Water Contamination from Industry:  A Crime Against Society

Water contamination from industrial effluent is extremely widespread and poses an alarming hazard to both wildlife and humans. 

The culprits span a myriad of industries and a menu of pollutants that almost defies categorization.  Industrial water contamination contains heavy metals, particularly mercury; chemical carcinogens of every
variety, neurotoxins, respiratory toxins and radioactive contaminants.

Much of this discharge is within the law, either not regulated by the Safe Water Drinking Act or falling under minimum discharge allowances.  Some are accidental; some are premeditated and absolutely illegal.

Photo:  Raw sewage from Mexico sneaking into the U.S.

Sewage from Mexico flowing into the U.S.

The top industrial offenders are by far the paper industries pulp mills and electricity producers. 

We can now add to the list those large dairy, beef, hog, chicken and fish factory farms that dump tons of animal shit, hormones, antibiotics and viruses into the aquifers, atmosphere and waterways.  

The first two industries respectively dumped 6,812,285 and 965,827 pounds of neurological toxins into the water in 2000.

For carcinogen releases, the numbers were a bit lower at 343,878 and 481,611 pounds respectively.

Jumping ahead seven years, in 2007, according to the federal government's Toxic Release Inventory, industrial facilities dumped 232 million pounds of toxic chemicals into American waterways from all industries combined.

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Beware of Mercury in Water Contamination

A huge amount of mercury in the oceans starts out in Brazil where miners use it to extract gold.  The mercury washes into the Amazon river basin where it is carried to the ocean and ultimately ends up at your favorite sushi bar.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) website has a neat mercury calculator that allows you to calculate the amount of mercury you ingested with that fish you just ate.

Check it out at:


Look for the "Mercury Protection Toolbox" and click on the "Mercury Calculator" icon and follow the instructions. Hit the back button to return here when you are finished.

While we only focused on mercury; whales, dolphins, tuna, sharks and all other sizable ocean creatures are heavily contaminated with other heavy metals including cadmium, lead, and arsenic as well as hormones and pharmaceutical drugs that get flushed into our waterways. 

Today the sad truth is that all aquatic creatures are contaminated and we eat them at our own risk.

Photo right:  Salt scarring erosion from dumping of effluent from oil drilling operation

Erosion from salt laden waste from oil drilling

Pumping oil and gas out of the ground produces large volumes of water with undesirable qualities known as produced water. On-site dumping of this water produces toxic wetlands and serious erosion.

A Memory Lane of Industrial Water Contamination Disasters

Let's take a quick trip back in time to revisit some memorable toxic waste disposal incidents.

Times Beach, Missouri

Remember Times Beach, Missouri in the mid-1970s.  The town had a lot of dirt roads that created a dust problem so a guy was hired to oil the roads.  Well and good, except that he used waste oil from Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Company that was full of dioxin. 

A lot of animal deaths, miscarriages and illnesses were attributed to the dioxin and 265,000 tons of contaminated soil and debris from Times Beach had to be incinerated.

Photo:  Times Beach today; it's all incinerated and buried under that mound

The Mound that was Times Beach

Why is this considered industrial water contamination?  Because Times Beach sits on the banks of the Meramac River which flooded, putting the town under ten feet of water, thus flushing much of that dioxin right into a scenic waterway.

Fast forward to October 17, 2003 to a news release from the EPA..."Today, EPA has made a final decision not to regulate dioxins in land applied sewage sludge..."  Apparently the EPA has concluded that the dioxin in sewage sludge won't eventually become industrial water contamination.  Where to they think all the contaminants in that sludge end up after a hard rain?

Love Canal, NY

Now let's move to about 1978 to a pretty little blue-collar community called Love Canal near Niagara Falls, NY.  The seeds were planted in 1910 and 1920 when a canal was dug between the upper and lower Niagara Rivers to generate power for the planned model community of Love Canal. 

Economic conditions halted digging the canal and the long ditch was turned into a municipal and industrial chemical dump site.  Hooker Chemical company used the old canal as a dump site for barrels of toxic waste, filled it up, covered it over and sold the land to the city for a dollar.

