Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Collapse of the St. Francis Dam: Killer Water

(NOTE: This is an excerpt. To read my full account of the St. Francis disaster - including Lake Hollywood, the sister to St. Francis located in Hollywood – I invite you to get a copy of my book, “Our World of Water.”)

St. Francis before its collapse. Colorized image.
At five minutes to midnight, on Thursday, March 12th, 1928, the towns of Santa Paula, Newhall, Piru and Fillmore, located in Ventura County, north of Los Angeles, were sequestered from harm, residents asleep in their warm beds. Less than three minutes later, all hell would break loose and more than 600 people would be dead from the single worst engineering disaster of the 20th Century in the United States. Though it has become a footnote in California history, the St. Francis Dam disaster is a tragedy of unparalleled proportions. Why the dam was built and why it failed is a complex story of greed, vision, money, and dreams of the future. But fundamentally it’s about water.

William Mulholland. Photo Water & Power Assoc
When Los Angeles began to grow, William Mulholland, the chief engineer of the Department of Water and Power (DWP), envisioned Los Angeles as a utopia for millions of people. But Los Angeles would soon run out of the one thing that made its existence possible in the first place - water. So where does one find vast quantities of water when one lives in a semi-dessert environment? The Owens Valley is a rural farming community, 250 miles north of Los Angeles and it held massive amounts of water, fresh from the snow packs of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, which could provide the burgeoning metropolis with every drop it needed. Los Angeles began to surreptitiously buy water and land rights in the Owens Valley and, even today, L. A. is the largest landowner in the area.

In 1910 Mulholland designed and constructed an aqueduct 230 miles long, using gravity flow over mountains and across desserts, one of the great engineering achievements of the early 20th Century. Owens Valley farmers, angered at being lied to saw their water levels decrease dramatically. Many farmers were wiped out. I have been to Owens and it is an incredibly sad sight. What was once a fertile valley is a dry ghost town.

Mulholland believed that a series of dams and reservoirs, closer to L.A. would be the safe bet in case emergency water was needed. The 13 billion gallon capacity St. Francis Dam was constructed in a narrow canyon north of Santa Clarita near present day Magic Mountain. Since Los Angeles continued to grow much faster than anyone anticipated, when the Owens Valley began to run dry within a few years, L.A. secured water from Mono Lake, north of Owens Valley; then the Colorado River in Nevada; then the Feather River near Sacramento. It’s thirst was, and still is, insatiable.

After the failure.
Construction of the St. Francis began in April 1924. In July of that year, the original dam height of 184 feet was extended 10 vertical feet in order to expand its holding capacity. One year later another ten vertical feet was added. Raising the dam 20 feet allowed more storage capacity, but what was overlooked was widening its base to be commensurate with its new height. Known as “hydraulic uplift,” the base of the dam actually raised up slightly prior to its demise due to its inherent instability. Additionally the rock the dam was anchored to, a flaky metamorphic rock, was not fully understood by the engineers at the time, nor did they know the mountain was part of an ancient landslide and was also inherently unstable - it was becoming saturated with water.

Only the main section of the dam remained. Notice the two people, lower right
At 11:57 p.m., the St. Francis Dam collapsed. What was once a life-giving force turned into death itself and made worse when it merged with the Santa Clara River. The initial wall of water was 200 feet high. Of the 70 people that lived just below the dam, only three survived. By the time the water hit Castaic Junction, near present day Six Flags Magic Mountain off Interstate 5, the water was 75 feet high, and Santa Paula faced a torrent still 25 feet high with trees and broken houses acting like battering rams obliterating anything in its way. The path of destruction was 54 miles long. Five and a half hours after the dam collapsed, the water merged with the Pacific Ocean near Ventura Harbor.

600 people died, many of them Mexican farm workers living at camps located near the river. Poor immigrant workers don’t land on the front page of major newspapers, not in 1928. But they died - by the hundreds, cattle too. Livestock, cars, roads, power lines, bridges, rail track, farms, all were washed to the ocean or covered in a blanket of mud, debris and wreckage nearly 30 feet thick. Some bodies were found weeks later in isolated canyons along the Santa Clara River. There were bodies recovered 200 miles away near San Diego, and some bodies have never been found. Men, women and children were obliterated in the middle of the night, in their beds. Some fought the torrent of water, only to drown or be crushed by the fast moving debris. Perhaps mercifully so, some families died instantaneously, family pets being the only survivors; mute witnesses to the unthinkable. 

