Water crisis hits home

BY EMILY INMAN | MARCH 30, 2011 7:20 AM

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Dirty, undrinkable, and contaminated are usually adjectives attributed to water in Third-World countries.

Not this time. These words were used to describe the quality of water right here in Iowa this past weekend at the University of Iowa’s Global Health Conference. The topic of the conference was “Starving for water: the global water crisis and its impact on food and health.” Professionals from countries across the globe and many different disciplines spoke about this issue, addressing the destruction of rain forests, desertification of lands, lack of access to water, water privatization, rising costs, and a decrease in people’s health. In particular, though, the water issues and their effect on food and health for Iowans resonated with me.

In the study of global health, people tend to only fixate upon Third World countries and forget that the United States is also a part of the globe. While the study of these countries is important, the study of global health in relation to the United States is also vital. Right here in Iowa, we are facing threats to our water, food, and health systems.

One of these threats is pharmaceuticals in our water. A study was done in 2010 to test for pharmaceuticals in the Four-Mile Creek in Mitchellville, Iowa.

The creek, located an hour and a half west of Iowa City, receives discharge from the nearby wastewater-treatment plant. Among other pharmaceuticals, a large amount of antidepressants were found in the creek — and in the neural tissues of native fish. The antidepressants were found to slow the fishes’ predator avoidance and disrupt their endocrine systems, causing the male fish to internally and externally begin to look like females.

That is only one example of the damage that can be caused by having pharmaceuticals in the water. Pharmaceuticals have also been detected in the rainwater, groundwater, sewage systems, and tap water of other areas. A 2010 study found high levels of oxycodone, methadone, and diazepam, among others, in wastewater-treatment plants in New York. Levels of pharmaceuticals such as these have also been detected across Iowa.

Iowa is experiencing a never-ending cycle of destruction of its water and food systems. Seventy-five different waterways in Iowa were tested recently for their water quality, and the overall result was poor to very poor.

There are several contributing factors to these results, including pharmaceutical contamination and pesticide runoffs from farming. Pesticide runoff has also risen because of deforestation along rivers and small lakes in order to expand farms. Trees soak up water runoff from farms, and their elimination contributes to flooding. Some areas then see drought, while others, as we are all too familiar, see massive flooding — which expands the reach of pesticides into other locations and water systems.

Poor quality water also leads to poor quality foods. As emphasized in the conference, the majority of the corn and soybeans grown in Iowa go toward biofuel production — not feed or human consumption. Processing corn into ethanol occurs outside the state, too. Grocers then have to pay for corn for feed and human consumption to be shipped into Iowa from other states.

Farmers are also losing their subsidies for feed corn, edible corn and soybeans, and other vegetables. The importation of corn costs money and tax dollars and results in damage to the environment. Not only do we have poor-quality water, but we are also increasing pollution and the economic burden. These burdens contribute to other burdens facing the nation and globe, which, in turn, affect our health.

Iowa does not have a state mandated program for pharmaceutical disposal, leading to a greater incidence of pharmaceutical runoff. Legislation is also lacking for pesticide use, runoff, and disposal. Paul Farmer, a global-health activist, calls this structural violence: when the systems which govern our lives contribute to the atrocities that plague our citizens.

Most Iowans do not even know that these activities and conditions are present in Iowa. It is time for more transparency in government and industry oversight. State senators and representatives need to become aware of these issues and help spread the word to their constituencies. Iowans also need to write their senators and representatives concerning this structural violence.

The health of Iowans is increasingly dependent on the health of our environment.

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