Open access to science eprints
TheSparc provides both scientists and the general public free open access to scientific papers that are important for the survival of people and planet
ISIS Report 22/01/13
Water Not Fit to Drink
From pathogens, biological drugs, illicit drugs to arsenic Prof Joe Cummins
referenced version of this article is posted on ISIS members website and is
otherwise available for download here
Please circulate widely and repost, but you must give the URL of the original and preserve all the links back to articles on our website. If you find this report useful, please support ISIS by subscribing to our magazine Science in Society, and encourage your friends to do so. Or have a look at the ISIS bookstore for other publications
Unpolluted healthy drinking water is a right not a privilege. That
right must be protected and restored to those suffering from shortages of
drinking water or forced to consume polluted water. Water suppliers must fully
and truthfully report findings of water pollutants even at levels deemed to be
safe for human consumption by regulatory bureaucracies.
An estimated one billion people lack access to safe, reliable
water supplies, and two billion people lack adequate sanitation. In the face of
growing populations, climate change, and increasing transboundary water issues,
conflict and even warfare over water have been widely predicted . Our goal
must be to provide water security for all, especially for the poor everywhere.
Drinking water pollution poses immediate threats in developing
countries that are different from those in developed countries. Parasites and
pathogens are frequently associated with pollution of drinking water sources by
faeces from humans and farm animals in developing countries. In addition,
scarce groundwater sources are often contaminated by inorganic pollutants,
primarily arsenic or fluoride, derived from geological sources. Pesticide
contamination of drinking water is a significant problem in developing
countries where, as the result of inadequate regulation, over 70 % of
agrichemicals used intensively are banned or heavily restricted in the West.
Drinking water in the developed world is mainly contaminated by
persistent organic pollutants along with pharmaceuticals derived from human and
veterinary waste. The use of ‘second hand’ water following sewage treatment
along with the growing requirements that groundwater must be recharged with
such water poses a special concern. In North America, global warming has
brought the scourge of the western pine beetle and frequent forest fires,
contaminating the pristine watersheds with breakdown products of dead trees and
aromatic hydrocarbons produced in the forest fires.
water pollution in the developing world
Drinking water pollution in developing countries is directly
influenced by inadequate hygienic practices. In many countries of sub-Saharan
Africa and Southern Asia, sanitation coverage is below 50 %. This facilitates
the spread of pathogens and parasites resulting in debilitation and death .
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation targeted the provision of robust and low
cost sanitation technologies worldwide. It issued a challenge to universities
to design toilets that can capture and process human waste without piped water,
sewer or electrical connections, and transform human waste into useful
resources, such as energy and water, at an affordable price . Prestigious
Universities including California Institute of Technology, University of
Toronto, Cranfield University have produced prototypes such as ones using solar
energy to vaporize and recover water from faeces while converting the solids to
biochar or fertilizer . Presently the numerous prototypes have not yet been
tested in the field where some may prove effective.
Drinking water is a major source of microbial pathogens in
developing regions, although poor sanitation and polluted food sources are the main
routes of enteric pathogen exposure. Gastrointestinal disease outcomes are also
more severe due to under-nutrition and lack of intervention strategies.
water quality, sanitation and hygiene account for some 1.7 million deaths a
year world-wide (3.1 % of all deaths), mainly through infectious
diarrhoea. Nine out of 10 such deaths are in children and virtually all of the
deaths are in developing countries. Major enteric pathogens in children include
rotavirus, Campylobacter jejuni, enterotoxigenic Escherichia
coli, Shigella spp. and Vibrio cholerae O1, and
possibly enteropathogenic E. coli, Aeromonas spp. V. cholerae
O139, enterotoxigenic Bacteroides fragilis, Clostridium difficile
and Cryptosporidium parvum. All except Cryptosporidium are easily control by
chlorination of water; while chlorination will save lives in epidemic
outbreaks, it requires technical sophistication to avoid poisoning and toxic
Pathogens, such as Helicobacter pylori and Burkholderia pseudomallei
are significant pathogens in a number of areas. In adults, various sequellae
such as myocarditis, diabetes, reactive arthritis and cancers follow some
months to years after initial infections . For the most part these pathogens
are maintained through faecal contamination of the drinking water sources.
However, animal as well as human faeces may contribute to the spread of many pathogens, so for that reason the Gates Foundation focus on human
toilets provides a necessary but not a sufficient remedy to the spread of
microbial diseases in drinking water.
Groundwater pollution with arsenic and fluoride:
Arsenic contamination of groundwater occurs naturally, with high concentrations in deeper levels of groundwater. Over 137
million people in more than 70 countries are affected by arsenic poisoning of
drinking water. Arsenic contamination of ground water is found in many
countries throughout the world, including the USA,
nevertheless the contaminant tends to be greatest in underdeveloped regions in
Asia, India and South America . Extremely toxic levels of fluoride are found
in arid and semiarid regions in Africa, Asia and North and South America .
polluted with elevated arsenic and fluoride causes concurrent
chronic poisoning in India, China, Bangladesh, Mexico and Argentina. Currently
arsenic poisoning is treated using chelation and supportive care while there is
no treatment for fluoride poisoning . In
Bangladesh, 80 million people are affected by arsenic poisoning from well water
and one in ten of these people will develop cancer from the exposure. Chronic
arsenic exposure is linked to skin lesions, cancers, adverse reproductive
outcomes, nerve disorders, and impaired cognitive outcome in children.