The numbers are staggering: 1,200 homes demolished, 24,000 acres of fertile land destroyed, 11,000 acres of crops laid waste, 140,000 trees uprooted or badly damaged. 3,000 volunteers searched for bodies.
After inquires and reports, dam safety legislation changed. Prior to the St. Francis, there was little dam construction oversight. Two days after St. Francis failed the federal government required all dams to be inspected. California mandated professional registration for engineers, soil compaction tests and a greater understanding of hydraulic uplift, which became the model for the rest of the country, but this was a painful lesson.

Catherine Mulholland
I interviewed Catherine Mulholland, granddaughter of William Mulholland who built the St. Francis, shortly before her death. Her words were profound and have resonated with me to this day, and sum up water and power. “By now we know that Homo sapiens have plundered the earth. We've dislodged, displaced and removed forests and oceans. We've flourished and also suffered. When you move water, things get destroyed in the process."

WATCH my short video on location at the St. Francis Dam site:

Portions of the dam still exist today: this piece being part of the front face of the dam.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Sweet Talk – How Do You Talk To Your Water?

As we all know, water is a physical element, but it also spiritual. Dr. Masaru Emoto writes in his book, The Hidden Messages in Water: “We start out life being 99% water as fetuses. When we are born we are 90% water and by the time we reach adulthood we are down to 70%. If we die of old age we will probably be about 50% water. In other words, throughout our lives we exist in water.” His groundbreaking work, chronicling water crystals was a discovery about water and how we as humans relate to water. You may not agree or believe in what he does, frankly I’m on the fence, but take a moment to ponder this.

With Dr. Emoto in Honolulu

His photographs of water crystals were originally featured in his book, The Hidden Messages in Water, and first published in Japan with over 400,000 copies sold internationally. What has put Dr. Emoto at the forefront of the study of water is his belief that thoughts and feelings affect physical reality. By producing different focused intentions through written and spoken words and music and literally presenting it to the water, the water appears to “change its expression,” he says. He developed a technique using a very powerful microscope in a very cold room along with high-speed photography to photograph newly formed crystals of frozen water samples. Dr. Emoto discovered that crystals formed in frozen water reveal changes when specific, concentrated thoughts are directed toward them be those positive or negative. He found that water from clear springs and water that has been exposed to loving words shows brilliant, complex, and colorful snowflake patterns. In contrast, polluted water, or water exposed to negative thoughts, forms incomplete, asymmetrical patterns with dull colors. Many people do not believe Dr. Emoto’s claims since his findings cannot be exactly reproduced – each crystal is unique and different. Is it true? Can sending positive messages to our water make it better, actually more healing, imbued with a spiritual nature?

In October 2012 I was in Honolulu where Dr. Emoto led a group of people to the Ala Wai canal, long considered one of the most unclean canals in the city. We stood on the banks and Dr. Emoto lead a prayer as a group of diverse individuals said aloud repeatedly, “We love you water, we praise you water, we thank you water.” Can this exercise actually affect the life and health of this canal? I don’t know. And sure, I felt somewhat foolish overlooking a placid body of water assuming something might happen - that a ripple would occur over the glassy surface as if some sign might convince me that, truly, we were having an impact on water, and by extension the residents of Honolulu. But the water didn’t move. There was no flash of sunlight piercing the water’s surface, reflecting a sign. There was no flight of birds that alighted on the canal. Nothing happened. But that doesn’t mean we cannot have an impact on our world of water. Should you spend time thanking a canal, a stream near your house, the ocean as it crashes on the shore, your watershed in your city? I’m guessing that you won’t be doing that. But if we, even a little bit, think about water, and are grateful for what it provides in our lives, literally life itself, then maybe something might change, in our water, and in ourselves. As Dr. Emoto told me, “Water is the messenger of God.” 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Going Global: Bottled Water Awards in Prague

Overlooking the historic and stunningly beautiful city of Prague in the Czech Republic, the 13th Annual Global Bottled Water Congress and Awards, held in October, were flush with new bottled waters, new concepts and innovation. As professional water judge I was thrilled to be asked to be a judge at this years event.

