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Saving Our Water: Chlorination, Fluoridation, and an Unreasonable Woman

With all the news of toxic pollutants spilling into our rivers lately (and ending up in our drinking water), this is a good time to examine the role of activism in stopping chemical plants’ irresponsible actions.

In this excerpt from The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved, author Sandor Katz tells the story of how environmental activist and fellow Chelsea Green author Diane Wilson became the eco-warrior she is today; Diane took on the corporations that were wrecking her little Gulf Coast town and proved that sometimes one person can make a difference.

The following is an excerpt from The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements by Sandor Ellix Katz. It has been adapted for the Web.

Clean Water Activism

Rather than cherishing and honoring water as the precious life-giving substance that it is, our profit-driven culture squanders it and pollutes it, without regard for long-term consequences. Major sources of water pollution include toxic industrial waste, agricultural chemicals, and feces. Some waste flows directly into waterways; in other cases it enters sewer systems, where “sludge” is filtered out and the water is treated with “purifying chemicals” (an oxymoron) before being released back into surface water supplies.

One purifying chemical often added to water, chlorine, has been hailed as the greatest public health achievement of the twentieth century, preventing the spread of infectious disease through public water supplies. Chlorination is a cost-effective means of killing waterborne bacteria. But chlorine has some distinctly unhealthy drawbacks. Chlorine reacts with organic compounds, which are especially prevalent in water from surface sources such as lakes and reservoirs, to form compounds called organochlorines or trihalomethanes, known in the lingo of the water purification industry as disinfection by-products. These compounds have been linked to an increased incidence of cancers, as well as birth defects, asthma, decreased fertility and sperm counts, and other human health problems.

Arguably, an increased risk of certain diseases is well justified by the tremendous public health benefits of chlorination. But it’s important to understand that chemically purified water involves tradeoffs. We lose something for what we gain, and it would be far better not to contaminate the water in the first place. And chlorination isn’t the only or the best way to make contaminated water potable, though it is the cheapest. Many other methods, among them safer chemicals, ionization with copper or silver, ultraviolet light, reverse osmosis, and, of course, filtration, offer water purification alternatives.

Another chemical widespread in municipal water systems is fluoride. Before it became known for preventing cavities, fluoride was considered an industrial pollutant. Fluoride is a toxic by-product of many industrial processes, including the production of aluminum, and high levels of fluoride exposure have been linked to many different human health problems.

Not dentists but rather aluminum industry scientists first proposed water fluoridation as a strategy for cavity control. In 1945, with fluoride emissions at an all-time high due to heightened wartime production, the federal government started its first water fluoridation experiment in Grand Rapids, Michigan, intended to be a fifteen-year study. With this pilot program barely under way, a full-on water fluoridation campaign emerged. Edward L. Bernays, often referred to as the father of public relations, orchestrated it at the behest of Oscar Ewing, the long-time lawyer for Alcoa (a major aluminum manufacturer) who was appointed in 1947 to head the federal agency overseeing the Public Health Service (PHS).

Bernays was remarkably successful at giving fluoride the image of being safe and effective for cavity prevention, without substantive evidence. The Michigan study was aborted, and PHS officially endorsed water fluoridation in 1950. Since then two-thirds of U.S. water systems have been fluoridated. Unfortunately, despite the wholesome image, there are growing questions about both fluoride’s effectiveness and its safety. Critics charge that the chemical’s cavity-prevention qualities have been overstated, and that water fluoridation is a cause of many different bone problems, including defective development, fractures, bone and joint cancers, and arthritis, as well as lowered IQ levels, neurotoxicity, and thyroid and pineal gland problems. One of the major groups crusading against water fluoridation is the union that represents scientists employed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Union members, who have reported political pressure to arrive at predetermined conclusions, call for “an immediate halt to the use of the nation’s drinking water reservoirs as disposal sites for toxic waste.”

Water supplies everywhere benefit from informed activists demanding clean water. In some places river cleanup campaigns have achieved remarkable successes, for instance with the Hudson River in New York. But rivers are not cleaned up overnight; this work requires dedication, organization, follow-through, and perseverance. Passionate water lovers in every region are engaged in clean water campaigns, investigating the inflows and outflows within particular watersheds, drawing attention to major polluters, promoting water conservation, and organizing to demand enforcement of clean water laws.

One fierce voice demanding clean water has been that of Diane Wilson, a fourth-generation Texas shrimper and mother of five who has doggedly challenged various powerful industries polluting the Gulf of Mexico. “I’ve got four generations in one town,” explains Diane. “That’s why I battle here.” Diane became concerned about water quality in 1989, after a shrimper she knew who was suffering from cancer showed her a newspaper article on the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, which named their home, Calhoun County, Texas, as the most toxic county in the nation. That single article propelled her into a life of activism. As she tells the story:

I was extremely inexperienced—I’ve always been on the bay all my life. I’ve dealt with water and the elements and the tides and the fish—but I never ever would’ve considered myself an environmentalist. So all I did was call for a meeting, and I had such repercussions from this county, from the political structure—from just calling a meeting, and it just puzzled me. I didn’t know what was going on, I was naïve, all I knew was those numbers that were in the paper. I got the bank president, the county commissioner, the mayor, I got economic development and city secretaries, all down at the fish house. I was suddenly getting all this hate—it was bizarre. I couldn’t figure out why would they care—I was just a woman down in Seadrift calling a meeting. They didn’t want me to have the meeting, they just wanted me to forget it and be a good citizen and stop causing problems. I had my meeting, and was promptly attacked by probably a dozen mayors, chambers of commerce, and businesses. They believed that just questioning industry, the corporations, was going to cause an economic problem.

Undaunted, Diane started asking lots of questions. She learned about all the major chemical and plastic manufacturers that dump toxic waste into the Gulf of Mexico, and she focused her efforts on organizing people to oppose a huge polyvinyl chloride (PVC) factory expansion proposed by Formosa Plastics, a notorious polluter. While fighting the permit Formosa was in the process of seeking from the EPA, she recounts:

Just by a fluke, I was talking to the EPA attorney one day and she thought she was talking to Formosa’s attorney (we’re both named Diane), so she started talking to me about the discharge and what they were putting in the water. I found out that the process didn’t matter, the EPA had allowed them to go ahead and start discharging like they were going to get a permit anyway, so it was like a little game they were playing with me and the only one they hadn’t told was the public. When I realized that the law didn’t matter, that they were going to do what they were going to do and the federal government was going to work along with them, I was so outraged. I thought something had to be done to make people realize exactly what this meant, because most people don’t think about it—it’s like losing part of your civil rights. So it dawned on me to sink my shrimp boat, because I knew that action would force someone to look at it—it’s kind of like a farmer saying he’s going to burn his farm. That was a painful decision because I truly loved that boat, I had been shrimping on it a very long time, but I believe sometimes when you appeal to a higher law you have to be willing to go out there.

Diane sank her boat right atop Formosa’s discharge pipe out in the bay. When the Coast Guard arrived, “they said I was a terrorist on the high seas.” But the resulting publicity compelled Formosa to agree to a plan for zero discharge by recycling all its waste.

Diane Wilson is an activist who has demonstrated that a single individual’s actions can make a big difference. “People have to be willing to get out there and do more than write a letter,” she exhorts. “It’s when people put themselves on the line, when you get face to face with your corporations and your politicians, when you have a sit-in in their office, they see you.” Diane regards fear as the major reason why more people don’t engage in direct action. “By just doing actions where we put ourselves up against our fears, you conquer that fear and it makes you stronger,” she says. “We need to be bold and imaginative and brave. We’ve got to be heroes.”

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