“Dilution is the solution to environmental pollution.”
I first met this joke in a water policy course at CU Boulder. I didn’t like the term because my preferred response to air, water, or soil pollution is more like First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No”.
Nonetheless, dilution provided an explanation for the complex equations that show how much we can pollute a waterway and still provide a resource that supports fish and people. What’s in your water
The CDC assures us that the US has one of the safest and most reliable drinking water systems in the world. Responsible for upholding this truth is the EPA, which tests over 90 chemicals and microbes and displays prohibited levels of bacteria, viruses, pesticides, petroleum products, strong acids and some metals. There are a few gaping exceptions, such as agricultural drains, but that’s another story.
Water quality, health and environmental professionals are increasingly concerned about drugs in the water stream. The EPA found drugs, particularly antihypertensive drugs, in every sample it tested, but in proportions that indicate that “the risks to healthy human adults from exposure to ambient water and drinking water are low”.
Perfume, colognes, skin lotions and sunscreens also wash off the skin and contaminate the water. According to a Harvard analysis, there is still no evidence that drugs or personal care products harm people. Studies have shown significant adverse effects on aquatic life, but that’s a different story.
On the south coast we unfortunately know problems with the amount of water: drought with occasional floods. The regional water authorities are also committed to providing high quality water in the future. The city has identified the reuse of drinking water as a viable new source of water for the city’s future water supply. Drinking water reuse is the process of using advanced purified wastewater for drinking water.
California’s current drinking water reuse provides over 200 million gallons of drinking water.
Organizations like Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, Heal the Ocean, and Surfrider care deeply about water quality issues. Channelkeeper believes that “reusing wastewater for reuse as drinking water is critical to a sustainable water future for our region.” Make drinking water a reality. It will likely take a couple of decades.
In the meantime, the ball lies with us as consumers. A 2007 California study found that about half of all drugs are discarded. According to Harvard analysis, consumers are responsible for a “high percentage” of medicines and personal care products in lakes, rivers and streams.
Chemicals can also get into the water via the sewage and sewage systems as our bodies metabolize the drugs we use.
The EPA’s current plan is a four-pronged approach to consumers.
1. Do not buy drugs in bulk.
2. Do not flush or pour unused medication down the drain.
3. Hand in unused medication to collection points to keep it out of the water and prevent it from being diverted for illegal purposes.
4. When throwing away any unused medication, remove the packaging and seal it in a plastic bag with a little water and an unsightly compound such as coffee grounds or cat litter.
Santa Barbara passed a Safe Drug Disposal Ordinance in 2016 that requires manufacturers of pharmaceuticals sold in the county to participate in an approved drug stewardship program to collect and dispose of unwanted drugs. A quick web search found numerous drop-off points, including many sheriff and police stations, hospitals, and some pharmacies like CVS and RiteAid.
The dilution has got us this far, but it’s not a viable long-term solution. We can work to avoid future regulations by acting individually responsible now.
– Karen Telleen-Lawton serves seniors and pre-seniors as the director of Decisive Path Fee-Only Financial Advisory in Santa Barbara. You can reach them with your questions about financial planning at [email protected]. Click here to read the previous columns. The opinions expressed are their own.