The city view of Prague from the Congress

I have been a water judge at the Berkeley Springs International WaterTasting for a decade, so when the organizer of the Prague event, Zenith Global Ltd. based in Bath England, asked if I would consider being a judge, I did not hesitate. I judged entries in multiple categories including taste, package design, brand innovation, new closure technology (bottle caps), and even social media campaigns. There were 100 entries from 25 countries including places you would expect like the US, Europe, Australia, and the Czech Republic itself, but also lesser-known places like Trinidad & Tobago, Suriname, Oman and Morocco – proof that bottled water is truly global.

With Nick Crossland (L) of Zenith at the Awards
In spite of criticism about bottled water, sales are up across the globe with predicted growth between 7-9%, according to Zenith. You may not think too much about water, but it is nonetheless a fascinating liquid and what is often overlooked is that the water we drink has within it the residual fingerprint of where it came from. Water from Russia is vastly different than water from Chile, or North Dakota. The hydro-geologic process ensures that pure waters consumed or bottled at their source retain the specifics of the rock, sand, limestone, granite, volcanic compounds, and everything else the water filters through, making that water truly unique.

One of the many vendors who attend
Not all bottled water is from a naturally occurring source of course; some is municipal water that has been re-treated and packaged for sale. Regardless, according to data compiled by Zenith from 2011 to 2016 consumption of bottled water was up 100 billion liters globally outpacing tea, milk and coffee. The awards certainly help to provide support for their market share as in the taste category as Lofoten Water from Norway was the winner for Best Natural Water Taste. Best Flavored Water Taste went to Mattoni Magnesia Red from Karlovarské Minerální Vody based in the Czech Republic.

But the Congress was not just awards, it was also a place for thought provoking discussion. Questions were brought up that, given the current state of the migration crisis in Europe does that help or hurt sales of bottled water? It’s easy to forget that as migrants flee war-torn areas, one of the basics they need is water. And where do they get water as they are constantly on the move? The eventual promise of financially active migrants, once situated into their new homes in a new country, could provide many future opportunities for bottled water companies. Another interesting take on the Congress was series of immediate polls conducted live with the attendees. One such poll asked what was more important about bottled water; healthy hydration, water source, taste, or promoting a lack of chemical compounds in water? Surprisingly 75% of attendees said “healthy hydration” was the most important message, even over taste. As a writer who covers water, a water judge, wine and spirits judge and food writer for 10 years, taste is of the utmost importance to me, but alas, not to everyone.

The dramatic and historic Charles Bridge
Another poll posited what was the greatest threat to the bottled water industry? Answers included waste and litter, access to natural water sources, comprehensive recycling and the like. But surprisingly 27% of respondents, a slim majority, said the constant media criticism about the bottled water industry was the biggest concern and threat to the industry overall. Yet in spite of a prevalent media bias (you can see a glaring example of this in my response to a Washington Post article HERE), consumers make the irrefutable verdict with their wallets, and this is why sales of bottled water are still on the rise regardless of an unfriendly media. Our global population will always need bottled water drawn from safe and secure sources, and the Global Bottled Water Congress provides a chance for bottled water to get the recognition and respect it deserves.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Arrowhead Water: Of Mountains, Indians & Helicoptors

Erected in the 1920s, this Indian pointed the way to the waters and resort
In the Western U.S. if you drink bottled water it’s very likely Arrowhead. Though labeled as Arrowhead Mountain Spring Water, few people realize that there is an actual Arrowhead Mountain from whence the water flows, and yes, it is actually mountain spring water. I was asked to visit the Arrowhead bottled water facility in Ontario, California, and see first hand one of the spring sites perched high atop the mountain.

