Solution to pollution is revolution

The Oconee Enterprise, October 20, 2016:
Dr. David Lewis
To truly protect our public health and the environment, we must destroy pollutants instead of releasing them into the environment. We have the technology to do this. All we lack is the political will and leadership within government and industry to make this change. This video, filmed in the Catholic Center at the University of Georgia, commemorates Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical, Laudato Si’. The Pope’s encyclical recognizes that caring for the poor and protecting the environment are inextricably intertwined. Environmental degradation impacts the poor the hardest, and children in particular.

Air, water, and soil contain astronomically high numbers of chemical and biological pollutants discharged from municipal and industrial sources. Even pollutants that appear harmless when isolated can cause cancer, birth defects and other catastrophic health effects when mixed with other pollutants. We live in an unimaginably complex and constantly changing sea of harmful pollutants.

Scientists may never be able to identify more than a tiny fraction of all the pollutants that exist. And they may never know how even a single pollutant interacts with all of the other pollutants in the environment. This makes pollution seem impossible to solve; but it’s not.


When EPA was created in 1970, it could have eliminated most pollutants by requiring that wastewater and solid pollutants be mixed with organic matter and lime, and then subjected to very high temperatures and pressure. Organic matter would convert to activated charcoal, preventing it from ever polluting the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. Pesticides, pharmaceuticals and other environmentally persistent chemicals would break down into small molecules, which are the building blocks of life. And, any residual heavy metals would be permanently bound to the activated charcoal.

Up until the late 1960s, the solution to pollution was dilution. Most industrial and municipal pollutants were piped into rivers that eventually emptied into the oceans. Scientists, however, discovered that DDT and other fat-soluble pollutants are bio-magnified up the food chain. Even extremely low concentrations of these pollutants can potentially cause serious health problems once they concentrate in body fat after being ingested in contaminated food and water.

Beginning in 1977, President Jimmy Carter had wastewater treatments plants, which concentrate pollutants in sewage sludges, built throughout the United States. He warned, however, that these projects could create additional environmental problems. In 1992, EPA’s Office of Water disregarded President Carter’s warning and deregulated all pollutants in sewage sludges, except for certain heavy metals. It recommended just using lime or other treatments to reduce odors and certain fragile indicator pathogens before spreading it on land.

Farms, forests, parks, school playgrounds and other public and private lands where tons of sewage sludges are applied per acre now expose us to far more complex mixtures of pollutants, and at millions of times higher concentrations than we could ever receive from contaminated water and air. Congress passed Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, but no Clean Soil Act.

To reverse the increasing toll pollutants are taking on human health, and stem the concomitant rising costs of healthcare, the President of the United States must revolutionize how our Nation deals with pollution. Scientists need to investigate the effects of highly complex mixtures; and EPA should require municipal and industrial polluters to permanently immobilize or destroy virtually all pollutants at their sources, including in sewage sludges.

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David Lewis, Ph.D.

Former U.S. EPA Research Microbiologist

David Lewis is an internationally recognized research microbiologist whose work on public health and environmental issues, as a senior-level Research Microbiologist in EPA’s Office of Research & Development and member of the Graduate Faculty of the University of Georgia, has been reported in numerous news articles and documentaries from TIME magazine and Reader’s Digest to National Geographic.

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