Pesticides in the Water

I live on Earth, so caring about what happens here makes sense. I’ve talked about enlightened self-interest, Yeats, Ehrlich, and getting a grip, before. Often, actually. (February 17, 2017; January 20, 2017; September 16, 2016; August 12, 2016)

A news item about scientists finding a particular sort of pesticide in America’s drinking water got my attention. So did what they said about it: which made sense.

Whether or not this becomes a hot news item, like the “Flint Water Crisis,” depends partly on how badly editors need something to angst over. My opinion.

What happened in Flint, Michigan, was real enough. There’s a pretty good Wikipedia page on it. Briefly, Flint’s drinking water was okay until the city started drawing from the Flint River instead of Lake Huron and the Detroit River.

I might see that as a problem, if I had my ancestral attitude about ‘offending the spirits.’ (December 16, 2016; July 22, 2016; July 15, 2016)

I’ll get back to that.

Folks running that territory should have put corrosion inhibitors in water from the Flint River. Or, better yet, made the river itself safer. I’ll get back to that, too.

Improperly treated water running through past-replacement-date pipes put lead in the city’s drinking water. From there, it got into the city’s people.

There’s nothing basically evil about lead, or anything else in the universe. It’s almost as easy to work as gold, and a great deal easier to find. We’ve been smelting it for something like nine millennia.

It’s not particularly pretty, so lead mining may have happened mostly because of our interest in silver, and that’s another topic.

Folks made beads from lead, Egyptians used it in cosmetics, the Xia dynasty’s royalty used it as a stimulant, for currency, and as a contraceptive.

Folks in what we call the Indus Valley civilization and Mesoamericans made amulets with the stuff, and folks in eastern and southern Africa made wire drawings with lead.

Lead: Tastes Good, is Bad For You

(From MM, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Parts of the Appian Way, Via Appia, from Rome to southern Italy, are still in use.)

Romans were top-notch engineers, not theorists. That, and a habit of building permanent structures that have been remarkably durable, made their roads famous.

We’d still be using more of the Roman transportation network, if Roman engineers had realized we’d be driving multi-ton vehicles on them at speeds seldom attained birds. And had a numbering system that made math easier.

About Romans and math, try dividing LXIV by VIII, and you’ll see what I mean.

Like I said, Romans were very capable engineers. They didn’t invent cement, a sort of artificial rock made by binding sand with lime or something similar. It’s arguably a better binding material than the bitumen Assyrians and Babylonians used.

Credit for inventing cement goes to Egyptians, Minoans, Macedonians, or someone else. Greeks, perhaps unaware of the irony, used solidified ash from Thera in making cement. I talked about Minoans and Plato last month. (March 12, 2017)

Roman engineers thought cement was practical, and started using cement in what we might call industrial quantities.

They thought the same about lead. They called it plumbum, and installed lead pipes throughout the Roman Empire, which is where we get our word plumbing.

Folks like Cato the Elder, Columella, and Pliny the Elder, noticed that using lead or lead-coated vessels while preparing sweeteners and other food or wine additives gave a pleasant taste.

They were right about that. The taste is certainly better than you’re likely to get from bronze or copper vessels.

Vitruvius noticed connections between lead and health problems. He recommended switching to clay- or masonry-lined tech for water transport and storage.

He was right, that was a good idea, and we kept using lead pipes anyway.

Lead pipes and lead-laced food didn’t help Rome’s public health, but I seriously doubt that it’s responsible for the Roman Empire’s collapse.

Fountains and Theoderic

(From Diliff, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

For one thing, folks in Rome went through water at a per capita rate close to today’s New Yorkers. Rome’s water came through a system of aqueducts, including 14 serving Rome. Roman Legions built them, slaves maintained them.

Slavery isn’t a good idea, but after two millennia we finally convinced quite a few folks that it’s not nice. Another few millennia, and we may get close to removing another societal ill; like maybe war as a conflict-resolution method.

I’ve talked about that before. (January 22, 2017; October 30, 2016; September 25, 2016)

Romans weren’t the first to make fountains. But like pretty near everything else, they built fountains on a massive scale.

Water flowed from assorted sources, through aqueducts, out from fountains and other outlets, and from there into Rome’s equally-massive sanitation system.

Some of it went through Romans on its way to the sea, but any given unit of water almost certainly didn’t spend enough time in any part of the system to absorb lead. Not in significant quantities.

