Renegade Water Secrets with Jim McMahon, ecologist and founder of Sweetwater LLC .
Kevin: So why don’t we tell everyone a little bit about who you are and why you’re on this call and some of your history with water and the environment.
Jim: Well, I have a background in ecology. I studied natural systems and ecology at the University of Illinois and was involved then in the recycling movement that started the recycling movement in the United States, but my love was rivers. I’ve always been drawn to rivers and so I was finally able to start doing some projects with river restoration and saving endangered fish and that was fascinating work. It really taught me a lot about what’s wrong with our river systems and the extent to which we pollute them and then the thing that wore on me about river restoration, I love rivers still, but really nobody wants to do it. Rivers are much more convenient if they run along property lines and don’t take the natural meanders that they do and people like to forget that the entire flood plain is part of the river and then when the river does occupy its space these people become upset. So I get tired of the stress of somebody always being mad at me and I thought about what can I do where people want to help and want to work with me and I came on this water quality issue, just helping people have healthy water in their lives.
Kevin: When you were doing some of the river work, what were some of the things that you saw that you felt were threatening to our health?
Jim: Well, I will never forget. I was walking down the headwaters of the Makinaw River in central Illinois. I was working there as a project director for the Nature Conservancy and my daughter at the time was three or four years old at the most and I was holding her hand and we were walking down what would look like a ditch to anyone, but it was in fact, the start of the river and that far away, was a little agricultural town. A little farm town, maybe just 15 or 20 homes, 30 homes, something like that and out of this pipe protruding into the river and then downstream of the pipe there were actually wads of toilet paper.
Kevin: Oh, gosh.
Jim: Yeah, exactly and needless to say, I just saw this and I thought, what am I doing. I’ve got my baby here and I have no idea. It turns out that communities under a certain size are exempt from any of these Federal regulations.
Jim: Yeah. So think about it. This is an old town, pre-septic system era. So the homes don’t have septic systems and they just piped their waste to the river and there was a community pipe. It wasn’t like every home had a pipe, but they just discharged it right into the river and it goes down stream to everyone else. That was new to me. I had never – I was not aware of that.
Jim: There are thousands of these little communities around the country.
Kevin: They’re all just pumping their waste just right into the rivers and water systems?
Jim: Yeah and then downstream people are swimming in the river, recreating. They may be pulling water out for drinking water. So that’s very common. That was an “aha” moment and then I was supposed to be saving endangered species. Some of the species there in that river were mussels, a little mussel that lived in what had been those headwater swamps and stream and so the ditch commissioners clean out the river. They’ll just take a backhoe and clean out the sediment and pile it up alongside the ditch, which is the river and so there’s these dead mussels that I’m supposed to be saving in the pilings and I called one of the state agencies I worked with and asked them about it and they said, “Well, you really can’t prove that those mussels were killed by that activity. They might have been there already.” And I just thought, what am I doing again. Let’s just tie one hand behind my back and then tell me I have to go out and save these things. For instance, the ditch commissioners were a group that was threatened, because they’d been doing this since their grandfathers had settled that land in central Illinois.
Jim: So here I was for some little tiny mussel, clam, wanting them to modify their practices and people don’t take well to change.
Jim: I actually had a bomb threat against my house. My wife, my daughter and son and I went to this event at the school, the local school. It was packed. The audience was packed in around bleachers in the gymnasium and right around my family on any side of us, front, back and either side, there was eight feet of open space, so one guy told me that I might as well be from Mars.
Jim: That’s true. These people were just not ready.
Kevin: Wow. We talked about the sewage. Obviously, this goes down into our water system and our water supply. Let’s get right into that and some of the other things that we should be concerned about getting into what we’re drinking every day.
Jim: I think the biggest concern is chlorine. It’s something people don’t think about. Cities, municipal water managers tell you that your water is safe, it meets all EPA regulations, that chlorine is a disinfectant used to kill germs in water, but chlorine is relatively dangerous. It’s been linked now, to bladder cancer in men. It’s been linked to breast cancer in women. It’s been linked to heart disease. So chlorination is important in terms of disease control. Think about it. Let’s just take my example of the river a minute ago. Say there is human waste coming downstream and that can lead to the presence of disease organisms. So then you want to treat the water and that’s what started chlorination. The first attempt, the first major city was Chicago and the whole incidence of typhoid went away.
