Yes, You Can Drink the Water: Clean and Safe Public Water Supplies. Microplastics, A Plea for a Modest Post Coronavirus Priority

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Jared Diamond had a piece in today’s FT riffing on four existential threats that  loom over the  the world once the coronavirus pandemic, is contained.Jared Diamond: lessons from a pandemic.

I won’t summarize his concerns here, as I believe  this piece is unlocked from the normal FT paywall as part of their free coronavirus coverage, and thus interested readers can read it themselves.

But his article set me to thinking about issues that will remain in a post-coronavirus world.  As I’ve previously written, lockdowns have concentrated our minds on how what we call normal life obscured the natural world (see COVID-19 Lockdowns: Birds Singing, Flamingoes Flocking, Dolphins Dancing, Cleaner Air and Water). Less attention has been paid to problems that continue to fester regardless of when or how lockdowns are lifted,


An example, and another spur for this post: a Guardian article that suggested the problem  of microplastics in the ocean was vastly undereestimated, Microplastic pollution in oceans vastly underestimated – study. Per that article:

The abundance of microplastic pollution in the oceans is likely to have been vastly underestimated, according to research that suggests there are at least double the number of particles as previously thought.

Scientists trawled waters off the coasts of the UK and US and found many more particles using nets with a fine mesh size than when using coarser ones usually used to filter microplastics. The addition of these smaller particles to global estimates of surface microplastics increases the range from between 5tn and 50tn particles to 12tn-125tn particles, the scientists say.

Plastic pollution is known to harm the fertility, growth and survival of marine life. Smaller particles are especially concerning because they are the same size as the food eaten by zooplankton, which underpin the marine food chain and play an important role in regulating the global climate. The new data suggests there may be more microplastic particles than zooplankton in some waters.

“The estimate of marine microplastic concentration could currently be vastly underestimated,” said Prof Pennie Lindeque, of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the UK, who led the research.

She said there may well be even smaller particles than those caught by the fine mesh nets, meaning the numbers “could be even larger again”.

Another new study shows how microplastics have entered the food chain in rivers, with birds found to be consuming hundreds of particles a day via the aquatic insects on which they feed.

Microplastic pollution has contaminated the whole planet, from Arctic snow and mountain soils to many rivers and the deepest oceans. It is also being consumed and inhaled by people, and the health impacts are as yet unknown.

Research published in the last month has found microplastics in greater quantities than ever before on the seabed and suggested that hundreds of thousands of tonnes of microplastics could be blowing ashore on the ocean breeze every year.

Cleaning Up Municipal Water Supplies

As dire as the microplastics situation is, that’s not the main focus of this post. What I want to discuss is a study that says a good chunk of our current problem with plastics could be alleviated or perhaps eliminated if governments would once again focus om providing clean water for their populations – especially in places such as the major metros of India where governments have consistently failed to do so, for hundreds of years, well beyond when other cities – London, New York, Paris – made provision of clean water a civic priority.

I’ll again rely on an another account in the Guardian, Improve water supply in poorer nations to cut plastic use, say experts, to summarize another worthwhile study:

Focusing on improving the water supply in developing nations could be a powerful way to fight the scourge of plastic waste in the oceans, experts have said, highlighting that the issue has received little attention.

People in developing countries, and many middle-income countries, often rely on plastic bottles of water as their piped water supply can be contaminated or unsafe, or perceived as such.

Hundreds of billions of plastic water bottles are produced each year. In rich countries, they are a thoughtless luxury, but in many poor and emerging economies people have few alternatives.

“It is an issue, as the water supply system has problems with water quality in many countries,” said Brajesh Dubey, professor of civil engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, co-author of a new “blue paper” on the problem of plastic waste in the oceans.

“The obvious solution is building a safe water supply infrastructure which ensures quality supply.”

The extent of the growing plague of plastic waste in our oceans has been laid bare in recent years, prompting widespread calls for action around the world. Cleaning up plastic waste that is already in the sea has been one of the main areas of focus so far.

This is necessary to remove the menace to marine life, but methods of preventing plastic waste from reaching the ocean in the first place must also take priority, according to the report published on Wednesday.

At the moment, Indians are breathing easier as the nationwide lockdown has improved air quality to levels not see in anyone’s lifetime. Yet little attention has been placed on retaining some of these air quality benefits once the situation returns to ‘normal’ conditions, Virtually no attention has been paid to other resource quality issues. And India is only one of many countries that are in desperate need of greater attention to such concerns. These are matters that need urgent national attention and alas, at the moment, I think they will not get the attention they deserve. And our multilateral institutions largely ignore such  issues.

We’re a long way away from where we can drink the water worldwide with comfort and confidence – so forgive me my aspirational headline. Yet it is certainly an attainable goal, upon which countries could focus, and one which when attained would also stop depositing  microplastics in our oceans.

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    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Sorry about that – I thought you could see it, even without an FT subscription.

  1. rd

    The irony is that modern plastic pipe allows for good inexpensive water supply lines for both water mains and piping inside homes. Copper pipe with non-lead soldered joints is best inside homes and busiensses, but PVC or HDPE water lines are adequate for many uses, especially cold water supply.

  2. Chauncey Gardiner

    Really appreciated the discussion of pervasive microplastics pollution and its ties to adequate supplies of potable water. Every year there are several million deaths from waterborne diseases globally. In fact, this is the leading cause of illness and death around the world. Related incidence of disease and mortalities are concentrated in developing countries that lack adequate water treatment and sewage treatment infrastructure.

    Here is an interactive map of the world from 2016 from the World Health Organization. Anyone from a developed nation who has visited one of these countries has likely become unpleasantly familiar with this issue first-hand.

