Tuesday, July 22, 2008

It's In the Water

[Published as a guest column in the Johnson City Press.]

I asked my dentist one time about whether he had cavities and it turned out he had the same problem I had. When we were kids, the city water system was not fluoridated. Ours was a common experience in the 50s. Fluoride toothpaste was just coming into the market but sugar and Cokes and candy had had a vigorous head start. My generation became the “filling generation.”

Anyone who has seen “Dr. Strangelove” will remember Brig. General Jack D. Ripper (wonderfully played by Sterling Hayden), who is paranoid that fluoridation is a communist plot to take over the country. It wasn’t that fluoridated or unfluoridated water was to blame. It was that the water system presented the best device for control by the government. That meant somebody else, sinister and foreign, not you or your neighbors, was controlling your life, and that couldn’t be allowed to happen in America. Health was not the issue.

I have more than a few acquaintances who complain about the taste of their tap water. Perhaps a handful of dissolved “flavorings” here and there--you know, a little high-test Plavix-- might just do the trick to make it tastier. Then there’s always that one part per billion of dissolved Viagra (or female growth hormone, depending up your needs) to provide a little spice to the ol’ kickapoo joy juice.

The bottled-water folks are being quite smug about it all. Sales are up. Water supply is down. Profits are flowing. Reverse osmosis and sunlight (do you really know what that means?) won’t dent those antidepressants one bit. (For all the good reverse osmosis --or run-of-the-mill osmosis--and sunlight, might accomplish, you may as well run your water through a coffee filter.) There is some evidence that our passion for bottled water might be responsible for some increase in cavities in grade school kids. Can’t be too much fluoride in a Coke.

It is, of course, a question of how much is too much. The science is incomplete, but given our cynicism after ExxonMobil’s attempt to slurry the science of global warming, whom do you trust? I’ll put my faith in the EPA agencies before I’ll believe Coke or the bottled water lobby or the FDA. As a health issue, do we fluoridate the water to cut down on dental costs or do we not fluoridate water in order to cut down on cancers linked to too much fluoridation? Regulation is required but currently uninformed. No one really knows how much a body can take, but probably some minimal cautions written in the code would be good. Better than just putting it off. And, putting it off. And, putting it off. We’ve done that for fifty years with an ever decreasing oil supply and look what’s happening. We’re doing it with water.

There is a new phrase on the web: virtual water. It refers to how much water it takes to produce a given product. A cotton shirt requires water for the plant and the dyes and other production needs. A rib eye steak needs water for the cow, water for the corn, and for cleaning the feed lot. Because different products use require different amounts of water, by trying to control your water usage virtually you could influence the demand on water.

We used to think that water from the bottom of 200-foot well was about as good as it could get. As a kid I can remember drinking cold well water from a tin cup and the water was so cold it made my teeth hurt. Now, I might welcome some of that iron taste--until I wanted to wash clothes. I could get my daily mineral requirements in a liquid form. Never mind that cloudy stuff, it’s only petroleum or Vioxx mixed with carbon dioxide.

Maybe Perrier could add a little iron oxide to their formula and sell it as “Country Water.” You don’t know what’s in the product already so what would be the harm? Are you noticing a little extra boost from your caffeinated coffee? It’s all that recycled coffee in the water. Pretty soon you’ll just drink your coffee from a separate hot-water tap. Oh, by the way, that slick taste isn’t oil, it’s teflon.

The next war will not be over oil. You can’t drink oil.