To set the stage: Arrowhead water is 122 years old as of 2016, though the water emanating from the mountain has been around much longer, obviously. 1810 was the first known mention of the Arrowhead thermal springs by Spanish Padres, who called it Agua Caliente. The thermal springs soon attracted the attention of developers and the site was commercially developed in 1864, originally as a small wooden structure that offered bathing in the thermal waters, and by the 1890s a proper three-story hotel was built which morphed into a health resort. 
Early  Arrowhead water packs
Common at the time, water-based health resorts and sanitariums capitalized on “taking the waters,” including drinking plenty of mineral water straight from the source, and daily baths in the water. Of course it didn't hurt the marketing campaign that there were Indian legends about Arrowhead; that Spanish priests utilized the water, and that a clearly defined arrowhead was, and is still, on the mountainside pointing to the water. The resort was one of the elite places for Hollywood celebs to escape to in the 1920s and 1930s. Humphrey Bogart, Charlie Chaplin, Lucille Ball and many others hung out at the hotel. Today this is all private property with no public access, though the new owners of the resort might be giving tours of the palatial old hotel…someday.

The springs are at various points in the mountain, though the thermal springs still flow at the base of the mountain down by the hotel. Clearly visible from the city of Ontario and even more visible from the helicopter ride up, the arrowhead on the mountain is actually de-composing granite. I visited Tunnel #2, located at 5,400 feet up the mountain and the only way to access it was via helicopter. I landed on a small patch of dirt and made my way though thick underbrush down to the site, a staggeringly uninteresting grey door with three locks on it and a stainless steel pipe coming from the site. There are multiple access doors like this on the mountain and provide security as, once inside the door it’s about 60 feet into the mountain where the water is captured. The water is drawn into a pipeline made of food grade stainless steel and snakes its way 17 miles down to the base of the mountain where it is loaded onto trucks and taken to the nearby facility for bottling.

One of the tunnel doors. You can see the seepage of water below the door
"This is a fractured-granite spring," says Larry Lawrence, Natural Resource Manager for Arrowhead who accompanied me to the site. As is clearly evident from the mountain, the various sizes of granite around us, from small chunks the size of your hand to monolithic portions, demonstrate the natural minerals from the rock that the water picks up as it makes its way through the mountain. Protecting a water source is crucial and in addition to the locking doors, each with a rotating system of locks, each Arrowhead spring site is monitored for VOCs (volatile organic compounds) in the air. It’s less about human intervention – it’s near impossible for anyone to get to the sites – but for animal intrusion and air pollution levels.

Standing at tunnel #2
Back down on terra firma I toured the Arrowhead plant which, when first built, was the largest bottled water plant in the U.S. What’s amazing about most bottled water plants is the complexity of the operation, something the vast majority of people never see. Sure, it seems simple - put water into a bottle, sell it and you’re done. But the UV treatment, packaging, preform molding of the bottles, transportation, testing and shipping of the whole thing runs seamlessly with high tech equipment operating at near breakneck speed and pinpoint precision. Surprisingly there are 200 quality checks daily at this plant. “It's not that people don't believe it, it's that they just don't think about water going through that many tests,” Lawrence tells me. “You turn on the tap and water comes out - no one thinks about exactly how water gets to you.” Behind a glassed office one tech was testing multiple samples of water, decked out in gloves, mask and headgear so as to keep the room sanitized. The Arrowhead plant was built to be self-sufficient - once bottled the product is placed directly onto a truck and off it goes.

View from the helicopter: You can clearly see the arrowhead on the mountain, and the resort in the lower left
Near the plant is an R-PET facility, producing high quality recycled PET plastic pellets for Arrowhead, who in turn make those pellets into bottles. Millions of cases are produced at this facility and that means a lot of bottles. "We tend to be at about a 95% recycle rate across our supply chain," says Lawrence. Parent company Nestle has long supported extended producer responsibility (EPR) and feels that should apply to consumer packaging like bottled water. Recycling Reinvented, co-founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Nestlé Waters North America, promotes state EPR legislation, which would shift the costs to recycle packaging from taxpayers to producers. In essence, Arrowhead is willing to assume the financial aspect of recycling costs, though in truth, we all need to be responsible with recycling. Additionally, Arrowhead is a leading water donator; having given bottled water to over 300 organizations, and has donated 1.6 million bottles of water in the San Bernardino area alone. So the next time you see Arrowhead, you’ll have a more full understanding of the water.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Frank with Joe: A Conversation with IBWA’s Joe Doss

