Lately, the campaign has been in full swing against bottled water. Permanent water bottles are a fashion statement at this point. Sigg, for one, is sweeping the campus with its shiny aluminum bottles.
I’ve heard it said that we, as Americans, are extremely lucky to have access to 100% safe drinking water straight from the tap when almost half of the world is living on less than $2 a day, according to World Bank numbers. When over a billion people drink water, they have to worry about getting life-threatening diarrhea or being infected by bacteria that make your eyelashes turn inside out and scratch your cornea blind (that, by the way, is known as trachoma and is the leading cause of preventable blindness in the world). In America, water is practically sterile. But even if we generally don’t have to worry about micro-organisms, is the Environmental Protection Agency doing as good a job as it should in protecting our water supply?
According to the work of Dr. Tyrone Hayes and his colleagues, the answer is: def not. Dr. Hayes studies atrazine, the most commonly used herbicide in America. This chemical blocks photosynthesis in weeds, but also does some interesting things to people too. The enzyme that converts testosterone to estrogen is identical and mutually replaceable between a wide variety of species, from humans to mice to amphibians. Having atrazine in your body induces it to make more of this enzyme, increasing amount of estrogen you have and messing with the balance of hormones that not only govern the development of the reproductive system but whose levels also affect the development of various hormone-sensitive cancers. He has found that at concentrations as low as 0.1 parts per billion (ppb), atrazine can cause hermaphrodism, mutations in gonads, and even the growth of eggs in the atrazine ovaries of male leopard frogs. Seriously. 0.1 parts per billion is as close to nothing as you can get yet it is still completely transforming these frogs.
The distressing thing is, atrazine is everywhere, and at much higher concentrations than 0.1 ppb. It’s in our drinking water, allowed by the EPA at levels 30 times greater than the dosage seen to produce mutations in frogs. It’s in the migrant workers that apply the herbicide, who have atrazine at levels 24,000 times higher than what is associated with decreased fertility and feminization of frogs. It’s in the rain at concentrations of 1.0 ppb even when the rain is falling far from any farm. It’s in the soil for as long as two years after it is applied in the field, despite a purported half-life of 8 days.
Why is atrazine allowed at such high levels when it has been demonstrated to affect the frog endocrine system at levels thirty times lower than that? Of course, what applies to frogs may not apply to people. Amphibians are known for being particularly sensitive to environmental contaminants and studies looking at atrazine in mammals have been mixed, with results varying for different types of cancer and for different study populations and species. So we don’t know, maybe atrazine exposure only wreaks havoc on amphibian populations and aquatic wildlife. Maybe the dosages that we see are perfectly safe for humans, even for the workers who apply the herbicide. But when we share the same hormones and know that atrazine is an endocrine disrupter for everyone, do we really want to take the chance because results are mixed? What about the demonstrated effect of atrazine on wildlife, and its potential impact on ecosystems and biodiversity? The legal limits for atrazine in drinking water and in the environment are just too high.
I am not trying to fear-monger or get people to flock back to bottled water. Brita can remove chemicals like atrazine from tap water. But don’t just buy a filter and stop, having covered your own butt. Advocate for safer water, for safer working conditions for the people who spray these chemicals, for less contamination in the environment. If we can afford the luxuries of a first-world life, we can afford uncontaminated drinking water.