By Niki Morock, meteorologist
Do you remember back in ’69 when Lake Erie caught fire? Honestly, I don’t. It happened 5 years before I was born. However, I do remember hearing the story and until today, I thought the song “Smoke on the Water” was about that event.
Okay, I’ll admit I was wrong about that. I’m much better at 1980s music trivia, I promise.
As a further correction to my inaccurate memory of hearing the story somewhere years ago, what really caught fire was the Cuyahoga River, which feeds into Lake Erie. For those like me who don’t quite remember why, factory pollution, agricultural runoff, and sewage used to be common contaminants in waterways – so common that occasionally, those pollutants and contaminants were visually evident in the form of fire on the water.
According to ClevelandHistorical.org, the burning river was one of the events that lead to the passage of the Clean Water Act by Congress in 1972, as well as the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement by the United States and Canada.
Sometimes it takes dramatic visual evidence to bring people’s attention to a problem, especially one that took years to develop.
The river and Lake Erie are much cleaner these days. Unfortunately, it took laws, regulatory code, and watchdog groups to get it back into shape. There is a legitimate reason to have the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Environmental Quality. As much as I’d like to think that we are past the age of people dumping pollution or allowing leakage of contaminants into bodies of water, especially those that provide drinking water, I know there will always be some person or organization who will do it because they think they can get away with it.
My generation doesn’t remember much about life before all the regulations. And the Millennials? They’ve always had them. While I don’t necessarily think we need the government to control all our actions, I do think a little regulation goes along way, and that thought is based on the evidence.
Flash-forward from the late 1960s to the news of the present era – a spinoff company of Dupont was dumping an as-yet unregulated chemical called GENX into the Cape Fear River. This particular compound is a technology used in the of the creation of non-stick coating on cookware, mobile phones, and laptops among other products. Testing has shown that the amount in the water is minimal and unlikely to cause harm to humans at current levels. That reality is not squelching the outrage that a company thinks it’s okay to dump pollution into the water just because the particular type of pollution has yet to be named and coded into regulation. People downstream have the right to be unhappy about it.
The question is whether they realize they are up in arms about the wrong contaminant. GENX would need to be present in a level 100 times greater than it is now to do real harm.
According to a news story on WRAL.com published on July 28, 2017:
“The Cape Fear River is full of unregulated chemical byproducts, Knappe said, noting his main research has been into 1,4 dioxane, which is produced during the manufacture of plastics and polyester. The EPA has labeled the compound a likely human carcinogen linked to kidney and testicular cancer.
1,4 dioxane is a component of commercial solvents like trichloroethylene. In the past, it's been most commonly found contaminating groundwater when it leaks from underground storage tanks. But Knappe says it's also currently being discharged into the Cape Fear watershed by manufacturing operations in the Triad.”
WRAL explains that Detlef Knappe, who is quoted in the excerpt from their story above, is “a professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering at N.C. State and one of the state's top researchers for Gen X and other contaminants in drinking water.”
So, why is GENX making the news and being discussed in the state legislature when at least one much more dangerous substance is in the water at much higher levels? As the marketing campaign asked back in the 80s, “Inquiring minds want to know.”
I have my ideas, which include the fact that GENX is easier to say and remember than some of those proven carcinogens that are also in the water. It’s news to the people downstream who have been arguably imbibing it with their drinking water for at least three plus years, but didn’t learn about it until this year. They are (understandably) mad and demanding something be done. They want regulation and reparation, so GENX is part of this year’s breaking news cycle and a top story of the summer.
I also wonder if some people are taking the story and running with it because they want to point to a recent, popular topic as a reason not to cut funding to the EPA. We’ve seen this year that science is a touchy and highly political subject, like it or not. Any story from a scientific perspective that can be used to support an argument in one way or another for the funding of an agency that isn’t quite loved by the current presidential administration will get more aggressive play in the media than those that aren’t.
Maybe it’s true, but I am claiming the previous two paragraphs as pure speculation on my part because I have no evidence. I will be the first to admit that, so don’t quote me as knowing anything that I don’t.
What I do know is that the EPA and the DEQ still have their place in this world as long as people, companies, and organizations still do things that most of the rest of us consider irresponsible and wrong just because they think they might get away with it.