Joe Doss (L) and the author (R)
Since water is an integral part of my life, and given that I have written about water, bottled water, and water issues for over a decade (including my book OurWorld of Water: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly of Earth’s Most CriticalResource), I have known Joe Doss, President of the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) for a while, but had not met him until we were at the Berkeley Springs International WaterTasting in West Virginia together. It’s easy to dismiss IBWA as just another trade organization, and that’s your prerogative. But at least find out what they do, and then make up your own mind. Joe and I sat down for a discussion in April 2016.

Joe Doss been involved trade associations most of his career. “I’ve always found association work to be interesting, with a lot of different things going on; communications, legislation, regulations, a portfolio of issues.” Hum, well to each his own. He suggests that bottled water companies are populated with salt of the earth people and makes this point. “Most people think that bottled water companies are just big conglomerates, which is not the case - a lot of them are second and third generation, family-owned local companies.” And that’s important because many local businesses rely on the support of local customers.

Bottled waters of the world
Plastics & People
“There are people and groups that don’t like plastics,” says Joe. Yes, we all know that the majority of bottled water is in plastic bottles. “Bottled water is the number one item in curbside recycling,” Joe tells me. And though IBWA continues to encourage recycling, what is rarely talked about is that ALL beverages in plastic, glass and aluminum are recyclable. Yet beer cans are not recycled, nor plastic soda bottles and the list goes on. Waste is not limited to plastic bottles of water. “Bottled water companies are trying to do what they can to reduce greenhouse emissions and reduced CO2 including light weighting (plastic bottles with less plastic content), using r-PET (recycled plastic pellets to create new bottles), and compostable bottles (bottles often made from plant materials which will degrade naturally). “We encourage all efforts to reduce carbon footprints.” And Joe says regardless of the type of container, tetra pak, aluminum, glass or cardboard, “it’s all considered bottled water under FDA regulations.”

The author at 5,000 feet on Arrowhead Mtn.
Private Water
“There’s not a global effort to privatize all water,” Joe says. “But beyond privatization, there’s a belief that since bottled water sales and consumption continue to grow, people will rely more on bottled water and will be less inclined to pay the enormous sums of money it will take to make sure that public water systems are maintained and provide safe water. So the argument, and it’s not a valid argument, is that people believe reliance on bottled water precludes supporting municipal systems.” And yes, that conspiracy theory is out there. “So they believe there will be an eventual situation of haves and have-nots. We always point out that half of all bottled water, at least at the retail level, comes from municipal sources.” Joe mentions that this water is purified and packaged under sanitary conditions and that IBWA supports strong municipal sources and maintaining infrastructure in part because it actually needs the water. 

Give, and Give Again
Some people dislike bottled water. Yet when it’s a crucial life and death issue, suddenly the haters utilize bottled water. Bottled water companies have provided critical bottled water to Flint, during Hurricane Katrina, to humanitarian and emergency causes everywhere, all the time. “Bottled water companies have always been there during natural disasters, giving money to charity, even giving product to little league teams and fun runs.” Added to that - many bottled water companies support habitat restoration, water infrastructure and such but frankly, they do a terrible job of informing the general public of what they are doing.

