An article in the Washington Post today noted that pesticide neonicotinoids have been found for the first time in measurable quantities in drinking water. Though neonicotinoids are not known to cause significant health effects in mammals, this discovery has once again highlighted the interconnection of water systems and the ability of some pollutants to get through stringent cleaning of water.
In most cases, drinking water treatment is able to remove all harmful contaminants--especially those from human waste. This has allowed for toilet-to-tap to become a method of returning used water to the systems and ensuring that droughts do not grip most parts of the country. Still, misunderstandings about how effective treatment is have prevented legislators and consumers from allowing treated wastewater to become perfect drinking water (even after the 60 minutes episode that proved it was possible).
Though the news of neonicotinoids does highlight imperfections in treatment, these imperfections should encourage development of more thoughtful water management--including in the agricultural realm--and not panic.
Still, this news highlights one of the areas that are critical for more study. Certain aspects of human waste--in particular excretions of pharmaceuticals and nanotech from sunscreens and other products--may have effects on humans if they are not removed from drinking water or if they accumulate in our systems. These are areas that will need further investigation moving forward.
The transboundary nature of rivers that were tested also raise the spectre that agricultural run-off from one state could have impacts on the drinking water of downstream states. Also, the spread of neonictinoids in water could have a deleterious effects on bees and water-borne insects that could affect fish populations, hunting and fishing, and agricultural production--and food security--in other states. In short, the rivers run through the U.S. heartland, and anything that affects the health of those systems should be of concern to everyone.
As Gregory LeFevre from University of Iowa stated in the article: "Everything in the watershed is connected. This is one of many types of trace pollutants that might be present in rivers.” This study's findings of neonictinoids running off from agriculture should make us think harder about how these connections link fields to public health. These systems are connected, and our laws and policies must recognize and adapt to this new knowledge.
For more on the interconnection of water uses, read The CWSC's report "The Water Security Challenge: Building a Framework."