. Many of these are soda bottles, but bottled water is a growing “healthy” trend. News like that in the Frontline show could reinforce the sentiment that bottled water is the better choice. But is it?
First, just because it’s in a bottle doesn’t mean its any cleaner than what comes out of your tap. Indeed much bottled water is simply filtered tap water — the filter can remove things like chlorine that can affect the water’s taste and particles that affect its clarity. But the kinds of substances found in public water supplies are not easily filtered. In fact, even distillation, the process to purify the water used by Coke and Pepsi products, probably doesn’t remove these chemicals.
Second, the bottles themselves are questionable. Some plastics leech chemicals into water, especially when exposed to heat, sunlight, or other conditions.
Finally, the same federal standards used to certify public drinking water supplies are the ones used for bottled water (or soda, which is mostly water).
So I have no ready answer for the water pollution problem, except to say that it is a clear result of 1) our excessive consumption habits, and 2) failure to properly regulate the industries that pollute.
However I can say that this is no excuse to turn back to your bottled water habit. Get a Brita filter or a PUR tap filter if you like. But don’t buy bottled water.