Watch Your Water

by Warren Bell, MD
Source: Health Action, Spring 2009

It's clear. Water is in trouble, worldwide. And if water is in trouble, we humans are in trouble, too.

Around the world, one billion people lack access to even nominally clean water, and about two billion lack access to adequate sanitation. As a consequence, 15 million children die annually from waterborne diseases.

Meanwhile, according to Water Partners International (, 80 percent of the world's water resources are used for agricultural activities, of which an estimated Much of the world's fresh water, meanwhile, has unfortunately been contaminated by human activities.

A study of surface water in North America (Environmental Science and Technology, 2000) showed that 80 percent of 139 sampled streams had contaminants from human activity, including traces of pesticides, pharmaceuticals, insect repellant, detergents, caffeine, disinfectants and livestock excrement.

There's really only one way to have clean, safe water: don't mess it up in the first place. Keeping contaminants out of drinking water should be a high priority-for our own sakes and
for the sake of the other critters on the planet. However, instead of protecting our precious water, we've instead opted to "disinfect."

Starting in the 1850s, sodium hypochlorite, a source of chlorine, was successfully used in emergencies to clear drinking water of such infections as typhoid. By the early 20th century, drinking water chlorination became routine.

Other safer methods of disinfection, including bromine, ultraviolet light and ozone, are possible but not widely used.  The chlorine industry is big, and chlorine is cheap.

In the last three decades, while still widespread, chlorination has increasingly-and fortunately-fallen into disfavour. Research has shown the downside of chlorine disinfection, including damage to many aquatic and amphibian organisms, the production of cancer-causing substances when chlorine combines with organic matter, and the failure of chlorine to kill water-borne parasites like Giardia and Cryptosporidium.

In addition, chlorine has no effect on all the other trace contaminants in drinking water (except perhaps to add to their harmful effects). As usual, well-informed citizens in cities where chlorination is still used are ahead of regulators, and many have invested in home water treatment units-systems that can remove chlorine as well.

As long as 2,000 years ago, many parts of the world used filtration to clean water. Today, in some countries, like the Netherlands, water filtration is the only method used in public waterworks.

Filtration, done properly, removes just about everything from water that shouldn't be there including bacteria, viruses, parasites and many nasty chemicals.

Along with distillation (boiling water and then recondensing the muchpurified steam), filtration is much closer to Mother Nature's ways.

Alas, the bottled water bonanza has been one of the very worst "solutions" to our water problems. The two biggest sellers of bottled water are soft-drink giants Pepsi Bottling Group and Coca- Cola Enterprises Inc., sold as "Dasani" and "Aquafina" respectively. Such companies are not known for their interest in your health or that of the planet. The industry generates colossal amounts of waste and introduces plastic-derived contaminants of its own into the bottled water itself as well as into our overall environment.

Plus, the 2.7 million tons of plastic bottles produced each year are made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE #1) and most end up in the landfill. What can you do to protect water, our health and that of our planet? Advocate for water protection, safe treatment and conservation.

Water Facts and Stats
Of all the water on the planet, fresh water represents only .007 percent. Of this, only one percent is readily available for
consumption. (It's no wonder water is at the centre of a growing
number of "resource wars" worldwide.)

The World Health Organization pegs a person's minimum daily
need for water at about five gallons including drinking, washing and cleaning. In North America, we each use a profligate 175 gallons daily!

[Warren Bell, MD, is a HANS member practising in the heart of the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. He's past president of the Association of Complementary and Integrative Physicians of BC.]

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