Extensive cardiovascular effects are encountered in humans and maternal arsenic
exposure results in miscarriage, small birth size and infant mortality and
morbidity. Arsenic-affected people experience enormous social stigma as
people regard it an infectious disease or a curse . Like
arsenic, fluoride is gene toxic and nerve toxic while the most prominent
effects include abnormal teeth enamel in children and deformity of limbs and spine
. Arsenic- and fluoride-contaminated groundwater is a chronic burden
particularly in developing countries, which have no alternatives to polluted
drinking water or inexpensive and robust technology to purify the polluted
Surface water pollution
The pollution of
surface waters such as rivers in the developing world is staggering. A direct comparison of the river water quality
in developed and developing countries concluded : Based on pressures and
impacts, it is evident that dissolved metal, organic, and faecal pollution in
the rivers of developing countries are in a somewhat dreadful condition in
comparison with the rivers of a developed country. A major contributor to the
deterioration in the quality of surface waters is pesticide pollution.
Pesticide contamination of drinking water is a significant problem in
developing countries, where over 70 % of agrichemicals used intensively are
banned or heavily restricted in the developed world .
Drinking water pollution in the developed world: The Stockholm Convention
main focus of concern over drinking water in developed countries has been
persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are
targeted by the Stockholm Convention for reduction and eventual elimination
from production, trade and release. All POPs share properties that make them
long-lived (persistent), getting enriched along the food chains (bioaccumulative), present at
elevated concentrations in remote locations (prone to long-range transport) and
elicit adverse effects (toxic). Since its adoption on 22 May 2001, the Convention has identified just over 20 chemicals and
groups of compounds as POPs. These include the original ‘dirty dozen’ compounds
as the coming into force of the convention (aldrin, chlordane, dieldrin,
endrin, heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene, mirex, toxaphene, DDT, polychlorinated
dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzofurans (PCDD/Fs) and polychlorinated biphenyls),
followed by another nine compounds in 2009 (chlordecone; hexabromobiphenyl; tetra-,
penta-, hexa- and hepta bromodiphenylether; a-hexachlorocyclohexane; ß-HCH; HCH
(lindane); pentachlorobenzene; perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, its salts and
perfluorooctane sulfonyl fluoride). In 2011, endosulfan was added to the list .
Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants
was adopted at a Conference of Plenipotentiaries on 22 May 2001 in Stockholm,
Sweden, and entered into force on 17 May 2004. The Convention prohibits or
takes legal administrative measures to eliminate the listed chemicals and to
forbid import or export of the chemicals. The Convention has been ratified by
all but a few African nations, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States .
Guidelines for a number of pesticides and industrial chemicals that are not
considered persistent are provided by the World Health Organization (WHO) .
However, WHO does not consider the pesticide glyphosate among a number of other
widely used pesticides hazardous and does not provide a guideline. In
contrast, US EPA  and the Canadian Government provide guidelines in the
face of growing evidence that the herbicide encountered in groundwater and
drinking water and has been found to be toxic to both animals and humans (see
Glyphosate Should Be Banned, ISIS Special Report).
Pharmaceuticals in drinking water
Among the licit drugs identified in water supplies are
antibiotics, analgesics and anti-inflammatories, beta-blockers, hormones, statins,
selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors antiepileptic, diuretics,
anti-asthmatics, antidepressants, antineoplastic, antipsychotics, stimulants,
sedatives, and anticoagulants. Pharmaceuticals are synthetic or natural
chemicals found in prescription medicines, over-the counter therapeutic drugs
and veterinary drugs. The ubiquitous use of pharmaceuticals (both prescribed
and over the counter) has resulted in the continuous discharge of
pharmaceuticals and their metabolites into wastewater. They are introduced
through sewage, which carries the excreta of individuals and patients who have
used these chemicals, from uncontrolled drug disposal (e.g. discarding drugs
into toilets) and from agricultural runoff in livestock manure. In addition,
pharmaceuticals may be released into water sources in the effluents from poorly
controlled manufacturing or production facilities.
There is clear and substantive evidence that pharmaceuticals in
water do impair aquatic organisms and the genotoxicity of both the pharmaceuticals
and their breakdown products are likely to be injuring people and causing
impairment of the nervous system. For example, gene expression patterns were
examined with microarrays in the brain of fathead minnow fish treated with a
mixture of three psychoactive pharmaceuticals (fluoxetine, venlafaxine
&carbamazepine) in dosages intended to be similar to the highest observed
conservative estimates of environmental concentrations. Only the sets of genes
associated with idiopathic autism were unambiguously enriched. Unmetabolized psychoactive pharmaceuticals induce autism-like
gene expression patterns in fish. This may well have implications for human
(see  Pharmaceutical
Cocktails Anyone?, SiS 56).
