Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

Water filters: emblems of an imploding civilization?

As a child growing up in the 1970s — a time when Cuyahoga River had recently caught fire and every major city lay unquiet beneath a shroud of brown smog — I remember drinking tapwater without dread, and my parents never needed to buy drinking water or attach filters to our faucets. Today, nearly four decades later, after innumerable advances in water-treatment technology and nationwide investment in treatment facilities, we have become a nation of bottled-water drinkers whose water often requires in-home purification before it can be used to wash our bodies, clothes or dishes, and some of us refuse to use the rank slime that oozes from their taps not merely for fear that it might be contaminated, but from the depressing certainty that it is.

Water purifier

This portable water filter will make about two liters of tapwater drinkable, but what about the water you use to cook, wash dishes, shower and wash your hands?
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How did this happen?

The answer is disturbing. Across the United States of the early years of the 21st century, an uncountable profusion of municipal water districts tries every day to coordinate efforts to produce safe tapwater, and every day it falls further short of the mark. But they are not wholly at fault for this. As anti-tax professed libertarians frittle away at governmental budgets, more and more funds have been appropriated to maintain high-profile services, such as police and fire departments, leaving the less dramatic public-health agencies underfunded and understaffed. This has sharply limited the ability of local water departments to become aware of what’s in the water, much less remove it.

Look at the monthly publications most municipal utilities districts issue. Typically, these newsletters describe the condition of local drinking water in what appears to be some detail, with up to two dozen different tests and their average results as obtained from several different local sources. The trouble is, the actual range of materials being tested is shockingly limited when one considers just how many common contaminants modern tapwater contains. It is no longer sufficient to test for and destroy the traditional range of infectious microorganisms, for these have long ceased to be the most challenging concern. In addition to biological pathogens, water now has everything in it from the fluoride that most American cities mandate, to various concentrations of residual chlorine or chloramine, to lead, cadmium and other toxic heavy metals, to prescription and recreational drugs, to industrial chemical and radioactive wastes, to sewage cross-contaminants, to products of chemical reactions between organic contaminants and the compounds used to disinfect the water. But how many municipal water departments are equipped to test for all of these, much less motivated to work — probably “off the clock” — to find out more than is demanded of them?

Common water contaminants

Garbage in, garbage out: All of this (and so much more!) goes into our bodies with every sip.
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Of course, what we don't know can and does hurt us. People throughout the U.S. — as throughout the world — die every day from tainted water. Most such harm is done by chemicals that aren’t regulated and for which no routine testing exists.

The root cause of this disorder in our water delivery system is hostility to government, inculcated by corporate interests that have long realized the only check on their callous greed is a government powerful and independent enough to force them to accept regulation in the interest of public safety and health. Such regulation, of course, reduces profitability, and is therefore intolerable to a corporate culture whose sole purpose is to maximize profit. Therefore, these interests have decided government must be weak and corrupt. Predictably, such a government will also fulfill the predictions of its detractors by failing to protect public health, and the fearsome state of our country’s municipal water supply directly reflects this.

And so it is that the job of ensuring that clean and wholesome water flows from our taps has ceased to be the concern of public agencies and fallen directly upon every individual American, whether or not he has the capacity to meet this responsibility. It’s now up to you: Do you know what’s in your water? And if so, do you have the filtering media and reagents to remove all of it?

Originally published as a review of a thenewecologist.com article on water purification.

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