Jumping to the late 1950's, we see 100 homes and a school sitting atop the site.  Jumping again to 1978 when record rainfalls exposed the drums of waste.  They were poking up through the ground in families backyards. 

Love Canal Demolition

Ground leeching began big time; trees and grass turned black and died, puddles of noxious liquids appeared in yards, basements and the school playground.  The air had a faint choking smell and kids came home from play with burns on their faces and hands. 

One of the most prevalent chemicals at the site was benzene,
a potent carcinogen.  Miscarriages, birth defects and high white-cell-blood counts, a leukemia precursor, were observed.

The rains that unearthed the witches brew of chemicals did a great job of turning a buried chemical grave yard into extremely dangerous industrial water contamination.

In January, 1979, Eckardt Beck, writing in the EPA Journal, speculated that "we suspect that there are hundreds of such chemical dump sites across the country".

The Killing Fields
Fertilized Industrial Water Contamination

Now let's take a big step forward to mid-1997 and an article that appeared in the Seattle Times by Duff Wilson, titled, "Killing Fields? Toxic waste being spread as fertilizer." 

Investigators documented numerous cases of manufacturing industries disposing of hazardous wastes by turning them into fertilizer for farms...and it's legal. 

It's also large scale water contamination in the making.  The book "Fateful Harvest" shown in the banner link above is the true story of that travesty that almost destroyed a town.

As of the late 1990's, any material that has fertilizing qualities can be labeled and used as fertilizer, even if it has dangerous chemicals and heavy metals.

In Moxee City, Washington, a dark powder from two Oregon steel mills is poured from rail cars into the top of a silo at the Bay Zinc, Co. under a permit to store hazardous wastes.  The powder which is a toxic byproduct of the steel making process, is taken out of the bottom of the silos as raw material for fertilizer. 

When it goes in the top, its hazardous waste, when it comes out the bottom, it's no longer regulated...same material.

In Tift County, GA, more than a thousand acres of peanut crops were destroyed by "Lime Plus", a hazardous brew of waste and limestone sold legally to unsuspecting farmers in the early 1990's...more industrial water contamination making it into our food supply; this time on purpose.

In Gore, Okla., a uranium processing plant is getting rid of low-level radioactive waste by licensing it as a liquid fertilizer and spraying it over 9000 acres of grazing land.  Strange that a nine-legged frog was found in a pond next to the fertilized land.

A nine-legged frog?  Maybe they're just trying to increase frog leg production 

Amphibian living next to fertilized fields

I'll bet that guy could really jump.

In Chewelah, Wash., an ALCOA subsidiary saved $17 million in cleanup costs by getting state approval to make 200,000 tons of dangerous waste into fertilizer and road de-icer.

To its credit, Monsanto stopped recycling waste into fertilizer on its own because of concerns about health and liability.  It had been selling black waste from its Idaho phosphorus plant to nearby fertilizer companies. 

The waste contained cadmium, a heavy metal known to cause cancer, kidney disease, birth defects and neurological dysfunction.  Was health or liability the real driver here?

Years ago, doctors and scientists proved that lead causes developmental problems in children and high blood pressure in adults and is now prohibited in gasoline, paint and food-can solder...but, guess what...not in fertilizer.  Go figure!

Ok, all that was then, what about now?

Biosolids...Industrial Water Contamination
Waiting to Happen

In rural Virginia, the big controversy now is the spreading of biosolids on farmland.  What is a biosolid?

Photo:  Biosolids: It all starts here!

Biosolids Start Here

Biosolid is a nice word for treated sewage sludge.
According to the EPA, Biosolids are created through the treatment of domestic wastewater generated from sewage treatment facilities. The treatment of biosolids can actually begin before the wastewater reaches the sewage treatment plant.

In many larger wastewater treatment systems, pre-treatment regulations require that industrial facilities pre-treat their wastewater to remove many hazardous contaminants before it is sent to a wastewater treatment plant. Wastewater treatment facilities monitor incoming wastewater streams to ensure their recyclability and compatibility with the treatment plant process.

