Scientists have discovered a hard reality when it comes to our everyday drinking water: it’s now loaded with a frightening array of contaminants from pesticides to prescription medicine — that are not filtered out and can pose all kinds of health risks. We spoke to Seth Siegel, author of Troubled Water, about how this could have happened and the dangers it poses.
Sharyl: When we're talking about what's in the water, what are some of the things that's in our water that might surprise people?
Seth Siegel: Well, we know for sure that widely there are chemicals like PFOA, the active ingredient in Teflon. We know for sure this thing called PFOS which is an active ingredient in the Scotchguard that you spray on your textiles—
Sharyl: Cancer-causing chemicals?
Siegel: Yes, definitely cancer causing and endocrine disrupting, which means the fancy term for the fact that it affects your hormonal system. So pesticides and herbicides, they're created to interfere with the reproductive life of a weed or of an insect. Well, they, that gets, that then gets washed into the water supply. We humans start to drink it. And even though it's very small doses of it, it's affecting us as well.
Sharyl: What are some of the pharmaceuticals, the medication that we find in our water? And isn't that cleaned out when there's normal purification process that goes on in municipalities?
Siegel: You would hope so. You would think so. I assumed so. When I started doing the research for my book, this is what shocked me and led me to write the book. What we have for example all over the country, we have examples of where mostly through fish research we discover that products that we humans use on a daily basis are now in the fish. 50% of the fish they studied in the Great Lakes had psychiatric drugs in their brains and their organs. So, Prozac, Celexa, and drugs like that and generics. The only way it comes into the water supplies, humans take those pills, they pee it out after they've taken it a few hours later. It gets flushed through the wastewater treatment system into a waterway. All perfectly legal. Exactly compliant with the law. And then it gets uptaken in fish. It gets uptaken in our drinking water. It gets uptaken in the water we use for our irrigation.
Sharyl: Was there a study that showed that hormones in the water is leading to what we would call transgender fish?
Siegel:Well I don't want to call it transgender fish, but I will call it inter-sexual fish. One recent study studied 19 rivers and they found that there was a very high level of male fish that were now growing eggs from from the estrogen that is getting into the water. Now, some of that comes from birth control pills. Some of that comes from animal feed, some of that comes from other natural sources. Now whether it has an effect on human gender selection, that's a bridge too far. But there are people, not me, but there are people who have the suspicion that that may be the cause.
Sharyl:We have federal agencies that we have paid billions of dollars to for this very purpose. I mean there are a few things more important probably then protecting the safety of our water supply. So how has this been allowed to happen?
Siegel: Frankly, Sharyl, this is precisely why I wrote this book. It is not to write a book. It is to hopefully to launch a movement where people will say, I demand better oversight and I demand better drinking water for myself and for my children.
Siegel says there is something that the federal EPA should be doing: mandating use of technology to filter out these contaminants. He says it exists and isn’t terribly expensive, it’s just that hardly anyone is using it. One place that is: Orange County, California.