The bionic side of water

We were reminded this week that we do not exist in isolation from the technological benefits shaping our landscapes. We learned that our drinking water is more cluttered with strange chemical signposts of our lifestyles than we’d ever realized. But as shocking as it may be to find unwanted biotechnology swimming in our cups, the interchange between the environment and our bodies will surely increase as we grow ever more adept at harnessing the materials and molecules that comprise our home planet.

The progress we’ve made in offering more people long and healthy lives is counterbalanced, at least a little, by the environmental effect of running those biotech operations—a theme I return to again and again. Another study released this month also highlights the circular nature of technological progress, linking nuclear power plants and cardiac disorders. Previously, the only significant link was thought to be between radiation exposure and cancer. But here’s the scary part—the connection between radiation and heart disease turns out to be even stronger than that with cancer. The study looked at 65,000 people who at some point had worked near one of four nuclear sites and found much higher risk among the nuclear industry workers for developing heart and circulation diseases.

Happily, there is a silver lining: the effect on life expectancy was actually quite small. According to the Financial Times, the radiation doses that early workers in the nuclear industry (before safety regulations tightened in the 1980s) were exposed to might cut the chance of living past 70 from 75 percent to 73 percent.

Results such as these serve as a string tied around our collective pinky that our best technological breakthroughs can turn right around and break into us—perhaps in ways that we don’t expect or always want. The nuclear industry is an easy target: sure it promises abundant energy, but the structures, materials and science that make it all possible are so complex and dangerous that it’s easy to go wrong. But the pervasiveness of a pharmaceutical-laced water supply—that’s a whole other level of leaching.

This isn’t to say that we should be technophobes—far from it. Our cumulative creativity and problem-solving prowess is a good match for the toughest sustainability challenges of our times. Looking for the silver lining in the contaminated water story? Consider this: we’re also using chemical traces to our advantage. The make-up of human hair can offer clues to crime cases. The tap water that a person drinks, University of Utah researchers reported in February, can serve as a useful geographical tracking device.

The technique analyzes the mixture of stable isotopes of hydrogen and oxygen found in drinking water, which creates a particular signature in the hair. The scientists then mapped ratios of hydrogen and oxygen isotopes in hair to different areas of the United States to see how they varied. The technique is already in use, at least in one Salt Lake City case, where detectives are learning from hair about the movements of a woman whose body was found in 2000. See? We’re a pretty clever bunch.


... connection between radiation and heart disease turns out to be even stronger than that with cancer.

If fossil fuel money paid for any of the above article, that was the money punch. "Even stronger" implies that the connection between radiation and cancer is strong. It is not.

Large, long-established human populations have been observed straddling regions of high and low radiation; to the extent that radiation is the only difference, it seems not to affect cancer rates at all. So the earth contains as much radioactivity as a million Yucca Mountains someday might, all relatively near the surface, not evenly distributed, and no-one pays any attention.