Sextus Julius Frontinus said that Rome had 39 monumental fountains, 591 public basins, plus waterworks in the Imperial household, private villas, and — of course — baths. Frontinus said each major fountain connected to two different aqueducts, which allowed maintenance of the system.

Even Roman engineering requires maintenance, which is why much of their aqueduct system stopped being useful about 15 centuries back.

As we’ve done during and after each speed bump in our civilization’s long history, we survived and tried again. We started repairing and upgrading parts of the Roman aqueduct system about a millennium after Theoderic killed Odoacer. Colorful chap, Theoderic.

Back to Flint

Folks responsible for running Flint’s water supply knew, or should have known, why Vitruvius was right.

That photo is from a news item that got me started writing this. It’s about water, but doesn’t involve Flint.

Nicander had noticed health problems associated with lead a century or so before Vitruvius, Dioscorides did the same about a century after.

Fast-forward to the 1950s, when Herbert Needleman did the same thing as Nicander, Vitruvius, and Dioscorides. We’d developed better analytic tech and math by then.

Needleman eventually convinced the powers that be that phasing out lead from plumbing, paint, and other tech, was a good idea.

I gather that Clair Cameron Patterson’s interest in lead was more geochemical than biology-related.

But by then a remarkable number of folks had realized that eating, drinking, and inhaling lead was a really bad idea; so his work led to getting lead-free gasoline.

Once in our system, lead has a nasty way of binding with sulfhydryl groups in many enzymes. On average, only about 15% of inorganic lead gets absorbed this way, but that’s an average. In children and pregnant women, the percentage is higher.

Lead in teeth, hair, and bones apparently doesn’t do much harm, not immediately; but it plays havoc when it gets in neurons. Lead-laced neurons lose their myelin sheaths, don’t grow normally, and don’t produce enough neurotransmitters.

Studies with animals suggests that lead makes neurons die faster, and happily nobody has gotten the bright idea of testing that with humans. Not as far as I know, anyway.

Lead doesn’t stay in the body indefinitely. The half-life for blood is on the order of weeks, months for soft tissues, and years for bone.

The half-life for bone is probably 20 to 30 years. My guess is that we’d know more about that if we lived more than something like 120 to 130 years, max, and that’s yet another topic.

Like I said, lead in bones doesn’t seem to do much harm while it’s there. The problem is, lead goes into our blood and soft tissues after it leaves our bones. Once there, we’re back to serious health issues.

Again, those numbers are averages. Human children don’t have quite the same metabolism as adults, so lead affects — hurts — them more.

Basically, letting lead get into us is pretty much the opposite of good. We’ve known that for upwards of two millennia, and we’ve been learning more about why it’s so bad for us in the last few decades.


Folks running cities are generally around my age, maybe a little younger, so they probably didn’t learn about lead poisoning along with the alphabet and how to add.

But they presumably learned how to read, so staying ignorant about a major health issue doesn’t make sense for them.

Like I keep saying, health is precious. Staying healthy, and regaining health, is a good idea; within reason. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 22882290)

About folks who are supposed to be in charge, and the rest of us, rational respect for competent authority is a good idea. Blind obedience isn’t. (Catechism, 18971917, 19511960)

That’s not even close to thinking that some king, president, or anyone else in a top position, is above the law; much less has some divinely-ordained right to unthinking obedience. (Catechism, 1902, 1960, 2155, 22422243, 2267, 2313, 2414)

I’ve talked about the Thirty Year’s War, Louis XIV’s spin on his “divine right,” the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and getting a grip, before. (November 6, 2016 )

I assume that the bunch running Flint was compos mentis, and could either read or have somebody read aloud for them.

If that was the case, and since I think responsibilities of those in authority include not poisoning their people, I think there’s good reason for the stink being raised about the city’s water problem.

Politics and hysteria — those shouldn’t be synonyms — got involved, and that’s yet again another topic.