Jim: So basically what they’re trying to do is sterilize that water, but it’s only since the 90s that we’ve begun to learn about the byproducts of chlorine, trihalomethane, haloacidic acids and if you look at your water report, these will be listed always the levels of each of these. What happens is when chlorine interacts with organic material in water, it creates these carcinogenic compounds. Those can accumulate in the body and one of the things that’s been found is that typically women with breast cancer have a higher incidence of these chlorinated compounds in their breast tissue. Organo-chlorines, they’re called. I can’t say that’s by any means the only cause, but it’s one of the major causes, so you shouldn’t be drinking chlorinated water. Half or more of your chlorine consumption in a day comes in the shower, so chlorine in its natural form is a gas and so as the water comes into the shower it’s vaporizing the chlorine. You’re inhaling it and then you’re also absorbing it in your skin and your pores are open. So the shower is just as dangerous a place to intake chlorine as drinking it.
Kevin: Wow. You don’t even think about it.The gas part of it. The chlorine’s on my body, but the fact that you’re inhaling the gas is a lot more dangerous I would imagine.
Kevin: Wow. This is kind of off topic here, but is there anything in the works about something that will disinfect water like chlorine does without the side effects, like that?
Jim: Yeah, because of the regulations a number of cities have gone to chloramine, which is a combination of chlorine and ammonia and those were thought to be safer. It turns out they’re just as bad or worse. A University of Illinois study has turned out a study on carcinogenic byproducts of chloramines.
Jim: So we still have that problem. Some cities use ozone. Ozone is better than chlorine, but you’re talking about a transition. How do you transition all these water plants in the country to ozone? Ozone has a bromine byproduct. I haven’t really heard a lot about any downside impacts of that, but I think the most promising is ultraviolet light and ultraviolet light there’s only city in the country using it. It’s a small city in Wisconsin. They don’t use chlorine at all, except once or twice a year. They use chlorine to just sort of flush through their pipes. Ultraviolet light has no known side effects. It just destroys the DNA of anything passing by the light.
Kevin: That’s great.
Jim: So UV light and filtration is a good alternative.
Kevin: What other things are we looking for in our water that we should be concerned about?
Jim: Well, along with the little example of the farm community dumping their human waste directly into the river, every city in the country now, is like that on a larger scale that are kind enough to remove the solids. They remove the paper products and the fecal material and they treat the water for bacteria. They’re aerating it. They’re putting it through a process to try to get it to digest some of the waste products. Then it goes in to the river. So everything that people consume ends up in that river. Big issues. Pharmaceuticals. I read about one just the other day that’s used in the production of – well, pesticides was one, but another more common – oh, cleaners.
Jim: Also, cleaners and so the pharmaceuticals, hormones given to women as they age, the byproduct or this ingredient of household cleaners are affecting fish very directly. So downstream of any major city – that’s a pretty broad statement, but there are numerous examples where they’ve actually gone in and sampled downstream of Denver, Minneapolis, Boulder, Colorado, upstream of Washington, DC in the Potomac River they’ll find male fish. First of all, you’ll either find all female fish, or you’ll find that the male fish are carrying eggs.
Jim: So these are endocrine disruptors. Of course, the fish live in that water, so some scientists are quick to say there’s no indication that could have a negative effect on humans, but that’s nonsense. If it’s having an impact on fish in these, albeit larger quantities, then as we consume that very same water one of my concerns with the EPA allowances of contaminants is that it’s the low levels of contaminants that are creating the damage. For instance, one scientist at Berkley raised tadpoles. One tadpole was in water with one part per billion of atrozine. The other tadpoles were in water with more atrozine and some with no atrozine. It was the one with one part per billion of atrozine that had male and female sex organs. When there was more atrozine, that didn’t happen and so I think what you’re seeing is as the levels increase, it can actually trigger our immune system, whereas, its these low levels that can accumulate in the body and that can never trigger the immune system and that could be the key to this correlation with heart disease and breast cancer.
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