Exploring Human Potential

Medical Societies Embrace Water As Their Issue

Posted on | April 13, 2009 | Comments Off on Medical Societies Embrace Water As Their Issue

On April 28th, I will be visiting the Massachusetts Medical Society and its Committee on Global Medicine & Environmental and Occupational Health. They are sponsoring the opening of my "Drops of Life" tour.1 Over the next two years, I will be visiting health organizations and universities with a dynamic, big screen, one-hour journey through the health and environmental currents of life’s most critical substance: water.

The origins of the tour date back two years. With the preparation to the launch and tour of Al Gore’s "An Inconvenient Truth" on global warming, several parties have realized that there needed to be a follow-up tour on the health issues related to water. One thing led to another, and the Duarte Group in California, who developed the Gore piece and reviewed my Healthy Waters web site reached out.2 And here we are two years later, thanks to the leadership of the Massachusetts Medical Society, with our opening, to be followed soon by a presentation at the Annual Meeting of the Water Environment Federation.3

The timing couldn’t be better. As the nation looks to health care reform and health prevention, the meaning of health itself is now being redefined as the capacity to reach one’s full human potential. Clearly the quality and availability of water, air, and soil are critical to health potential.  Environmental issues have become health issues. But in the middle of a monster financial crisis, can we afford to worry about water?

In the lead up to the 2008 election, domestic issue #1 was gas prices, #2 food prices, #3 health care prices – rolled together to equal the economy. Back then, Don Elder, president of the River Network, a national organization that supports the efforts of state and local river conservation organizations, said the fastest way to save energy and money was to save water. He exclaimed that "Saving money by saving water will keep coal and oil in the ground, carbon out of the air, water in our streams, and money in our pockets."4,5

Now if you are like me, you might not immediately see the connection between water, money, and energy consumption. Yet, think about an urban setting where pumping, transporting, capturing and cleansing water consume large amounts of energy and dollars. On the domestic side, think heating and dumping, which demands that someone catch, transport, cleanse and redistribute what you waste. Municipal water treatment plants consume 75 billion Klowatts of electricity in the US each year. That is 3% of all of our total energy consumption at a financial cost of 4 billion.  That figure doesn’t even count the carbon footprint associated with all of that waste. The carbonization-induced global warming impact is enormous. Any water going most anywhere, whether it’s to our homes, our factories, or our fields, can’t get there without pumps. Once at its location, the water is often heated. And heating uses energy and costs money. For example, keeping your kitchen faucet on for 5 minutes to heat the water is like keeping a 60 watt light bulb on in the house for 14 hours. In fact, the hot water heater is the third largest energy consumer in the house.6

Times are tough economically in our homes, factories, and communities. Water conservation is a low-hanging fruit. But will saving water be possible and how would we go about it? We’ll do it by conservation, efficiency, and reuse. Conservation is a matter of adjusting our habits, and efficiency is about using new hardware. Neither adjusting habits nor changing hardware, as it turns out, involves much hardship. First, we each consume an average 200 gallons of water a day in the US, a figure far too high. Less running the faucet, less flushing the toilet, less sprinkling the lawn, less time in the shower – it is simple, patriotic, and smart.

Keep your eyes open for technology advances coming around the corner. Less than 1/3 of the water we use needs to be purified. Stated another way: 2/3 of the water we consume is used to flush toilets, water lawns, and the like. In the future, as we replace appliances and water systems, we will be going to systems that reuse and recyle. So, for example, the water you use to shower can also be used to flush a toilet. The water captured by your roof drains, instead of running off, will be available to water plants. Technology will help: like new toilets with a double flush to choose from- small flush for liquid and large flush for solid. One quarter of the water used by the average American family goes down the toilet – literally. Rainwater harvest is already here, in homes and in buildings. For instance, the new Bank of America tower in New York City captures 100% of rainwater on its roof and directs it inside for use. Home rain harvesting can generally meet 20% of home use consumption needs.6

Throwing away wastewater is, well, wasteful. Conservation from habits retooled by education, good citizenship, and financial disincentives, and efficiency in the form of new hardware is tied to reducing waste. As things wear out, replace them with EPA WaterSense certified appliances.7 Reuse rainwater by envisioning your home with at least two supply systems: one with pure water, the other with gray water; and don’t let that rain water escape.

All water-related energy consumption in the US equals 300 billion kilowatts a year. Water is energy and energy is dollars. If you want us to become independent from foreign oil, our air clean of carbon, global temperatures stabilized, and the capacity for our country to bounce back quickly from this financial disaster, then join your doctors! Think water, water, water.

For Health Commentary, I’m Mike Magee


1. Massachusetts Medical Society. Vital Signs. 3 April 2009.

2. Healthy Waters.

3. Water Environmental Federation Annual Meeting. WEFTEC

4. Don Elder named a national Clean Water Act Hero;
One of thirty Clean Water Act heroes to celebrate Act’s 30th anniversary
. 18 Oct. 2002.

5. Don Elder, president of River Network. 

6. Water, Energy and Climate Change. EPA Webinar. 2006.

7. EPA Water Sense. 9 April 2009.


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