By Greg Reyneke
I’m writing this article at an altitude of 38,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. These days, I can comfortably fly to almost anywhere in the world at almost any time and more affordably than ever before. Advanced technology allows my notebook computer to function for the entire eight-hour flight without having to plug in a charger. It brings the convenience of being seamlessly connected to my employees, friends, vendors and clients while on the flight and when I land in an entirely different country. My jacket is wrinkle-free, my trousers are stain-resistant and my watch is tritium-illuminated. Upon arrival, my smart phone will help me to navigate a new city and communicate with the locals. All these conveniences have become ubiquitous in our modern lives and we rarely (if ever) stop to consider the environmental impact of the luxuries that we love.
As with all good things, there is invariably a price to pay and the price of our exponential population growth and modern chemical revolution is most certainly one of unintended and unanticipated consequences. We are very quick to embrace chemical compounds that can be profitable and beneficial, but we are usually slow to understand, acknowledge and address the impact of these chemicals on the environment, ourselves and the other creatures that share our ecosystem. Having spent almost a quarter-century in the water-quality management and improvement industry, it is fascinating to observe the dramatic changes in water quality and availability around the world and the complex impact that has on the environment and society.
As a global water exploration, development, delivery and quality-management industry, we are now facing three distinct concerns:
- Availability of fresh water
- Emergence/prevalence of anthropogenic pollutants
- Bacterial proliferation
“Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner paints a stark image of dehydration experienced by sailors adrift near the Equator. They are surrounded by a vast sea of water, yet none is fit for human consumption and they are driven to chaos and madness. We are now heading toward a nightmare of our own making. There is essentially the same amount of water on our little planet now as we’ve had since the beginning. The state and concentration of surface and atmospheric water, however, changes dynamically with cyclic climate-change phenomena and as we humans create dams, drain swamps and extract water from ancient aquifers.
Humans (along with our agricultural and industrial exploits) require massive amounts of water every day. Virtually all that water is recycled back into the environment in some way, but almost inevitably along with contaminants from human activities. We’re finding now that it is progressively harder to extract usable groundwater and virtually impossible to find surface water that meets minimum safe drinking-water standards. In addition to limited availability of decent raw water, much of the water that is processed and distributed by our cities is lost due to leaky piping. In the US alone, an estimated six billion gallons of treated water are lost every day from leaky pipes alone.
It wasn’t there last year
Humanity’s innate dissatisfaction with the status-quo has facilitated the growth of civilizations, development of governing philosophies and development of life-improving technologies. The industrial revolution was the first big post-agricultural step, but the post-war chemical revolution shifted the entire paradigm. Petrochemicals, polymers, fluorinated compounds and other chemical building-blocks have changed the planet forever. Humanity has access to more food, more convenience and more opportunities to thrive on this planet than ever before.
Our first major wake-up manifested in the mid-20th century, when we realized that despite its benefit to agriculture, DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) was harming birds and other animals. Each successive decade has brought an exponential increase in unintended consequences, some inconvenient and some with the potential to cause irreversible harm. We spent almost half a century flushing unwanted/unused pharmaceuticals down our toilets as recommended by the best and brightest scientific minds of the time. We now know that this was absolute folly, introducing persistent organic pollutants (POPs) into aquifers, rivers and our oceans.
Our governments and state-supported industries (mostly in the interest of the greater good) have extracted and refined minerals with acids and solvents; transported petrochemicals; tested and deployed nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) munitions; discharged flame retardants onto the ground; incinerated war materiel in open pits; buried fuels, lubricants, greases, solvents and all manner of other organic and inorganic toxins, all of which are now manifesting in drinking-water supplies globally. All nations are equally guilty and we are all complicit. If you enjoy the benefits of a modern technology, you’re a myopic fool not to acknowledge the long-term impact.
Many of the emerging contaminants that we’re starting to find (and figure out how to treat) have been active in the global environment for a very long time. Our ability to test for minute amounts of contamination continues to evolve and it is only through improvements in our technical testing ability that we now are starting to find things that were already there. Per-/polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and their related compounds can be found in the blood of most people in industrialized nations and medical experts are still scrambling to quantify their true impact on human health and longevity, whether alone or in combination with other contaminants. The US EPA and its European counterparts have encouraged major industrial players to voluntarily stop using perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), but these persistent organic pollutants (POPs) will remain in the environment and our bodies for years to come.