Drugs in Drinking Water
drugs and their metabolites in the environment and their potential impact on
the ecosystem is a growing concern. Cocaine, morphine, amphetamine, and MDMA
have potent pharmacological activities and their presence as complex mixtures
in water may well have adverse effects on aquatic organisms and human health.
However, there is no regulation over the presence of these pollutants in
treated wastewater, surface water, drinking water, or the atmosphere. Extensive
reviews from around the world have documented widespread pollution of water by
illicit drugs. The data provide information on drug abuse that cannot be
obtained from conventional epidemiology. Even more importantly, they highlight the
need for remediation in order to restore the quality
of urban drinking water. Drinking water polluted with illicit drugs has been
deemed acceptable by government agencies including the WHO, the European Union
and the US Environment Protection Agency, in clear violation of the
precautionary principle with regard to public health and safety.
For example, the amphetamine-based drugs are altered by drinking
water chlorination to produce by-products that are more stable and genotoxic
than the parent drug. Like pharmaceutical drug pollution, the levels observed
are sufficient to affect aquatic organisms. Precaution demands that the public be
alerted to the growing threat to drinking water. The locations where drinking
water is polluted with illicit drugs should not be withheld from the population
affected (see  Illicit
Drugs in Drinking Water, SiS 56).
both licit and illicit drugs it is alarming to realize that many of the drugs
and their metabolites are very stable in the aquatic environment. In some cases
water treatment by chlorination, active oxygen or ultraviolet light may reduce
the level of the drug in treated water while producing by-products that are
more stable and more toxic than the drug. The drugs are most commonly
encountered in the form of mixtures which should be evaluated
for synergism. It is worth mentioning that the employment of biological
drugs, produced in genetically modified microbes or cell cultures derived from animals or humans, are becoming commonplace in
vaccines, cancer therapy and for treatment of chronic diseases in human and
veterinary medicine. The biological drugs tend to be active at very low
concentration and the fate of the drugs or their by-products in wastewater and
drinking water should be studied.
Climate-induced forest die-off
In many countries and regions, pristine water is supplied through
forest watersheds to large populations. Global warming has caused the mountain
pine beetle to kill vast areas of forests in western North America. The
decaying dead trees in those forest watersheds are a unique pollution of the pristine
waters. The by-products of the decaying trees have
begun to appear at elevated levels in drinking water . Furthermore, the
blighted forests are prone to spread fire over large areas, leaving behind
aromatic hydrocarbons which seep into the water supply.
Pristine drinking water has begun to disappear from the planet.
We must depend more and more on recharged groundwater and purified waste water.
The Gates Foundation’s focus on reinventing the toilet may uncover a modern
Thomas Crapper who made flushing popular. But that is not enough. Simple and
inexpensive technology for freeing water of its organic and inorganic
pollutants should be the
basis of a competition similar to the Gates reinvention of the toilet. In order to cope appropriately with the growing poisoning of
our drinking water supply we should demand full and truthful reporting of all
tests done on our drinking water, and above all, regulators should make every
effort to reduce pollution at source.
There are 3 comments on this article so far. Add your comment
|david chapman Comment left 22nd January 2013 21:09:15|
its interesting to hear about the work of the gates foundation and their concern about water pollution.Are people aware of the gates foundations support and investment in the transgenic industry, responsible for so much damage , land grabbing ,contamination with glifosates.destruction of biodiversity etc. etc...
|Rory Short Comment left 22nd January 2013 21:09:03|
The biosphere of which we are part is a system based on the inter-linking of all the component parts, nothing stands apart from anything else and through billions of years of evolution a balanced system came into existence. The problems we are now facing in so many areas of life are not independent of one and other and their common root lies in humankind acting in total ignorance of this reality.
|Todd Millions Comment left 25th January 2013 10:10:35|
At this point, I would expect nothing useful from Bill or Melinda.Many parts of the world could benifit from proper privy pits,on the hard pan and salt/alkiline flats, too allow fertilizing pores for water seepage.I believe I-sis reported such on a program in the southern border of the sahara.Coarse vegatation waste is needed for buffering in these,and a shot of WOOD ash-with some charcoal contained(after each use),greatly reduces odour and fly problems.One liter showers were developed years ago by the MaGill minimium housing group.With some mods these work very well,and are fairly easily built and maintained(with moderate intelligence and ability)These also work well for dishes.The savings in infrastructure with these approaches,can't be over estimated.Nor can the push back from those masters of sabotage-plumbers and mafia bankers(same line really,they push the same product.).
Thus in any composter approach you have too train yourself too do your own maitenince and intallation.Even in Mongolia with Chinese plumbers,according too report.Yet these are worh pursuing-When the love canals of toxic waste solvents and c02 we have injected dowm bore holes,starts moving out of the fractured dissolvingrock strata-Non posioned water will become very precious indeed.This is part of the plan in play I suspect-Quo Bono?