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Why Do We Treat Our Seas, Lakes and Rivers Like Sewers?

Nobody wants to wallow in somebody else's waste -- or our own, for that matter. So why do we continue to use our valuable freshwater resources as a dumping ground?

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Frustrated swimming pool owners in thousands of backyards across this country have posted a sign that pleads "We don’t swim in your toilet, so please don’t pee in our pool!"

The message is crude but clear. Nobody wants to wallow in somebody else’s waste -- or our own, for that matter. So why do we treat our seas like sewers? Why do we contaminate our streams, rivers, lakes and oceans with a horrible hodgepodge of chemicals, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, plastic debris and waste?

Evidently, the world’s waterways are a giant toilet into which we can dump anything and everything, and then simply flush it all "away." As if river currents and rolling waves will pull our pollution into some giant cosmic garbage disposal.

Industrial agriculture’s synthetic fertilizers have given us lush green lawns and amber waves of grain. But the run-off from all those yards and farms seeps into our water table and feeds the “red tides”, those toxic algae blooms that cause massive die-offs of aquatic plants and animals.

Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, the filmmakers who fondly documented their brief stint as Iowa corn farmers in King Corn, explore agribiz’s downstream downside in Big River. In this thirty-minute sequel, Cheney and Ellis revisit their Iowa acre and trace its toxic trail all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

The film will make its Manhattan debut on March 15th at the Brecht Forum, followed by a panel discussion with Cheney, Ellis, King Corn director Aaron Woolf, Hudson Valley farmer and MacArthur genius Cheryl Rogowski, and Steve Rosenberg of Scenic Hudson.

The screening is a benefit for the Food Systems Network NYC, a non-profit organization whose members (myself included) are dedicated to bringing fresh, wholesome foods to all New Yorkers and supporting our region’s farmers, both urban and rural.

Cheney and Ellis have chosen to go the grassroots route with the release of Big River, organizing screenings across the country in churches, schools, community centers, libraries, boardrooms and so forth. So if you’re not in New York, check out their website to find a screening near you.

Environmentalist Bill McKibben calls the film  "a sharp and clever reminder that nothing ever really goes away, certainly not the soup of chemicals we’re pouring on our fields." And Big River is more timely than ever in the wake of a flood of stories this past week about our nation’s troubled waterways.

When Cheney and Ellis revisit Iowa, they discover that Atrazine, the herbicide they relied on to grow their corn, has tainted the local creek. Just this week, scientists reported that this widely used weed-killer, which has contaminated the tap water of millions of Americans, is "chemically castrating" -- and even feminizing -- male frogs. Their gender is literally reversed to the extent that they can bear eggs.

Atrazine is a known endocrine disrupter and suspected carcinogen. The European Union banned it back in 2004. Researchers in the US have called for a ban here, too, citing studies that have linked it to "human birth defects, low birth weight, prematurity and low sperm count."

Nonetheless, we apply about 80 million pounds of Atrazine annually, and the Environmental Protection Agency has long insisted that it poses no risk. In October of last year, however, the EPA announced that it would "reassess atrazine’s safety, including its cancer risk."

But there’s only so much the EPA can do to defend our waterways, because, as the New York Times reported last week in the latest installment of its superb Toxic Water series, the Clean Water Act doesn’t give the EPA the authority to pursue some of the biggest offenders:

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