| By Elizabeth Bettis
In today’s world of climate damage, one of the most pressing issues we have to deal with is water pollution. Clean water and sanitation numbers sixth on the list of the United Nations’ 17 goals for sustainable development (1). One in three people worldwide are unable to access safe drinking water, and unfortunately, water pollutants are far from easy to remove from global water sources. Once pollutants enter the water, extracting and destroying them is a massive task that often ends up damaging the environment in other ways. This is where ecoSPEARS comes in.
July 2020: IDEAS For Us Chief Operations Officer Lee Perry collaborated with ecoSPEARS Cofounder/Executive Vice President Ian Doromal for a special edition of the monthly IDEAS Hive discussion to address the issues with water pollution and the solutions that ecoSPEARS offers through its revolutionary technology. IDEAS For Us, an environmental solutions incubator focused on major goals related to water, food, waste, energy, and ecology, comes from a perfect place to discuss the water pollution issue. Doromal, an entrepreneur who has founded seven different businesses including ecoSPEARS, didn’t initially know anything about the water pollution issue – but its global impact was rapidly clear to him, and today, this innovative environmental company is thriving.
What’s in the Water?
While the billions of people worldwide who still don’t have access to safe drinking water and handwashing facilities may not all be suffering from the same issue, there are a few major threats to the water supply. These include water depletion through irrigation and careless waste, nutrient runoff entering the clean water supply, the effect of deforestation on hydrological systems, and simply the fact that the people in power don’t care about the environmental impact of legal policies on the water supply (2). Some of these areas deserve a little more explanation. The effect of deforestation on water pollution is complicated: removing the trees destroys forested watersheds, which are the land areas through which water drains before it reaches streams (3). These watersheds assist with water quality, storage, storm runoff, and more (4). Much of our freshwater supply actually comes from these forested watersheds, and without them, we lose both water quality and quantity. Nutrient runoff into waterways comes from many locations, notably fertilizers applied to lawns, sewage, and other chemicals that enter lakes and rivers (5). Often arriving at these rivers or lakes through the outlet of storm drains, these nutrients cause algal blooms, infecting water for years to come and destroying aquatic life.
It’s clear that our global water supply is under a major threat, but what can we do about it? Once most chemical contaminants enter water, they will persist for years, infecting the entire food chain with their health-damaging toxicity. Among the worst types of contaminants is the class of toxic man-made chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. PCBs contain carbon, hydrogen, and chlorine atoms and vary widely in consistency, but not in their harmful effects on the environment (6). When PCB manufacture began in the U.S. in 1929, nobody was aware of PCB toxicity. This discovery came later and PCB manufacture was finally banned in 1979. Previous to their ban, however, PCBs had a chance to fully infiltrate the environment because they were used for such a wide variety of tasks – from plasticizers to electrical operations to dyes. Despite the ban, PCBs may still be present in products such as motor oil, paints, plastic, and more that was produced pre-1979. Most disturbingly, PCBs are still present in the waterways of the world. Here in the U.S., they persist due to extremely slow degradation processes in PCBs (7). Though banned in the U.S., countries around the globe continue to use PCBs in manufacturing: specifically third-world countries (8).
Due to the effects of climate change, PCBs are spreading even further from their original sites. Flooding threatens to release toxins into waterways or conduct toxic waste over long distances and rising sea levels carry the health-destroying chemicals straight into backyards. PCBs are not a distant issue: they’re everywhere, and it’s essential to be informed about the ways in which these contaminants are impacting our health.
PCBs Bite Back
The idea of a contaminated global water supply sounds scary but a little vague – what are the actual effects of this contamination? What does it have to do with our daily lives? PCB contamination may start at a distance in the waterways of the world, but the influence of such chemicals does not stop there. In fact, 99% of people today have PCB contaminants in their bloodstream (8). The process that moves contaminants from rivers to human bodies is fairly simple: PCBs travel through the food chain. Tiny organisms in the water consume the chemicals, larger organisms consume them, and soon once-safe dishes are infected through the intricacies of the food chain. Humans receive the greatest exposure to PCBs through eating dishes such as fish, meat, and poultry (9). PCBs also occur in drinking water and even in the air. Because these contaminants don’t biodegrade at a significant speed, the importance of the toxicity issue has not decreased through the years – we are facing the direct consequences of uninformed decisions about chemical usage, and these effects are terrifying.
Though it can be hard to determine exactly what effects are directly caused by PCBs, their impact has been linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, endocrine disruption, thyroid issues, and cancer (10). PCBs confirmedly cause cancer in animals, along with immune system damage, reproductive difficulties, and trouble with the endocrine and nervous systems. These issues also occur in humans. Disturbingly, studies suggest that the most carcinogenic mixtures of PCBs accumulate in fish and sediments (11). These highly toxic chemicals can easily enter the human body through eating infected fish.
The ecoSPEARS Solution
When facing a crisis like the widespread contamination of PCBs, there’s only one thing to do: remove the problematic chemicals from the environment. However, this isn’t always as easy as it sounds. PCBs have infiltrated so deeply that it can be difficult to extract them, and even after extraction, they must be destroyed. Often, the processes used to remove and degrade PCBs cause other harmful effects to the environment.
These “solutions” include:
Of these so-called solutions, only incineration actually destroys the contaminants, and the process may spread new contaminants into the environment. Ideally, a true solution would remove and destroy the contaminants in an environmentally-friendly way: and this is exactly what ecoSPEARS accomplishes through its innovative technology.
The idea behind ecoSPEARS, an early-stage company which utilizes NASA science for “green remediation” technology, is to bring a future of carbonless environmental remediation. EcoSPEARS’ green chemistry tech extracts PCBs from soil, sediment, or groundwater and destroys the toxins without heat. The ecoSPEARS contaminant destruction process avoids the toxic byproducts spread by incineration, consumes less water, and alleviates carbon emissions. The technology, called “spears,” consists of plastic probes that can be inserted into contaminated material – either soil, waterway, or sediment layers. The spears absorb 70-90% of PCB contaminants within 12 months. After contaminants have been extracted, the newly-cleaned soil or sediment goes back into the earth, and the concentrated extracted toxins are destroyed through chemical dehalogenation or ultraviolet light. This process is cheaper than the traditional solutions to PCB contamination and thus easier to implement, and the consumables and plastics used in the process are recycled for a minimum harmful impact on the environment. EcoSPEARS technology is cheap, clean, and green – and it could very well revolutionize the handling of PCB toxins.
Where Are We Now?
Though ecoSPEARS is already making huge strides in the field of clean water, freeing the environment from PCB contaminants, there is so much more to be done. EcoSPEARS has partnered with the UN PCB Elimination Group, where 200 different organizations, stakeholders, and countries have signed their names to get rid of PCBs once and for all. Their goal is worldwide elimination of PCBs by 2028, but the cost of shipping contaminated materials across the world for incineration is extremely prohibitive – which is why ecoSPEARS’ work is so important (cite video). 2028 is only a few years away, and the PCB elimination effort, though going strong, has a long way yet to reach this goal. Only 17% of these persistent worldwide contaminants have been eliminated so far. 83% of PCBs are still waiting their turn. Alarmingly, though PCBs have been banned, corporations continue to compensate for this “loss” by creating new contaminants (cite video). Because of issues like this, the fight for clean water will probably never end.
Join the Fight Against PCBs
It may not seem like you can do much to combat the pervasive worldwide contamination of PCBs, but in actuality, there are so many things you can change.
Watch our video on ecoSPEARS and the fight for clean waterways: