Highwater Marks

By Lady Wa Wa

Manure doesn’t immediately come to mind when envisioning deadly overflows. Two liquid manure mishaps, however, were among the top-10 manmade poisonous spills of all time, according to “Wave Goodbye: 10 of the World’s Worst Toxic Floods.” The rivers of cow pies and hog poo were as lethal as coal ash slurry and mining waste tainted with arsenic and cadmium.

Besides harmful chemicals, the Natural Resources Defense Council reports that animal waste contains disease-causing pathogens, such as Salmonella, E. coli, Cryptosporidium, and fecal coliform, which can be 10 to 100 times more concentrated than in human waste. More than 40 diseases can be transferred to humans through manure.

Perhaps we don’t think of animal manure that way because it was once a natural byproduct of raising livestock, back when most farms had no more than a couple dozen cows, sheep or hogs. I can still recall the sensation of cow patties squishing between my naked kid-sized toes as we herded the neighbor’s modest 35 or so Holsteins from the pasture in the 1960s.

I didn’t much like sliminess when tramping through a fresh patty, although it was natural, green and usually involved no more than one or two pies per episode. Incidentally, we also cupped drinking water with our bare hands from the creek in that pasture and weren’t later curled over with gastroenteritis.

 That family farm, like thousands of others, no longer exists. A subdivision occupies the land, while industrial-sized factory farms produce milk elsewhere. Not only has farm size exploded in recent decades, with many recording animal populations in the tens of thousands, not mere hundreds. But, the number and amount of hazardous chemicals found in the manure produced there has also increased. Running barefoot through it is not advised.

Horse manure, for example, responsible for damaging crops and home gardens after normal application, has been found to contain herbicides that were traced back to the horses’ feed. Manure also contains high concentrations of phosphorous and nitrates. So, when a flood of the stuff accidentally runs across the landscape, plants and creatures above ground are not the only things harmed. Manure spills kill wildlife in natural waterways and contaminate drinking water supplies in wells, aquifers and reservoirs.

When thousands of gallons of manure flow from a lagoon into a nearby creek, the farmer is commonly blamed and fined. In many cases, however, the containment systems failed – a faulty or nonexistent check valve, broken pipes, cracked concrete walls, soil berms saturated by rain or lagoons overflowing by excessive rainfall. Government agencies established to protect the environment have also been accused of not doing enough to prevent catastrophes. In December 2014, for example, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources advised residents of a manure spill that could contaminate water wells, but did not mention the number of gallons or how the spill happened.

Some recent mishaps include 25 million gallons of hog waste spilling from a North Carolina farm in 1995, 3 million gallons of cow manure at a New York dairy farm, 640,000 gallons of manure spilled from a Wisconsin dairy in 2014, 300,000 gallons of manure at Arlington Agricultural Research Station in Wisconsin in 2013 and 200,000 gallons of hog manure spilled in Illinois in 2009 . These are but a few of the disasters filling the news and damaging ecosystems.

Meanwhile, whatever the cause, water everywhere becomes tainted. Sadly, we can’t wish ourselves back to a pristine world of unspoiled, crystal clear water and harmless cow patties. We can, however, protect ourselves with a simple household water filter system.

And be sure to wear your shoes in the barn.

The Deadly Virus is not a Reason for Filtering Water – but a Host of Other Contaminants Are

Historically, people have occasionally been wide off the mark concerning water cleanliness and safety. Who can forget the iconic “Whites Only” drinking fountains of the last century designed to prevent disease spreading between races? In the photo below from the Library of Congress archives, a young man is drinking water from a “colored” dispenser at an Oklahoma City streetcar terminal in 1939. Even with paper cups at hand, folks feared they would become ill if using the same water cooler. Many Caucasians actually believed they could catch a multitude of infectious diseases from non-whites while using public restrooms, restaurants, drinking fountains and even transportation waiting areas from only the slightest human contact. This irrational and outright shameful discrimination was aimed not only at Blacks, but also Asians, Native Americans and Hispanics and continued openly until the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964.

Meanwhile, U.S. municipalities and factories nearly killed the Great Lakes and other major waterways with industrial waste, mercury, lead, phosphates and raw sewage. In 1969, the Cayuga River actually caught fire in Cleveland it was so full of flammable chemicals.

"There was a time, not so long ago, when pollution was accepted by many as the price one paid for living in an industrialized society. By the 1960s, our rivers had become so polluted by municipal and industrial wastes that fish could not survive in them and humans could not swim in them; millions of yards of garbage and millions of gallons of oil were routinely being dumped at sea; visibility in our major cities was obscured by smoke from factories and exhaust from automobiles; and industrial wastes, buried in drums and dumped in landfills, was contaminating soil and groundwater." Source: U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Prosecution of Environmental Pollution Crimes.

This legal dumping went practically unchecked until the 1970s, and continues illegally and accidentally today, as evidenced by news stories of toxic waste spills, too numerous even to list here. Basically, pick a state and you can find a recent, horrific poisonous spill story to accompany it. Yet many trust their water supplies to be safe. Today, fear of contracting Ebola, or Fearbola, has many panicking and rushing to purchase home water filter systems. Filtered water is, sadly, a wise choice for most of us today, but not because of Ebola. If we can believe the Center for Disease Control reports, the likelihood of contracting Ebola through water sources is nil. According to the CDC, Ebola is not spread through the air, by water, or in general, by food. Even before the first Ebola cases were reported in North America, however, some water filter dealers began marketing their products as Ebola filters, preying on illogical fears. Still, numerous other pollutants are prevalent in our water. These include nitrates, nitrites, pesticides and other agricultural chemicals, parasites, bacteria, lead, mercury and radon, to name a few of the potentially hazardous contaminants lurking silently in private and public water supplies. Simple, at-home water-test kits are available at local department stores. The Environmental Protection Agency compiled this handy chart to list common contaminants.

In short, filter your water to protect your health, but be aware of the actual contaminants.

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