The ever-growing list of potentially concerning, emerging contaminants has created a Sisyphean task for scientists and legislators in even attempting to craft sensible regulations that protect the planet, while still encouraging technological progress. As our technical ability to test for the presence of more contaminants improves, we will continue to find more things to be concerned about. Until we figure out what the risk truly is, the best course of action is to consume waters that are as pure as possible. The solution to pollution truly is dilution.
Our universe is teeming with life. On our little blue planet, lifeforms are primarily carbon-based, with all organisms typically consuming the bodies or metabolic byproducts of others to survive, while in turn providing food for the rest. Bacteria are some of the most resilient and adaptive organisms that we know of, forming the foundation of our food cycle. There are bacteria that can live at almost any environmental extreme, deriving cellular energy from contaminants in the water, regardless of the availability of oxygen or sunlight.
Since the dawn of time, human activity has been influenced by bacterial life on earth. Without bacteria and bacterial action, human life on Earth would cease to exist. Humans are now having a significant effect on the bacterial life cycle and proliferation in surface and subsurface waters (i.e., feedlots and intensive breeding operations, along with industrialized crop farming) have changed phosphorous and nitrogen levels in soils around the world, as well as in waterways and the oceans, resulting in massive algal blooms. As we continue to perforate the earth’s crust in search of water, outdated hygiene procedures, inadequate decommissioning procedures and seismic activity are causing contamination of aquifers with various bacteria and other organisms that have never been seen before.
The prevalence of new bacterial colonies and increasing concentration of existing colonies is causing a significant challenge to most municipal and centralized treatment processes, necessitating ever-increasing amounts of chlorine and other disinfectants, which in turn results in an increase in DPBs that need to be addressed. Many times, the treatment process is not entirely effective and biofilm can grow downstream of the treatment plant. Biofilm in piping can be responsible for a wide range of water quality and operational problems. Biofilms contribute to a loss of disinfectant efficacy, decreased residual disinfectant levels, reduction of dissolved oxygen, taste and odor problems, microbial-influenced corrosion (MIC) and a reduction in material life. These problems typically will perpetuate into the homes and businesses served by the central plant, where they have the potential to compromise water treatment equipment and water-using appliances. In private wells, we’re observing a global increase in baseline biofilm, as well as persistent sulfur-related bacteria (SRB) and iron-related bacteria (IRB) that are becoming progressively harder to treat.
We still lack a good understanding of the nature of good-versus-bad bacteria in plumbing systems; some biofilms are actually good (they starve pathogenic organisms) while others become food and safe haven for harmful organisms. One day we will be able to speciate bacteria in real time and selectively kill the undesirables. Until then, we are stuck with having to kill everything to reduce the chances of allowing harmful organisms to perpetuate.
Globally, we haven’t done the best job in protecting of resources. Humanity has an almost limitless potential to innovate and we need to spend our energy and efforts in responsibly harmonizing with our natural world while cleaning up the mess we’ve already made. Until we figure out how to progress without negative consequences, we must assume that all waters will be contaminated (to some extent) with numerous contaminants. It just makes sense to filter and purify all waters that we drink, work with and play with. Our world is big and beautiful; continue serving your clients in helping them choose the very best solutions to their water-quality problems and help them understand their impact on the planet.
About the author
Greg Reyneke, Managing Director at Red Fox Advisors, has two decades of experience in the management and growth of water treatment dealerships. His expertise spans the full gamut of residential, commercial and industrial applications, including wastewater treatment. In addition, Reyneke also consults on water conservation and reuse methods, including rainwater harvesting, aquatic ecosystems, greywater reuse and water-efficient design. He is a member of the WC&P Technical Review Committee and currently serves on the PWQA Board of Directors, chairing the Technical and Education Committee. You can follow him on his blog at www.gregknowswater.com