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Finding Solutions to Our Water Challenges
Life on earth requires water. Although water covers over 70 percent of the planet, only 2.5 percent of it is freshwater. Only one percent, located in rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and in groundwater shallow enough to tap, is readily available for people. That is also the amount of freshwater regularly renewed by precipitation, and is thus sustainable. One percent of all the water on earth must stretch somehow across a human population of seven and a half billion people and counting.
How Does Freshwater Become Tap Water?
Water treatment produces water of varying qualities for industrial, medical, or laboratory, environmental, or public use. For the purposes of this article, water treatment is the process by which freshwater is taken from natural sources in the environment and made safer for drinking.
The water treatment process may be comprised of many different steps depending on the initial quality of the natural source. Some common steps in the water treatment process may include:
- Coagulation- Chemicals like alum are added to water to form tiny sticky "floc" particles which attract and stick to dirt suspended in water.
- Sedimentation- The combined weight of dirt and floc become heavy enough to settle to the bottom to be removed from the process while the clear top water moves on to filtration.
- Filtration- The clear water passes through a set of filters that help remove even smaller particles and improve the taste.
- Storage- Filtered water is placed in a closed tank and disinfected.
- Disinfection- A small amount of chlorine is added or some other disinfection method is used to kill any bacteria or microorganisms that may be present. The disinfected water then flows through pipes to taps in the community.
Some additives are necessary to make water safe to drink. Right now much of our water is treated with chlorine in order to kill the many microorganisms that are harmful when ingested. Chlorine is probably not the healthiest solution possible to this problem, but is cheap and effective. Unfortunately the addition of chlorine to untreated water causes the formation of DBPs, which are linked to elevated cancer risk according to the CDC. The health benefits of adding chlorine arguably outweigh the health risks of doing so. This does not mean that we should give up looking for safer options for better public health in the future.
Fluoride is another common additive to drinking water, especially in the United States. Fluoride, unlike chlorine, does not make drinking water in any way safer. In fact, it is known to cause health problems when ingested. The human body doesn't require a minimum amount of ingested fluoride the way it requires calcium or iron. Adding fluoride into drinking water is a bad old idea that should be stopped immediately.
Current proponents of drinking water fluoridation likely haven't considered all the facts as they are known today. Proponents will point to the decrease in cavities reported in children's teeth since fluoridation first began in the US, probably unaware that children's cavities have decreased at a similar rate in non-fluoridated populations across the world wherever most kids have ready access to fluoride toothpaste (which is supposed to be spit out and rinsed, rather than ingested) and regular dental care.
In the United States today, the majority of teens (about 80%) exhibit signs of fluorosis, or fluoride poisoning. Fluoride poisoning actually causes tooth decay in young and old alike.
Unfortunately teeth are not the only parts of the body harmed by ingested fluoride. Fluorosis adversely effects bones and organs too, including the brain. Fluorosis causes bone loss and is linked to the rise of osteoporosis in the elderly as well as to the increase in childhood bone cancer. It has also been associated with lower IQs in children in 43 separate scientific studies conducted across the globe (which represents 86% of all studies ever conducted on the topic.)
Currently, newborns and older people without any teeth, teens already suffering from fluoride poisoning, and the rest of us (regardless of the states of our health) are receiving medical treatments that we didn't ask to get. We receive them anyway every time we cook with or take a drink from the water from our taps.
There is no way to control the fluoride dosage that each person receives on a daily basis when tap water is fluoridated. How much a person ingests depends on too many factors.
Some of these factors include:
- The fluoride levels in the tap water.
- How much water the person drinks daily (active children and teens, dieters, heavy caffeine users, and athletes tend to drink more water. The poor and elderly tend to drink more tap water as opposed to bottled water, which may or may not be fluoridated.)
- How much fluoride comes from other sources including in foods (many of which are grown, processed, and cooked also using fluoridated water.)
- Whatever is absorbed or ingested through the use of toothpaste, mouthwash, and dental fluoride treatments, and through bathing in fluoridated water, since fluoride penetrates the skin.
Adding anything that is unnecessary into tap water is terrible public policy, no matter how admirable the intentions for doing so. This is especially true if what is being added has harmful side-effects at higher dosage. There are better and safer ways to make fluoride readily available for tooth-care to a population. Germany, for example, does not fluoridate water. The grocery stores there offer table salt with added fluoride as well as fluoride-free table salt, giving people a choice. Many households opt to use regular salt for cooking and fluoridated salt as an inexpensive mouth rinse.
To How Many Sources of High Fluoride is Your Family Exposed?
What is a Water Footprint?
In the developed world, we rely on turning on a tap to get as much water as we need to drink, bathe, water our gardens, fill our pools, and wash our clothes, pets, and cars. According to the United States Geographical Survey, 80 gallons per day is the most conservative estimate for how much treated water fit for human consumption the average American uses for indoor and outdoor residential purposes.
If 80 gallons of water usage per day per person sounds like a lot of water, it is. In comparison, the average person in the UK uses about 40 gallons per day. The average person in Cambodia, Angola, or Haiti uses just 4 gallons per day.
However, residential use makes up only a small percentage of our water footprint. The rest hides in the foods we eat, the energy we use, and the products and services that we purchase. If America's commercial and industrial water usage is added to our total domestic usage and divided per capita, then the average American uses over 2000 gallons per day. This number is what is known as our national water footprint. America's water footprint is the largest of any nation on earth.
What is Water Scarcity?
Water scarcity refers to an insufficient water supply to meet the demand in a given region. This is a man-made problem as well as a natural phenomenon.