Behind the Scenes Work
As it relates to the broad issue of water scarcity, and water resources management Joe tells me IBWA is involved in state and federal legislation to a point. “We’re always at the table to deal with regulation including water resource management issues, but there are three things we want to make certain are in place.”
#1: “The proposed regulation is based on sound science. You have people thinking that bottled water companies are taking water out of the aquifers and depleting them, but people don’t have the facts, which is that just .02% of water is extracted by the industry.” And he adds that it takes 1.23 liters of water to create a liter of bottled water - the smallest for any packaged beverage (including soda), and yes, I get the irony. A paltry amount? Yes.
#2: “Legislation has to be multi-jurisdictional. Aquifers don’t obey state lines.” And this is where things easily fall apart. As I detail in my book municipalities, counties and states all share a common water source. The Colorado River for example has seven states that lay claim to the river. Proper legislation needs to incorporate all of these factions.
#3: “It has to treat all users equally. What normally happens when we get involved in state or federal regulatory action, it usually tries to be comprehensive so that everyone has a sustainable water supply. But then in come the farmers. Ag uses abut 78% of groundwater in almost every state and nationally. Farmers have a powerful lobby, and often they get themselves written out of the bill and that concerns us because we believe all water users should be treated equally.” It’s no secret, though barely understood by the average consumer, that many farmers receive water subsidies, in some cases for growing crops on land that has no business being used for farm land to begin with, and for growing crops that do not serve the nutritional needs of Americans. Farming is hard work – I know, I have relatives who are farmers. But a lot of the Ag industry wants, and receives, special treatment. Fair? No. Old boys network? Yes.

But perhaps the coolest thing IBWA has accomplished which can impact our health is that they fought to get water incorporated as part of the 2015 federal dietary guidelines. “We’ve been working on this for a long time. The Department of Health and Human Services, and United States Department of Agriculture now recognize the importance of water as part of a healthy diet.” It might be surprising but if you recall the old food pyramid, (protein, grains, dairy, etc.) water was never part of that.

So I finally ask Joe what he drinks. “I only drink water, ever since the age of 18. My kids have never seen me drink anything other than water - no coffee or tea, just water.” I guess that last part surprised me. At any rate, now you know a little bit more about bottled water and what the industry aims to do.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Flint’s Water: The Tip of the Toxic Iceberg?

The current issue revolving the water contamination in Flint, Michigan reveals the sad and harsh truth that in some cases, our government authorities mismanage our water supplies and the outcome can have fatal consequences. That city officials in Flint, under the guise of a cost-cutting, money-saving myopic plan, changed their water supply to use a known contaminated body of water is beyond irresponsible. It is criminal. Regulations to treat the water were ignored and city officials should be prosecuted for their actions. It is unreasonable in this day and age and in this country to have such a serious problem in a city the size of Flint (population about 100,000 -  meaning this is not some rural backward city). But if you’re thinking Flint’s water woes is an anomaly, I present to you, and fully detail in my book, Our World of Water, two other examples of known and willful contamination of water by humans. There are many more, but let’s look at one in England, and one in Italy.

Camelford, England has its origins around 1259 and local folklore suggests that Camelford was once Camelot of King Arthur legend, but that has never been actually proved, it is conjecture. What is not conjecture is that in 1988 contamination of the drinking water supply saw 20 tons of aluminum sulfate in the water raising the concentration to 3,000 times the allowable limit. As the aluminum sulphate broke down it produced tons of sulfuric acid which stripped chemicals from pipes as well as lead and copper piping in people’s homes. People who came into contact with the contaminated water experienced a range of short-term health effects such as joint pain, diarrhea, blistering of the skin, and hair turning shades of green from copper residue in the water. Many victims suffered long-term effects. The early deaths of many Camelford residents are believed to be associated with the contaminated water, but there has been no rigorous monitoring of the health of the victims since the incident, considered Britain's worst mass poisoning event affecting about 20,000 people. Inquests on people who died many years later found very high levels of aluminum in their brain.

Immediately after the contamination authorities said the water was safe to drink, (exactly like the Elk River contamination in West Virginia in early 2014) and it was advised to use juice to cover any unpleasant taste – a ridiculous comment at best. In an inquest in 2012 into the death of one of the victims, the coroner stated that the South West Water Authority had been “gambling with as many as 20,000 lives” when they failed to inform the public about the poisoning for 16 days. There were allegations of a cover-up and West Somerset Coroner Michael Rose stated: “I found there was a deliberate policy to not advise the public of the true nature until some 16 days after the occurrence of the incident.” Following an investigation by the government's Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment, the former Environment Minister claimed that “various associated bodies tried to bury the inquiry from the start. This has become a tug of war between the truth and an attempt to silence the truth.” In 2014 a final government report was issued which stated there was no link between the 20 suspected deaths and the water poisoning. The town is still divided on that since the coroner’s report reached vastly different conclusions than the official government report.

