The Denver Department of Public Health and Environment’s decision last week to close Sloan’s Lake to recreation and fishing because of blue-green algae bloom brought into stark focus the dangers of fertilizers and other chemical pollutants endangering waterways in the United States and throughout the world.
The closing of the lake comes just a week after the toxic algae forced officials in Colorado Springs to issue a similar ban for the Pikeview Reservoir and the shutdown last year of Prospect Lake, also in the Springs.
The presence of the blue-green algae is exacerbated by hot weather, stagnant water, or polluted stormwater runoff. But a major cause of the problem is the overuse of agricultural and lawn fertilizers, which contribute to major fish and biological die-offs.
Fertilizers and other industrial chemicals are emerging as profitable conveniences of daily life, but they are polluting waterways, damaging the environment, and threatening public health.
Public health officials are worrying about the consequences because too many end up in our rivers, lakes, and oceans. Environmental engineers are struggling to strip these chemicals — microbeads, PFASs, pharmaceuticals, and fertilizers — from our water supplies.
It’s a classic case of modern inventions outrunning the regulations that are supposed to keep the public safe. Companies use these chemicals because they improve their products or make them cheaper, but the full cost of new chemical applications can go beyond their dollar value and can take much longer to understand.
If taxpayers and utility customers must spend millions to strip these chemicals from water supplies or repair the damage they cause, how are they really making anything better or cheaper?
Until governments can figure out how to deal with these chemicals, manufacturers and consumers alike should be wary of their use — and try to avoid them if possible.
Microbeads are among the biggest threats. These are tiny plastic particles that are added to many cosmetic, skin, and cleaning products. They are used as an abrasive or exfoliant, a bulking agent, or for the controlled release of active ingredients.
Microbeads do not dilute or dissolve in water — they are a permanent addition to the water environment. Some microbeads can absorb toxins and be transferred up the food chain from aquatic plants to fish and back to people.
At one point, about 8 trillion microbeads were being emitted into US aquatic environments every day, enough to cover more than 300 tennis courts, but some microbead use was banned, especially in cosmetics, starting in 2017. Still, the use of microbeads continues in numerous other products to this day.
Another serious issue involves “perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances,” known simply as PFAS. About 600 PFAS compounds are used in numerous common consumer products, such as firefighting foam, cookware, cosmetics, carpet treatments, and dental floss. PFASs are a cheap way to help products resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water.
Studies have found that more than 200 million Americans drink PFAS chemicals daily, and the US Centers for Disease Control have found PFASs in almost every American tested.
The health consequences of low exposures to PFAS are uncertain, though high concentrations have caused trouble for lab animals.
Serious environmental issues have been linked to the rise of pharmaceutical chemicals in the environment. Many of the more than 4,000 prescription drugs distributed for humans and livestock ultimately find their way into the environment via pharmaceutical manufacturing plants, excrement, or from people flushing unused drugs down the drain.
Biologists have documented numerous cases of fish developing new gender characteristics or being unable to breed because of rising levels of chemicals from birth control pills in U.S. lakes and rivers.
Pharmaceutical manufacturers, doctors, patients, and agriculturalists must learn to do a better job of keeping medicine out of the world’s drinking water supplies.
The last major chemical issue comes from overuse of fertilizers for agricultural and lawn purposes, which cause algae blooms from runoffs.
In Florida, the algal bloom is best known as the deadly "red tide," which causes human respiratory illness, forces beach closures, leads to toxic bioaccumulations in edible shellfish, and kills fish, birds, and other ocean life.
In the Great Lakes, especially Lake Erie, fertilizer runoff causes annual algal blooms that pollute drinking water and force many beach shutdowns. Unfortunately, toxic blue-green algal blooms are becoming a regular occurrence in California as river levels drop in summer.
Microbeads, PFAS, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers — all these chemicals might help lower costs or improve product efficacy in the short term, but they create expensive clean-up costs and have potentially serious long-term health and environmental consequences.
It’s time to start viewing our water supplies as the circular network they truly are.
Everything we put into our sewers and wastewater systems has an impact on the water we use for drinking, bathing, and irrigation.
The easiest and cheapest way to promote cleaner and more sustainable water practices is to prevent our waterways from becoming contaminated in the first place. It’s time to crack down on chemicals in our water supplies before the chemicals crack down on us.
Gadi Sharon is the head of operations at Kando, which provides data-driven wastewater management solutions to help cities worldwide keep rivers and oceans cleaner while stimulating the reuse of water. Kando is affiliated with the Israel-Colorado Innovation Fund, which invests in and connects Israeli entrepreneurs with U.S. markets through Innosphere Ventures, a Colorado technology incubator.