Brains and Stewardship

I’m a Christian and a Catholic; so I see the universe, Earth included, as a place of order and beauty. It’s being created and upheld by God, in a “state of journeying” toward an ultimate perfection. (Genesis 1:131; Catechism, 3132, 302, 341)

God gave humans brains, pretty good ones. We’re rational creatures, created in the image of God, “little less than a god;” given dominion over this world. That power, and our nature, comes with frightening responsibilities. (Genesis 1:2627, 2:7; Psalms 8:6; Catechism, 355373, 2402, 24152418, 2456)

We’re this world’s stewards, responsible for managing the place. Using this world’s resources wisely, showing concern for our neighbors and future generations, is part of our job. (Catechism, 339, 952, 24022405, 2415, 2456)

Forgetting that “little less than a God” isn’t “God” gets us in trouble, and that’s still another topic. (March 5, 2017; January 29, 2017)

Here’s what got me started —

Pesticides in America’s Water

(From Getty Images, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Neonicotinoids have been found in samples from US water treatment plants”
(BBC News))

First study finds neonic pesticides in US drinking water
Matt McGrath, BBC News (April 5, 2017)

Small traces of the world’s most widely used insecticides have been detected in tap water for the first time.

“Samples taken by scientists in the US state of Iowa showed that levels of neonicotinoid chemicals remained constant despite treatment.

“However drinking water treated using a different method of filtration showed big reductions in neonic levels.

“Scientists say they cannot draw any conclusions relating to human health but argue that further study is needed….”

Getting pure, very pure, water is possible; but not easy. That’s why we’ve developed different standards for different uses.

For example; the U.S. National Committee for Clinical Laboratory Standards say that water for laboratory use with fewer than 50 parts per billion total Organic Carbon, 0.1 — tighten your belts, there’s more.

— fewer than 0.1 milligrams per kilogram total solids, under 0.05 parts per billion silica, and fewer than 10 per milliliter colony-forming units, is NCCLS Type I purified water. Standards for municipal tap water aren’t, I understand, quite as extreme.

Before you recoil in shock, horror, and/or dismay, and start demanding laboratory-grade purified water for everyone, keep reading.

Removing many impurities is a good idea for tap water. Removing all impurities might be possible; but there’s pretty good reason to think that it wouldn’t be good for us.

For starters, there’s good evidence that traces of several minerals helps keep our nervous system in good working order. This is not a bad thing.

Returning, briefly, to the Flint water SNAFU; I gather that one of the early responses to a memo about excess lead in the water was an official proclamation that there was no problem.

That strikes me as ineffective, to be charitable.

In fairness, the mayor got around to declaring a state of emergency a few months later. I have no idea how long it will take to replace dangerous pipes, and settle lawsuits that are starting to accumulate.

About who is to blame, I get the impression that at least a few city officials were grossly incompetent, corrupt, or otherwise unsuited to their position.

I’ll let the courts decide some of that, and hope that folks in Flint get a chance to make informed decisions during the next few election cycles.

Neonicotinoids and Getting a Grip

About the SNAFU in Flint; it’s my considered opinion that no living person is Adolph Hitler, the antichrist, or Nero. (November 8, 2016)

I think individuals are almost certainly guilty of incompetence, or worse.

But I don’t see a point in blaming politicians in general, the EPA, or the ‘other’ party. Taking a rational interest in local, regional, and national public issues is a good idea. Blind accusations or praise in the interest of ‘my’ side isn’t. (January 22, 2017)

About neonicotinoids and drinking water, I won’t be moving to the mountains and digging my own well. I’m reasonably confident that local water is safe: and because of family health issues, we already purify the already-purified tap water before drinking it.

Besides, like the scientists said, quoting Matt McGrath’s article, “further study is needed.” I think that’s a good idea. Blind panic, not so much.

Shell started developing neonicotinoids in the 1980s, Bayer in the 1990s. I do not think it’s part of a plot to overthrow Western civilization.

I do think it was a good idea, since neonicotinoids kill insects without hurting birds and mammals as organophosphate and carbamate insecticides.

Without hurting them as much, that is. All critters have pretty much the same sub-cellular machinery. I talked about that, mutant mice, and macaroni, last week. (March 31, 2017)

We’re learning that neonicotinoids may not be as safe as we’d hoped. We learned the same about PCBs. (February 17, 2017)

The lesson, I think, is that we don’t know everything: but we’re learning. The trick is using our knowledge rationally.

More, mostly getting a grip about environmental concerns and stewardship:

About Brian H. Gill

I'm a sixty-something married guy with six kids, four surviving, in a small central Minnesota town. I mostly write and make digital art. I'm only interested in three things: that which exists within the universe; that which exists beyond; and that which might exist.
This entry was posted in science news and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Thanks for taking time to comment!