In the U.S, as well as the UK, the name of the game is sadly and dubiously called “Risk Assessment,” a process of estimating the threat that environmental contaminants pose to humans. Scientists generally base risk assessments on toxicity studies performed on laboratory animals and on data from human exposure in the workplace where a chemical is made or used. These studies estimate potential health threats to people exposed over many years to low levels of chemicals in drinking water, but these types of studies also produce ambiguous results. Uncertainties stem from incomplete data and the difficulty of comparing health effects on laboratory animals to real humans living in a real environment. The risk assessment for a chemical usually does not take into account all chemicals people are exposed to in water, food and air. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has assessed the risk of a number of pesticides and volatile organic chemicals (VOC) sometimes found in drinking water. Tetrachloroethylene, a common VOC is used in dry cleaning solvents, metal degreasers, textile dyes, aerosols, and household pesticides. Experts suspect it can cause cancer and liver and kidney damage in humans. The EPA estimates that one part per billion tetrachloroethylene in drinking water could lead to one or two additional cases of cancer in a population of one million people who drink such water over a 70-year time frame. In other words, certain death, but at such low levels, it not considered harmful to the greater population. But knowing that toxic water will eventually cause certain death is clearly not enough of a motivator. But in Italy, it was worse.

In the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius just outside of Naples is the village of Acerra. The national average for juvenile brain tumors in Italy is just 0.5 for every 100,000 children. But for Acerra’s 55,000 residents, the average number is three children with brain cancer at any given time, which has been attributed to the willful dumping of toxic chemicals into the ground and water by the Camorra crime syndicate. Over the last 20 years thousands of tons of toxic waste have been dumped, burned and buried in an area known as the ‘triangle of death’ that runs from Naples to Caserta to Mt. Vesuvius. The toxins have so polluted the groundwater and poisoned the soil the Italian government refers to the area as the “terra di tumori” - land of tumors. But in another tale of government irresponsibility, have they done anything?

According to a study by the Pascale Institute in Naples, the mortality rate from cancer in this triangle of death has risen between 15 and 20% over the last decade. But in some towns, like Acerra, the increase is more than 30%. If nothing is done to clean the soil and decontaminate the water supply the rate is expected to grow to 47% for men and 40% for women by this year, 2016. The Pascale study found that 9,969 people have died from cancer and pulmonary diseases, allegedly related to the toxic waste and water, since 2005. The British journal The Lancet, first analyzed the rising levels of toxins after the U.S. military base in Naples started warning troops and their families stationed in the area not to drink the water or eat dairy products because of suspected high levels of toxins. Then the U.S. Navy did its own study in 2011 and found that high levels of arsenic, fecal coliform, banned insecticides, and dioxins were found in random tests of water samples in the area. The report warned U.S. military personnel based in Naples to stay clear of the local water supplies, suggesting the “use of bottled water for off-base personnel, for drinking, food preparation, cooking, brushing teeth, making ice, and for pets, due to the widespread presence of contaminants as measured in the tap water, as well as the other drinking water system infrastructure deficiencies.”

The Italian government has been reluctant to admit they have known about the problem for years in spite of court transcripts in 1997 by a former Camorra underling named Carmine Schiavone, who detailed first-hand the Camorra’s actions. “It became a real business, which brought money in, but the residents risked dying of cancer within 20 years. I don’t think they can be saved,” he told the court. “We have killed your children.” Schiavone says he went to the police because he could no longer stand by and watch the illegal activity. “I warned them that this toxic waste would kill entire generations. They told me not to worry, and just drink bottled water.” It is estimated that more than 100,000 tons of toxic waste have been dumped in the area between 1991 and 2013, even implying the use of 400,000 semi trucks that ferried the waste from more 443 Italian companies who reportedly commissioned the Camorra to do their dirty work (literally) rather than disposing of the waste properly. If there is indeed government collusion on this, it unmasks the vulnerability of the municipal water supply.

