Drinking the Bathwater

Environmental Commentary by Liza Field

Ah, the chemical bath we all splash in these days! It may not be something you want to contemplate, if you're already nervous over swimsuit season.

But a dive under the surface might at least dissolve any shallower fears you had about cellulite or skin tone. Our real problems are obviously more than skin-deep. Likewise the solutions.

I'm a lap swimmer, so I'll jump in first and mention the genotoxic pool problems exposed in recent years.

In 2010, University of Illinois (among others) produced research indicating that pool disinfectants like chlorine and brominating agents generated toxic byproducts when mixed with the nitrogen from “organic matter” — like humans, for instance, and our retinue of summer sweat, peeling skin, spit, sunscreen and so-forth.

Earlier studied in tap-water, these disinfection byproducts (DBPs) were found by researchers to be capable of mutating genes and causing birth defects, respiratory ailments and cancer.

Drinking and bathing in average municipal tap-water (already a combo of chlorine and nitrogen from silt, leaves and microbes) causes one level of DBP's and their geno-damaging, carcinogenic toxicity. But in pools, it's ultra-concentrated.

Hundreds of us nitrogen bombs may plunge into the same water throughout the course of a day, leaving behind the kind of residue I choose not to think about when slogging laps. Swimming through public pee is one thing, but a poison compound that causes bladder cancer somewhat dilutes the fitness element of swimming.

Michael Plewa, professor of genetics at University of Illinois, recommended that pools use a somewhat-less-harmful chlorination/UV treatment combo. It's not a perfect solution, of course, nor even possible at my indoor pool.

His other recommendation channels us more practically into our next toxic tributary. Plewa said swimmers should shower—in plain old imperfect tapwater—before jumping into our collective baths.

This pre-wash rinse cycle needs not only to remove the loosened nitrogen that reacts with chlorine, but also our usual slatherments of shampoos, product fragrance, cosmetics, hair spray/conditioner, sunscreen, deodorant, and those cloying, oily, toxic residues from dryer sheets that end up coating human skin these days.

In fact, the water-contaminants we willingly tote around on ourselves, lately, comprise one high-powered toxic soakie-bath—the kind we steep our bodies, hair, clothes, kids, lungs, dishes, homes, pets and the planet in, 24-7.

The big swim of Earth's rivers and oceans, into which all our inland bathwaters drain, is increasingly awash with these hygiene, detergent and “personal care” chemicals that studies are now finding linked to hormonal disruption, toxicity or death in fish, amphibians, crustaceans and even algae and phytoplankton.

The concentration of chemicals like triclosan, the dioxin and chloroform it converts to, and tub-loads of other toxic cosmetic and soap effluent we send down drains across the landscape, would be headlined as a major environmental disaster if one industrial plant had dumped it.

But millions of us humans are the nonpoint source of this chemical spill—not because we want to destroy the world's beauty or health, but ironically because we're seeking beauty and health.

Most of us assume the products we wash and coat ourselves with—buying them because the nice label says they'll do us good—won't wash ashore in our kidneys, liver, brain or bloodstream, where researchers are now finding them.

Nor do we imagine detergent, sunscreen and hairspray will flow into a stream “out there,” destroying fragile aquatic ecosystems and causing gender mutations in fish, frogs and sea turtles. It rarely occurs to us that the world is one common, public bath.

In recent years, the antibacterial triclosan—a cheerfully-packaged pesticide now linked to a raft of human and ecological troubles, from cardiac damage to endocrine disruption to its byproducts of dioxin and drug-resistant superbugs—has been showing up in waters and soil, fish and even earthworms. It's also commonly present in human blood and breast milk.

The average swimming pool is a reservoir of triclosan, now a common ingredient in sunscreen, soap, dish detergents like Dawn and Ajax, shampoo, cosmetics, lotion, even Colgate Total toothpaste.

No pool disinfectant can purify this toxin that is, ironically, created to disinfect.

It and other toxic “hygiene” ingredients like phthalates, formaldehyde, parabens and1,4-dioxane—a mix that'll clean your clock—cannot be laundered and showered out of the human system, pools, rivers or seas, until we stop pouring them in.

Only the human swimmers in our planetary pool can make this vital change.

To clean up your own headwaters, check with Environmental Working Group and Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, for lists of home/bath/cosmetic products, their known toxins or safety ratings, at http://www.safecosmetics.org and http://www.ewg.org.

Liza Field teaches English and philosophy in the Virginia Governor’s School and Wytheville Community College. This column is distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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