I am diabetic. It’s no big deal, relative to the millions of other folks making Big Pharma rich with sales of antidotes to the sugar-water guzzling ways of our early years. I would go to bed with a bowl of corn chips, a bowl of salsa, a Pepsi in a Big Gulp cup, and television. Now I take, among a small smorgasbord of medications, metformin, a.k.a. Glucophage. It’s one of the mainstays of the diabetes treatment industry.
But according to a report published in February by the National Institutes of Health, we humans do not use all the medicine we take. The excess metformin we expel as waste to be sent to wastewater treatment plants, which are not designed to remove it before dumping it into nearby streams, where it turns boy fish into, uh, girl fish. Sorry, fish.
Sunscreen is another common product shown to have adverse effect on water-life, according to another report issued back in October. We are cautioned to use the stuff in copious amounts and strengths to protect our skin from the dangerous effects of sunlight. Then we shower or go swimming, and guess what happens to the sunscreen.
Unfortunately, an ingredient in sunscreen kills coral, which is home to many creatures of the lower end of the ocean food chain – without which there would be no upper end. And according to the report, the particular ingredient that is so deadly does its dirty work at concentrations as low as a single drop among six and-a-half Olympic-size swimming pools.
The most recent toxic additive to our water is “microbeads” – tiny plastic balls about the size of a pinhead. The beads are in soaps, facial cleansers and toothpaste, among other beauty-aid products. They “sand” off yellowed teeth and dead facial skin. Then they go down the drain, and pass through the filters at the local wastewater treatment plant, generally into a flowing stream. They soak up other pollutants, and block the gills and intestines of fish and fowl, to which the tiny plastic bits look like tasty morsels.
One might think bottled water to be the safe alternative, but much of what we buy in the grocery store is simply standard tap water from a nearby water treatment plant – which, for many of us, comes from the same river into which the next wastewater treatment plant upstream has dumped the beads and other chemicals it could not remove from its customers’ effluent. Wastewater from Harrisburg becomes drinking water in eastern Adams County, courtesy of pipes tapped into the Susquehanna River.
Several states have banned the beads, but not Pennsylvania. In October, Rep. Keith Gillespie, R-Hellam Township, chairman of the House Game and Fisheries Committee and member of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, acknowledged that microbeads are a big issue, but apparently, 253 legislators cannot find anyone to research and write a bill to protect our water supply.
On the other hand, help may be on the way through Congress. Monday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, and handed it off to the U.S. Senate. But don’t look for the product to disappear from store shelves any time soon. Congress is scheduled to go on vacation at the end of this week. Even if the Senate were to pass the House bill without discussion, and President Obama sign it the same day, the new ban would not go into effect until July 2017.
The intervening year would give companies time to use up their already on hand stockpiles of the offending material.
We always have been good at dumping toxic wastes into our water, but this time, at least, we may all have white teeth.