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Everyone’s a Polluter

Poisoned Waters Takes on Consumer Pollution

Over 30 years after the Clean Water Act, America’s waterways are still fighting for survival. The culprits? You and me.

Workers conduct tests on a pair of 96 in. storm drain pipes flowing into Puget Sound near Tacoma, Washington. A new Frontline documentary, "Poisoned Waters" examines the causes of pollution and health of Puget Sound and the Chesapeake Bay. (AP/Ted S. Warren)
Workers conduct tests on a pair of 96 in. storm drain pipes flowing into Puget Sound near Tacoma, Washington. A new Frontline documentary, "Poisoned Waters" examines the causes of pollution and health of Puget Sound and the Chesapeake Bay. (AP/Ted S. Warren)

Nearly three decades after Congress passed the Clean Water Act, water contamination is still linked to rising rates of cancer and autism. Polluters continue to pour toxins such as industrial-scale agricultural waste, dioxins, and new poisons from our modern lifestyle into our estuaries, destroying ecosystems, decimating fish stocks, and impairing livelihoods. Some of these compounds are too new to be illegal or have a persistent and lasting effect on the environment. So who are these polluters? You, me, and every other American.

A new Frontline PBS documentary "Poisoned Waters" examines our polluting ways. The documentary describes how the chemicals in products we buy contribute to the toxicity of our water, and how we all have a responsibility to make environmentally sound purchase decisions. The documentary, hosted by veteran correspondent Hendrick Smith, details the environmental damages to the Puget Sound and the Chesapeake Bay, and how the damage affects Americans’ health.

We must all take responsibility for our buying habits, which directly contribute to the pollution of these valuable watersheds. Personal products such as face creams, deodorants, prescription medicines, and household cleaners work their way down into sewers, storm drains, and eventually enter our watersheds and drinking water.

Washington Governor Chris Gregorie says in the film that 150,000 pounds of untreated toxins get "flushed" into Puget Sound every day. “We thought all the way along that [Puget Sound] was like a toilet: What you put in, you flush out. We [now] know that’s not true. It’s like a bathtub: What you put in stays there,” she says.

"Poisoned Waters" warns that Puget Sound and the Chesapeake Bay are “the canaries in the coal mine,” foreshadowing the similar destruction of waterways across the world. Pollutants from industry and agriculture are running into water sources unchecked and causing irreparable harm to local wild life. Fish kills, dead zones, and animal mutations are threatening the viability of our marine ecosystems. What’s more, the effect water has on animals is an indicator of its long-term effect on humans, and it’s not looking good. Frogs have been found with six legs, fish with intersex organs, and other aquatic life have displayed other strange mutations.

These problems aren’t limited to Puget Sound and the Chesapeake; they are occurring on a global scale. Over 70 percent of our planet is covered with water, but only about 1 percent of that is drinkable fresh water. Decades-long droughts in Australia and Africa threaten to render unlivable previously populated areas of our planet. Water wars are predicted to escalate across the world in the next few years. We can no longer afford to allow the fresh water we do have to remain contaminated and dangerous to consume.

Our consumption habits are one place where we can all make a difference and help improve the health of the world’s waterways. Consumers can easily substitute less chemically potent substances for daily grooming and cleaning. A growing organic movement has made available a variety of such selections. Worldwide population growth and consumer spending have increased exponentially in the last few decades, and the amount of money spent at the household level has increased by a factor of four since 1960. We must be conscious about what we buy, where our waste goes, and how we protect our watersheds and estuaries.

Find out more about "Poisoned Waters" at http://www.pbs.org/frontline/poisonedwaters/, or watch the documentary on PBS on Tuesday, April 21 at 9 p.m.

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