Can your tap water kill you? The unfortunate answer is yes – though to be clear these are uncommon occurrences and my objective is never to produce fear, but to produce change. The above examples show that contaminated tap water can kill sometimes quickly, and sometimes over a period of decades and this is the exact reason we need to be vigilant about our water supplies and uncover governmental mismanagement, like what is happening in Flint right now, fix the problem and prosecute those who clearly do wrong to our water.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Drink Water and Defend Strokes

Almost 800,000 Americans have a stroke every year according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The vast majority of strokes occur when a clot blocks the blood flow to a portion of the brain resulting in nearly 130,000 deaths annually in the United States. We know that strokes are dangerous – but what you may not know is that your own hydration can have a positive impact.

People who are not well hydrated, when they have a stroke, are about four times more likely to have a worse outcome than people who regularly have more fluids in their system, a new study suggests. When stroke patients end up in the hospital they are often severely dehydrated. When compared with patients who were not dehydrated prior to a stroke, dehydration at hospital arrival was associated with a four-fold increase in the risk of having clinically worsening symptoms between the patients arrival and their discharge, according to Dr. Mona Bahouth, a cerebrovascular fellow in the department of neurology at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, who presented her study findings at the annual meeting of the International Stroke Conference in February, 2015. “We have known that a large percentage of patients are dehydrated at the time of their stroke,” she said, adding that it is now clear that this presentation has implications for short-term prognosis. Simply put: it’s better to have a hydrated body than a dehydrated body. But can dehydration be a risk factor for stroke? The study did not address cause and effect, and Bahouth said it is not yet clear if dehydration is an actual risk factor for stroke. “I think we had a hunch that hydration would be a key feature for stroke patients,” Bahouth said. “So it’s not too surprising, but it’s just the beginning.”

A Scottish study in 2012 also found the same thing. Researchers in that study concluded that dehydration is common in patients admitted to the hospital following a stroke and is associated with severe stroke and poor outcomes at the time of their discharge. They suggest that focusing on interventions to reduce the frequency and duration of dehydration have the potential to improve patient outcomes after a stroke. Independent risk factors for dehydration included older age, female gender, and prescribed diuretics, which rids the body of vital fluids.

The John Hopkins study included 168 patients admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital from August 2013 to May 2014. The patients underwent MRI scans to assess how much damage had been done to the brain by the stroke. Forty-four patients were deemed to be dehydrated at the time of hospital admission. There were not significant differences in hydrated and dehydrated patients with regard to stroke severity or the type of stroke they had, however water consumption showed that healthy hydration had undeniable benefit. “The dehydration group tended to end up in the worst quartile,” Bahouth said. “These were the patients who got worse over further hospitalization or didn't change at all.” And dehydration remained a significant predictor of having a worse outcome after leaving the hospital. “There is a physiological response to dehydration,” she said. “The blood gets sludgy, like thick paint, and this puts stress on blood vessel walls and it changes the dynamic of how blood vessels function.”

Dr. Paul Bendheim, a clinical professor of neurology from the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson, said there are no hard-and-fast rules for staying well hydrated, though recommendations of drinking eight glasses of water each day is still standard policy. “The critical thing is that people maintain frequent volumes of urinary output during the day, that they don't feel thirsty and they regularly consume sufficient liquids,” added Bendheim, who wasn’t involved in the Hopkins study. Dr. Bahouth cautioned that anyone who thinks they might be having a stroke should not try to drink anything since brain damage might make it difficult for them to swallow correctly. That could cause them to inhale fluid into the lungs.

It’s no surprise that being properly hydrated helps with a variety of physical ailments. Water is known to help fight fatigue, eliminate toxins from the body, keep the skin healthy and more. But human nature is such that, though people may know they need to drink more water, they don’t often monitor their water intake. Yes, something as simple as water can provide meaningful long-term health benefits. Water is not a cure all of course, but drinking water at home, at work, at the gym, and on the go is never a wrong choice. Drinking more water won’t protect you from a stroke, heart attack or anything else, but if your body is properly hydrated and these studies suggest you will be helping to protect yourself in the long run.