12/22/2009 02:12 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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Polluted water is a lot like pornography.

Justice Potter Stewart is not a pornographer but he's an ordinary human being (okay, being a US Justice may be a little bit more than ordinary) on the front lines of free speech, and he knows where he draws the line. And we've all heard his opinion on hard-core pornography. "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it."

Like Justice Stewart knows porn, I know water. I'm not a scientist, but I'm on the front lines of our fight for potable water, and let me tell you, Stewart had it easy. It is easier to define porn is than it is to define clean water. It takes a scientist to define clean in terms of parts per million (ppm), parts per billion (ppb), and parts-per-trillion (ppt) 10-12.

The contemporary standards for water quality need updating. That will take research. And that research is going to be expensive, will take a long time, and industry is going to try to chew our leg off while we're doing it.

The question is where to draw the line of what constitutes danger. And there's not just one line to draw. A whole lot of chemicals mean a whole lot of lines. And one chemical is not consistently dangerous to everyone; a toxin may affect children or the elderly or those with weakened immune systems differently. What if the chemical bioaccumulates over decades? What if a chemical does nothing by itself, but it reacts with a chemical that a population has already bioaccumulated in their systems?

Our scientists have their work cut out for them.

Part of the water problem is that we must be prepared for defense. No matter where the line is drawn, someone somewhere will be disagreeing with it. This is because so much of everything in nature and (and frankly, a good bit of what is outside of nature) dissolves in water. And you don't drink the same water twice. Test tap water on several different days, and you're going to find different concentrations of different chemicals.

Even if we don't talk about waterborne diseases related to sewage disposal (which is a whole other area of concern I'm not talking about here), even if we only look specifically at chemicals piggybacked into the water supply...someone is going to say that everything cannot be regulated because chemicals that occur in nature dissolve in water.

On a molecular level, if a chemical is in the ecosystem and dissolves, some of it will be in the water (whatever "IT" is.) Deciding how much is dangerous is a bit of a sticky wicket because the number is going to be different for every chemical. And how do we decide how much is too much?

It's a lot like salt and slugs. Pretty much everyone in this country has heard of putting salt on slugs. If you haven't done it yourself, you've been the one standing there with arms crossed, guarding icky little slugs from the mind-boggling ghoulish cruelty of little boys with salt shakers.

I know it is bizarre, but slugs would die without salt. Even they have a certain minimum daily requirement of salt. Granted, it is not very much, but those trace amounts are crucial for slugs to survive. But we all know what happens to slugs when they're exposed to too much salt.

So for the slug, the happy medium is somewhere more than none at all, and less than enough to dissolve the slug. As we look at the lower levels of extreme dangerous concentrations (from the slug's perspective), very slightly salinated water, over time, would certainly cause problems. We would have to keep downsizing the concentration until there is no detrimental discernible effect on snail life. (This reminds me of an old peanut butter recall I heard about years ago, regarding a certain brand having an unacceptable amount of rat hair. My first thought was that ANY rat hair is too much. But that is not the way percentages work in the real world or in science.) Remember, these scientists are sometimes measuring quantities too small to see. The scientific and political worlds have their jargon for the happy medium; they have to decide and reconcile the Maximum Contaminate Levels (MCL) and Public Health Goals (PHG). The Maximum Contaminate Level is the level below which there is no (known) health risk. And the phrase "Public Health Goal" is a term written into California law SB 1307, quoted here:

"In accordance with Health and Safety Code, Section 1165365 (California Safe Drinking Water Act of 1996, SB 1307, Calderon/Sher), the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) has adopted 27 Public Health Goals (PHGs). PHGs represent non-mandatory goals based solely on public health considerations, and are developed based on the best available data in the scientific literature. "

Perhaps California voters should be asking why the levels are non-mandatory. Is health optional?

Of course we're not really talking abut one single element like salt and a simple creature like a slug. We're really talking about the host of chemicals dissolved in water and US. And our problems are not so simple, because some chemicals bioaccumulate; and some chemicals are not biodegradable.

The original 20 chemicals monitored in the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act have been increased to 91.

But there are a lot more than 91 contaminants out there. That's not even counting the 19 pharmaceuticals recently found in soil irrigated with water reclaimed from sewage. It's inevitable. What goes in, must come out...and that's sourced from the sewage I wasn't going to talk about.

The Toxic Substances Hydrology Program (The pdf of their 5 year plan is here.)is a research project studying emerging contaminants in the environment--from chemicals like arsenic which causes multiple system failure to perchlorate which causes tumors, kidney damage and cancer to bromates (a suspected carcinogen) etc. So at least there is work going on studying emerging contaminants.

Back to the EPA....
Like most convoluted government documents, even monitoring the EPA's Safe Water Act list of chemicals is not straightforward. For example, bromides are only required to be measured when water leaves a treatment plant. What about the unhealthy concentrations of bromides that develop as combined chemicals are exposed to sunlight? Why is the law so careful? Because industry is worried about being held accountable for natural processes of chemical recombination and degradation for which industry may have been a catalyst--but we consumers are worried about our lives.

Do we need to expedite the process of adding the toxins they are discovering to the list of monitored punishable toxins on the EPA list? But even if we do so, in this impoverished economy, how can we keep bleeding money to pay for essential research and to clean up after ourselves? If only business would clean up for itself, then there would be no need of fines.

Is the water clean? You'll get different answers to these questions depending on whether you ask someone whose big business pollutes--or if you ask someone who drinks, washes and bathes in the industry-contaminated water out of their tap.

Clean water?
"I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it."