The world is running out of clean water. We now live in a country where every water body is degraded in quality to some extent. Before water quality standards were written into law, companies freely dumped their effluent waste into local water bodies. The pollution of such water bodies has not been entirely undone, even when attempts to clean them have been made. For example, between 1947 and 1977, General Electric dumped at least 1.3 million pounds of PCB’s into New York’s Hudson River. When the Hudson’s water quality came into question, GE spent millions on donations, lobbyists, scientists, and lawyers, all to avoid taking responsibility (especially after the Hudson was declared a Superfund site in 2002). The company’s biggest fear was that if they were forced to take responsibility for pollution (and therefore remediation) of the Hudson, then they could be forced to take responsibility for other sites that they contaminated*. This would be unfavorable because the requisite equipment and time lost to remediation would cost them additional money.
Since the early 2000’s, GE has been forced to clean the PCB’s from the Hudson, but they do not have to bring the river back to the quality it was in before they arrived. This is problematic for numerous reasons. For one, even if small traces of PCB’s remain, there is still risk to human health. Even in small doses, any toxin can be detrimental to human health if people are exposed frequently enough. More important however, is the fact that PCB’s bioaccumulate in living tissue, meaning that they increase in concentration with each succession of the food chain. This implies that even if all of the PCB’s were to be removed from the sediment in and around the Hudson River, PCB’s will remain in the tissue of local organisms for several years, magnify with each link in the food chain, and eventually reach humans in high concentrations.
For a lot of people, a notice of polluted water spurs an immediate trip to the supermarket to purchase bottled water, yet bottled water is almost always the same quality as local tap water. In many cases, bottled water is tap water. Companies like Poland Spring, which use illustrations of mountain streams to give the impression that their water comes from somewhere pristine and untouched actually draw their water from urban places. Sometimes the water coming out of the faucet is even cleaner than the water on the supermarket shelves! Instead of searching for alternatives, we should demand cleaner water standards. Our government is business-oriented as a result of the way our economy functions. It is a fact that is reflected in the tendency our nation has to be lenient toward even the worst polluters. We have allowed companies like General Electric to weasel their way out of taking responsibility for polluting our water bodies and our land, often times causing record cases of disease in local towns. We should be demanding more from our businesses. In many ways, businesses rely on the satisfaction of the consumer. This is power in our hands, which we can use to demand what should be our basic right. Unless your tap is certifiably contaminated, don’t buy bottled water. Instead, hold polluters and politicians accountable.
*Information about General Electric’s contamination of the Hudson was taken from The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Freshwater in the Twenty-First Century by Alex Prud’Homme. This is a very informative book and is a great book to read if you are interested in issues surrounding water.