Once the wastewater reaches the plant, the sewage goes through physical, chemical and biological processes which clean the wastewater and remove the solids. If necessary, the solids are then treated with lime to raise the pH level to eliminate objectionable odors.

Spreading biosolids on farm fields

The wastewater treatment processes sanitize wastewater solids
to control pathogens (disease-causing organisms, such as certain bacteria, viruses and parasites) and other organisms capable of transporting disease.  At least there's no extra charge for the heavy metals in this water contamination.

Photo:  Preparing to spread biosolids on farm fields

The EPA was kind enough to cap the concentration of heavy metals for all biosolids applied to land.  The top ten metals in mg/kg are:

  • Arsenic 75
  • Cadmium 85
  • Chromium 3000
  • Copper 4300
  • Lead 840
  • Mercury 57
  • Molybdenum 75
  • Nickel 420
  • Selenium 100
  • Zinc 7500
  • Regardless of EPA regulations and "ceiling concentration limits", there is no safe amount of heavy metal contamination that we can withstand.  It is cumulative, and successive applications of biosolids add to the toxic load and thus increase the effects of industrial water contamination. 

    It reminds me of the glycemic index for foods.  One slice of whole wheat bread is low glycemic, but if you eat 4 or six slices of bread, it becomes high glycemic. 

    Yes, we may be able to handle 57 mg/kg of mercury spread over a growing field but with successive applications, that 57 mg/kg might become many multiples of that regulated limit.  It's not only the mercury, that application of biosolid is likely to contain several of the regulated heavy metals so what is the long term effect of ingesting a cocktail of heavy metals?

    Pharmaceuticals in Biosolids?  You Betcha!

    It seems there is industrial water contamination every where we turn.  What about the pharmaceutical load in biosolids?

    According to the USGS, biosolids and products derived from
    biosolids are a potential source of pharmaceuticals and other emerging contaminants to the environment.

    Photo:  Earthworms in biosolid mass; these worms tested positive for 20 out of 77 possible contaminants

    Earthworms in biosolid waste

    Wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) in the U.S. generate approximately 7 million dry tons of sludge each year which is frequently applied to soils to fertilize plants and to improve the quality of soil.

    The problem is that the dry sludge doesn't stay dry.  With rain and leeching action, it soon becomes water contamination; straight from factory to field to our water supply. 

    Because a variety of pharmaceuticals and other organic chemicals have been found in the wastewater discharged from WWTPs, questions have been raised about the presence of these chemicals in biosolids.

    The application of municipal biosolids on land may be a widespread source of emerging contaminants to surface and ground water.

    How About a Gallon of Milk?
    Would you like Whole, Low-fat, Skim...
    or the Melamine Flavored?

    Remember the Chinese milk tainted with Melamine that hit the press in September of '08?  Melamine is an industrial chemical used in plastics and manufacturers have been selling the scrap to small businesses. 

    The scrap is then mixed with other substances and sold as protein powder.  The "protein powder" was bought by dairy farmers and milk collection agents who added it to raw milk to fool quality tests.  It turns out that melamine mimics protein in lab tests.  The adulterated milk is then sold to large dairy manufacturers who get it to consumers. 

    So far, 54,000 people have been sickened by the tainted milk and 2,300 Chinese children are hospitalized with melamine-related kidney problems.  The spiking of milk with illicit substances, industrial wastes, has been an open secret in China's dairy regions for years.  The article did not say what happened to all the toxic milk but it was very likely dumped into the waterways. 

    Recall that milk tops the list for biological oxygen demand.  It will suck every bit of oxygen out of whatever waterway it finds its way into.  Who ever thought milk would become industrial water contamination; leave it to China.

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    Take Responsibility for Your
    Home Water Quality

    Our survival depends on having access to clean water and our defenses begin at home.  Sooner or later, water contamintation will find its way to our drinking and bathing water.

    It is time well spent to research the various brands and types of home water filters including those for kitchen counter tops, shower heads and even whole house filtration systems.  There are a lot to choose from. 

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