Mention the name Erin Brockovich and most Americans will know who you’re talking about.
Brockovich is the legal clerk, with almost no formal education in the law, who built a successful court case against Pacific Gas & Electric Co. for gross polluting. She was immortalized in the 2000 film “Erin Brockovich,” with Julia Roberts in the title role, for which she won an Oscar.
The real Erin Brockovich went on to gain fame on her own as an environmental activist. Her name and the film have come up recently in stories about drinking-water contamination throughout regions of California.
A research team from the Environmental Working Group analyzed water-quality data from more than 2,700 California water districts over a five-year span, arriving at the conclusion that bad water will be the root cause of more than 15,000 additional cancer cases over the span of a normal lifetime, which breaks down to just more than 220 extra cancer diagnoses a year.
To some, that may not seem like much of a statistical problem, based on California’s 33 million-plus population — unless you happen to be living in one of the communities with seriously tainted water.
Researchers said the worst areas are small to mid-sized communities in proximity to manufacturing and agriculture. Sound familiar?
North Coast residents can rest easy, for now. The study’s target areas were mostly inland locations where a lot of livestock operations are clustered.
Still, suggesting that more than 220 more people a year may be cancer victims is frightening, a situation that is exacerbated by most people not really knowing what’s in their local water supply. The science community doesn’t necessarily know, either, especially with regard to combinations of contaminants, which almost all water systems contain.
Gov. Gavin Newsom and members of the Legislature are aware of the water situation, and have debated ideas on adding a statewide tax to deal with the issue. The problem is that lobbying by various industries shuts down proposals on new taxes, and many lawmakers are tax-averse, especially in election years.
Watching state lawmakers can be very frustrating. They tend to haggle over little things, while ignoring much-bigger issues. One would think that drinking water supplies causing sickness and death would rate a full examination, especially in the wake of the water-supply disaster in Flint, Michigan.
This is a problem too big to ignore, a point made by the governor earlier this year. And while this is, at present, mostly affecting north and central California regions, it will worsen and spread unless regulators take substantive steps to solve the problem.
A comprehensive study in 2017 identified 27 states in which tainted drinking water threatens more than 15 million Americans, the primary threat being carcinogens that could trigger a laundry list of cancers. A map of those states, with poor water areas highlighted, shows California is among the worst.
Most of the toxins found in water supplies are from chemicals used to manufacture consumer goods. And in so many cases, the effects on the human body of chemical combinations in our water is an unknown. So, while one chemical in our water may be found to be at safe levels, in combination with other chemicals the total can be a serious health risk. In that context, our ignorance can be one of our biggest enemies.
There are certain things humans cannot do without, and it has nothing to do with consumer products or the latest tech gadgets. It has everything to with having clean air to breathe and safe water to drink.