Y. Mark Hong, MD

Contaminated Water - Holy Toledo!

By markhongmd on August 07, 2014

For several days, residents in Toledo, Ohio, were told their drinking water was too dangerous to drink.  Blame it on the Algae.  For several tense days, Toledo residents had to have water rationed and trucked in, with store shelves being cleaned out in the mad dash for water.  Even now that they have declared the water supply safe, people are understandably skeptical and cautious.

What does this mean for us?  If you've watched World War Z or The Walking Dead, is this the start of the end of the world?  Maybe not...yet.  Turns out that we've known about algae problems in drinking water for years, even decades.  And plenty of warnings have been broadcast about the problem.  It's not just Toledo.  The Great Lakes, Nebraska, California, Minnesota, Cape Cod...and a "dead zone" where life cannot exist was described in the Gulf of Mexico the size of Connecticut.  In the battle of Man vs. Algae, Algae seems to be winning.  Which is ironic because Man spawned the Algae.  Years of phosphorus dumped into lakes and oceans - from septic systems, fertilizer and other waste products - has caused overgrowth of poisonous algae called microcystin.  Which sickens us and kills dogs, by the way.  Of course other news reports have covered the presence of chemicals in Minnesota's lakes.  Wonderful stuff like cocaine, prescription drugs, DEET, BPA, Triclosan.  

As a urologist in the middle of a hot Phoenix summer, I am often on TV imploring residents to drink enough water to prevent kidney stones.  Yet if we cannot rely on having safe, toxin-free drinking water, what's the alternative?  Bottled water?  I've previously written about the tremendous energy costs of "making" water - taking it out of the ground, stripping it of minerals, adding new minerals, bottling it in plastic, trucking it...seems a bit wasteful, doesn't it?

Incidents like Toledo remind us that our ecosystem is indeed fragile, and it doesn't care which finger is pointed where.  Here's to hoping we can find a better way.

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