    However, we are not immune to contaminated water supplies, as was shown by what happened in Flint, Michigan. The good news is that we can implement programs to clean water that has been contaminated and to keep water safe. Only takes political will and organization. Yes, this certainly is an attainable goal. In fact, it is comparatively low-hanging fruit in the overall scheme of things and a helluva lot more important than creating and using public money to pump the stock market.

    1. Bsoder

      Flint, was an a deliberate exercise in stupidity and perhaps murder trump style. Flint had a direct water supply from Lake Huron. When flint went bankrupt the state by law was allowed to put in a “Manager”, to run/control Flint and in a not democratic manner. First things first, cut off the water supply and start using the Flint River which GM had been dumping heavy metal waste into for about 100 years. I doubt there was any water in the Flint River. Not a single sane person in Michigan thought you could drink from that river. All to save a couple of bucks.

  3. jef

    Best thing a country can do to insure running water and flushing toilets is to not attempt social democracy.

      1. Chauncey Gardiner

        Thinking about the Nordic model and Denmark, myself. State of the Art wastewater treatment and excellent water quality.

  4. Dwight

    Trader Joes in Northern Virginia is selling bottled water for 17 cents a bottle, or less than $5 for 24. Our water isn’t great but it’s safe to drink. Plastic waste aside I’ve never understood why people want to drink leached plastic, or why they think the water is better than tap water. Maybe some buildings have bad pipes?

  5. Brian

    In relation to potable water, the thought of capturing rainwater for use within the home is on the rise, with the companies in this space investing into R&D. Large steel rainwatertanks usually have a plastic style liner which I understand has to be of a food grade standard in order for the stored water to be fit for human consumption.

    Why do I raise this point? Well there is a Swiss company called Sanitized that specializes in antimicrobial technology, with this technology usually being incorporated into kitchen items such as knife handles, cutting boards and the like.

    The reason for this comment is that I became aware of a company in Australia that has taken this technology and incorporated it into the liner for their water tank, increasing the quality of their drinking water quite substantially.

    The thought of an antimicrobial layer that reduces bacteria in drinking water is certainly appealing to me. Wouldn’t this kind of antimicrobial technology be an asset to increase water quality here?

    Pioneer Water Tanks Is the company currently using this technology for better quality drinking water.

  6. oaf

    …won’t none of us be around to drink any water if we don’t stop trashing the Oceans…


  7. oaf

    I am reminded of a joke from childhood: What’s the worse thing you can imagine?…a fart in a spacesuit!…Of course we all cracked up…not so funny now is the realization that we are fouling our spaceship.

  8. Rod

    Are not Producers-not mentioned much in the Article-Responsible??
    Producers are Responsible–not Consumers. They invent, formulate, produce and market with little or no responsibility imposed.
    Laws on Producer Ownership and Chain of Custody for all Plastic products manufactured. Period.
    Circulatory Manufacturing only-Period.
    Common Manufacturing Formulas only, whose bonds can be broken easily to lead to remanufacturing.

  9. Marc Andelman

    It would bee easy to develop an effective, cheap, safe, point of use water purifier.
    No research funding agency is going to support that. Their boards seem to be dominated by large engineering firms that view point of use as competing with the only broadly used technology that does not require throwing away a disposable filter., reverse osmosis ( RO). Water research focuses on defending these sunk costs, so, will typically fund tweaks to this ante deluvian technology. Also, water is a major source of revenue for municipalities. RO wastes a lot of water in order to purify a little water. Anything that wastes less water is a threat to this revenue source.

    Another problem with the field of water technology is that it is not really an organized field. You have academics out for themselves, who do not curate the best information. Lastly, you have lots of NGOs in
    this field who seem to have a solid lack of anyone with a science degree on their board. I invite readers to see for themselves. Start with the Gates foundation, which should send their WASH team to Seattle, where people commonly defecate on the streets. And,lets not forget stock exchange companies that only buy back their own stock, doing no R&D.

  10. Ben Oldfield

    worked for Galmoy Mine in Ireland and was involved in the design and installation of the replacement water scheme. Most of the people in rural Ireland depend upon ground water from their own wells so the mine was required to provide a replacement water scheme. We would lower the water table as we pumped out the water to keep the mine dry. The source of the scheme was a new well with potable quality water (it met all drinking water standards) and despite this we had to install a chlorine dosing systems plus an ultraviolet treatment systems, both with on line and automatic back up. Finally at closure we had to install a filtreation system.

    Ireland being good neolibrals wanted to take the water supply system away from the local councels and charge people based on the quantity of water consumed (easy to measure). Their excuse was based the principle of paying for waste disposal (sewage) but of course this was too dificalt to measure. There were riots about having to pay for clean water from their own wells.

    On closure of the mine we had to hand over the system to the new national Irish Water company and within a month they had managed to contaminate the whole system. It took 3 months to decontaminate it. I believe Irish Water had no engineers and Kilkenny county council had to take over as they were getting the flack

  11. Ian Ollmann

    One of the problems with progressivism is that while there is only one status quo to be conservative about, there are an unlimited number of opinions about What part of the status quo we should change and in the ensuing debate we arrive at the circular firing squad. My first reaction was “what about global warming!”

    But really, these are two parts of the same larger problem. We have micro plastics because we have cheap plastic. We have cheap plastic because we have an industry an order of magnitude or larger producing petrochemical feed stocks, that is so large and so cheap that we have petrochemicals to burn in grand enough scale to change the climate. Wrestle that beast to the Earth, I say, and the problem of plastics over abundancy will be curtailed.

    Eventually micropastics will be ground to nanoplastics and bacteria will do the rest, in time. We just need to find a way to ensure that the oil stays in the ground.

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