There is enough freshwater readily available to support the earth's current population. Unfortunately water is not always located where it is needed. Likewise much of the available water on earth is polluted, wasted, or otherwise poorly managed.
More than half a billion people on earth have no safe drinking water available to them. Every 21 seconds, a child dies from drinking contaminated water. In many parts of the world, the infrastructure necessary for delivering safe drinking water through pipes to communities in need just doesn't exist and may never be built in the average child's lifetime. Instead we are starting to explore more immediate and portable solutions to provide safe water to the most remote locations on the planet.
One day we may expand the one percent of fresh water readily available to us. Water purifying technology continues to advance. Solar powered water desalinization plants could convert enough ocean water on a large scale right now if we had the political will to invest the money. Graphene filters may soon make it possible to filter ocean water into potable drinking water as easily as pouring the water through a funnel.
The solution to our world water problems will likely be a complicated one, that will involve better water management and conservation, as well as improved infrastructure and new portable technologies.
Portable Water Technology Changes Lives
What is Water Conservation?
Water conservation is the effort of individuals, communities, corporations, and governments to help reduce unnecessary water waste world-wide. Conserving saves on utility bills, extends the life of septic tanks, alleviates stress on infrastructure, and helps prevent water pollution and environmental destruction.
When conserving at home, get the whole family involved. Doing the related home projects together make conserving fun and educational. Play games and hold competitions with the kids. Here are some quick tips to get you started:
Around the House
- Next time you take the family on an outing, make sure all the water is off then before you leave of course, then write down the water meter reading. If it is the same when you return you know you don't have any leaks to find.
- Fix your leaks! Even a slow drip can waste 20 gallons per day.
- Every time you change your pet's water, throw the old into a plant.
- Collect water from gutters into rain barrels. Use this to water your garden.
- Reroute washer, dishwasher, sinks, and showers to empty into yard irrigation system.
- Make sure your pavers, stepping stones, and walk ways are made of porous material. It will help keep water in your yard.
- Make sure your pool, pond, or fountain has a recirculating pump.
- Don't overfill your pool. With a lower water level, you will lose less water to splashing.
- Don't leave the hose running when washing cars.
- Wash dogs or let kids play in a sprinkler where your yard needs water the most.
In the Garden
- Help rain and sprinkler water penetrate to the roots and lessen wasteful runoff. Once every couple of months, pierce holes in your lawn about six inches apart and three inches deep.
- Put layers of mulch around your trees and bushes.
- Buy soakers and sprinklers that create fat drops low to the ground. Fine mist evaporates or blows away too easily.
- Water the lawn or set sprinklers to go off early in the morning so that the water doesn't immediately evaporate.
- Place an empty catfood or tuna can on the lawn. Turn on the sprinkler and watch how long it takes to fill. That is the amount of time you need to run the sprinkler to properly soak the lawn to the roots.
- If you don't have a timer on your sprinkler system, use a kitchen timer so you won't forget to turn the sprinklers off.
- Don't water on windy days when your water is more likely to blow into the street.
- If landscaping, consider how much lawn you really need and want. Lawns are thirsty and require a lot more care than other more environmentally friendly and water saving ground covers.
- Landscape with native perennials which promote a healthy ecosystem and usually don't need much watering or care except in drought conditions. Plus, perennials come back again after the winter. Some evergreen varieties look great all year long.
- Use composting and earthworms instead of commercial fertilizers. That way any runoff from your yard is far less polluting.
In the Bathroom
- Install water saving aerators in faucets and shower heads.
- Take short, efficient showers.
- Turn off water when shaving, brushing teeth, soaping, shampooing, conditioning, then turn the water on again to rinse.
- Install low flow toilets in new construction or when renovating.
- Place a couple inches of sand or pebbles in a plastic bottle then fill with water. Set it in an older model toilet tank (3-5 gallons) to reduce wastage during flushing. Make sure it is placed well or secure to the side with duct tape so it doesn't interfere with the flushing mechanism.
- Put a few drops of food color in the toilet tank. Wait twenty minutes. If the color bleeds into the bowl without flushing, your tank is leaking into the bowl. Most likely the flapper or the gasket directly under it is the culprit.
In the Kitchen
- Keep a bottle of cold water in the fridge. Turning on the tap every time and letting the water run cold before you pour a single glass wastes a lot of water over time.
- If you wash dishes by hand and don't have two sinks to spare, use bus tubs to wash and rinse dishes instead of washing and rinsing with running water. Use the most environmentally friendly dishwashing liquid you can find. Retain the gray water for your trees and shrubs.
- Use a bowl to wash fruit or vegetables. Give the gray water to your plants.
- Use the least amount of water to cook with. Steam instead of boiling when you can. Retain the nutrient rich water to make soup or feed your houseplants.
- Don't throw away used or dropped ice cubes, put them in a plant.
How Can We Help?
We can all help to make a real difference. No matter how old or how young, one person can inform and inspire lots of others to create a better future for everyone. Remind your friends and neighbors. Don't pollute. Get involved in a water project or a clean-up effort in your own community. If you think of any creative ways to conserve water, add them to the list in comments below.
Any of us can also help by supporting responsible charities dedicated to solving our world water problems. Here is one worthy of considersideration:
Charity:Water is a nonprofit organization that brings clean, safe drinking water to the neediest communities in the developing world. This nonprofit gives kids, schools, clubs, and people who can't afford to donate on their own the chance to start their own fundraising campaigns on the Charity:Water website. Because the cost of operations is covered by private individuals, 100% of donations go directly to providing wells, water filtration, and other needed water technologies through water projects in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.