Eating Our Way to Cleaner Water

The late astronomer Carl Sagan wrote a book poetically titled "Pale Blue Dot," which aptly describes how Earth appears against the vast black void of space. Life-sustaining water, of course, is what imbues our planet with its distinctive hue.That water is imperiled. And it imperils us. We have started dealing with much of the industrial, chemical, petroleum, and sewage pollution of our precious water supply. But one huge spoiler of our planet's waters has gone substantially ignored and virtually unregulated, until now: animal agriculture.Standing by Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay on Dec. 3, President Clinton announced higher federal drinking-water standards, declaring, "When it comes to the water our children drink, Americans cannot be too vigilant." And in recent weeks, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put on 11 hearings nationwide on requiring modest environmental health accountability from water-fouling animal factory farms. Yet, such timid moves basically side-step a core problem we must all face: What's on our dinner plates tremendously affects what's in our drinking water. Any diagnosis of what's wrong with our water must indict a prime cause of the problem: the five tons of waste per person U.S. farm animals generate annually.All too often, doctors must treat the severe symptoms brought on by exposure to the virulent strain of E. coli, fecal coliform, cryptosporidium and other microbes commonly spread by livestock manure contaminating water supplies. Sometimes those patients die.In his comprehensive 1991 book "Waste of the West," Lynn Jacobs included this comment by Arizona environmentalist Ken A. Rait: "I can imagine the splendor of a not-so-distant past when Westerners could drink from streams without fear of giardia and other water-borne illnesses [such as salmonella and dysentery]....But now...that opportunity has been lost due to indiscriminate cattle grazing." Dead cattle, livestock-loosened sediments, livestock manure and urine, and pollutants washed off heavily grazed land, comprise the main water pollution sources over most of the U.S. West, Jacobs wrote.Matters have worsened during the 1990s. In the past year alone, three detailed reports from the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee, the Sierra Club and the Clean Water Network/Natural Resources Defense Council documented the rampant growth of corporate factory farms in some 30 states and condemned the severe damages such farms increasingly inflict.The December 1997 Senate report, requested by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), estimated that U.S. farm animals each year generate five tons of manure per American, or 130 times as much manure as humans do. Most goes untreated.The Sierra Club last spring highlighted various facets of the health threats factory farming poses to our water:* Seventy percent of the U.S. grain harvest -- most sprayed copiously with poisonous pesticides that inevitably invade our water supply -- goes toward feeding livestock. The massive, lifeless, New Jersey-sized "Dead Zone" at the Mississippi River's mouth has grown steadily for more than five years, fueled in large part by animal-manure fertilizer washed off feedgrain croplands, grazing lands, and mega-livestock farms by rain and irrigation, down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.* Chicken waste has made more than 300 miles of streams amid northwest Arkansas's poultry industry unfit for swimming.* The 1,600 dairy farms in California's Central Valley produce more waste than Texans do, while the Maryland-Delaware chicken industry's manure -- suspected of causing outbreaks of the toxic microbe Pfiesteria in four Chesapeake Bay tributaries -- could fill more than 11,500 boxcars annually.The 180-page Clean Water Network report released Dec. 3, "America's Animal Factories," notes that EPA has connected manure-produced high nitrogen levels in drinking water with heightened risks of often-deadly "blue-baby syndrome," that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has linked high nitrate levels in Indiana well water near feedlots with miscarriages, and that pathogens in pig waste are 10 to 100 times as concentrated as in human waste. (Besides fouling our lakes, rivers, aquifers, and oceans, animal agriculture soaks up half of U.S. water use.)Regrettably, the trio of reports omitted the best solution to this mess. Happily, what's good against water pollution is also good for bodies "polluted" with cholesterol and excess fat. The same prescription alleviates both maladies: a low-fat, vegetarian diet -- and the more organic, the better. By making the easy switches from bacon cheeseburgers to veggieburgers, from spaghetti with meatballs to spaghetti marinara, from beef stew to veggie minestrone, we can all help clean our water supply even as we enhance our health.After all, when we pour ourselves a glass of water, fill a pot, take a shower, or wash the dishes, we deserve to have confidence that we will not fear having to rush to the nearest emergency room. The more people turn to a vegetarian diet, the more that will be assured.Neal D. Barnard, M.D., author of "Eat Right, Live Longer" and "Foods That Fight Pain," founded the Washington, D.C.-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in 1985. A.R. Hogan is a science writer based in Maryland.


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