dangerous new wave of pollutants entering our water ways
and drinking water - and who's responsible.
More than three decades after the Clean Water Act, iconic American
waterways like the Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound are in perilous
condition and facing new sources of contamination.
With polluted runoff still flowing in from industry, agriculture and
massive suburban development, scientists note that many new
pollutants and toxins from modern everyday life are already being
found in the drinking water of millions of people across the country
and pose a threat to fish, wildlife and, potentially, human health.
In Poisoned Waters, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hedrick Smith
examines the growing hazards to human health and the ecosystem.
"The '70s were a lot about, 'We're the good guys; we're the
environmentalists; we're going to go after the polluters,' and it's
not really about that anymore," Jay Manning, director of ecology for
Washington state, tells FRONTLINE. "It's about the way we all live.
And unfortunately, we are all polluters. I am; you are; all of us
Through interviews with scientists, environmental activists,
corporate executives and average citizens impacted by the burgeoning
pollution problem, Smith reveals startling new evidence that today's
growing environmental threat comes not from the giant industrial
polluters of old, but from chemicals in consumers' face creams,
deodorants, prescription medicines and household cleaners that find
their way into sewers, storm drains, and eventually into America's
waterways and drinking water.
"The environment has slipped off our radar screen because it's not a
hot crisis like the financial meltdown, war or terrorism," Smith
says. "But pollution is a ticking time bomb. It's a chronic cancer
that is slowly eating away the natural resources that are vital to
our very lives."
In Poisoned Waters, Smith speaks with researchers from the
Geological Survey (USGS), who report finding genetically mutated
marine life in the Potomac River.
In addition to finding frogs with
six legs and other mutations, the researchers have found male
amphibians with ovaries and female frogs with male genitalia.
Scientists tell FRONTLINE that the mutations are likely caused by
exposure to "endocrine disruptors," chemical compounds that mimic
the body's natural hormones.
The USGS research on the Potomac River poses some troubling
questions for the 2 million people who rely on the Washington
Aqueduct for their drinking water.
"The endocrine system of fish is very similar to the endocrine
system of humans," USGS fish pathologist Vicki Blazer says.
pretty much have all the same hormone systems as humans, which is
why we use them as sort of indicator species... We can't help but
make that jump to ask the question, 'How are these things
"The long-term, slow-motion risk is already being spelled out in
epidemiologic data, studies - large population studies," says Dr.
Robert Lawrence of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.
are 5 million people being exposed to endocrine disruptors just in
the Mid-Atlantic region, and yet we don't know precisely how many of
them are going to develop premature breast cancer, going to have
problems with reproduction, going to have all kinds of congenital
anomalies of the male genitalia, things that are happening at a
broad low level so that they don't raise the alarm in the general
Smith also investigates the state of Puget Sound's environment,
where decades of pollution have endangered such species as orca
whales, whose carcasses have shown high levels of cancer-causing
"We thought all the way along that [Puget Sound] was like a toilet:
What you put in, you flush out," says Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire,
who notes that about 150,000 pounds of untreated toxins find their
way into Puget Sound each day.
"We [now] know that's not true. It's
like a bathtub: What you put in stays there."
Smith reveals that some of today's greatest pollution threats stem
from urban sprawl and overdevelopment, as new housing and commercial
developments send contaminated stormwater into rivers and bays,
polluting local drinking-water supplies.
Smith speaks with scuba diver Mike Racine, who describes runoff into
the depths of Seattle's Elliott Bay as a,
"brown, noxious soup of
nastiness that is unbelievable."
"The irony is that everybody looks at that [picturesque] scene and
thinks that it's great; everything is right with the world in
Elliott Bay," Racine says.
"But in point of fact, not 100 feet away
from where they are drinking a nice glass of wine off their white
linen, there is this unbelievable gunk coming out of the end of this
In addition to assessing the scope of America's polluted-water
problem, Poisoned Waters highlights several cases in which
grassroots citizens' groups succeeded in effecting environmental
change: In South Park, Wash., incensed residents pushed for better
cleanup of PCB contamination that remained from an old asphalt
In Loudon County, Va., residents prevented a large-scale
housing development that would have overwhelmed already-strained stormwater systems believed to contribute to the contamination in
Reversing decades of pollution and preventing the irreversible
annihilation of the nation's waterways, however, will require a
seismic shift in the way Americans live their lives and use natural
resources, experts say.
"You have to change the way you live in the ecosystem and the place
that you share with other living things," says William Ruckelshaus,
founding director of the Environmental Protection Agency.
got to learn to live in such a way that it doesn't destroy other
living things. It's got to become part of our culture."