The shower washes the garden mud off my feet; the reddish-brown water looks like blood as it swirls down the drain. Within a few hours, the millions of microbes washed off my feet will be killed by chlorine, and flow as sewage effluent into the Passaic River, the same river made famous by its ability to ignite. Sewage effluent, fortunately, does not burn as easily as the rest of the river.
The effluent flows as clear, odorless, nutrient-filled water (or so the sewage authorities assert). A few years ago, near the tail end of a long drought here on the East Coast, about 90% of the water in the Passaic River flowing past Newark was treated sewage.
I regularly kayak by the discharge pipe of the Livingston Sewage Authority. The pipe rests near the origin of the Passaic River, really just a stream at his point, my paddle often scraping the rocky bottom. Livingston has gobs of money. The effluent coming out of the pipe smells surprisingly fresh, not what one expects from a poop-pipe. Not odorless either.
I know the smell of chlorine. I know the smell of esters. As an erstwhile organoleptologist, I assert that the Livingston Sewage Authority contains (at least) water, chlorine, and a nose-friendly ester. Either that or the wealthy have poop that smells like perfume.
Man-made esters frighten me a bit. They should frighten you, too.
Carp thrive in this part of the river. Painted turtles reproduce, making baby turtles with the right number of body parts--one head, four legs, one tail. Deer drink from the river, and an occasional hawk soars overhead as we paddle upstream. Maybe the discharged effluent is safe.
Still, I fear the estery smell; while I do not wish to wade in buckets of bacteria, the smell of sweet volatile organic compounds makes me edgy. I imagine my plastic oar melting as I near the effluent waterfall.
When I was younger, I loved the smell of organic liquids. I sniffed gasoline, not to get high, but just for the smell. The varied chemicals stored in the garage got sniffed for the sheer joy of the odor.
I remember giant wafers designed to be loaded in a green, translucent cane filled with water, designed to inject a sweet-smelling herbicide directly into dandelions. Groundskeepers had a high rate of leukemia; we just did not know that yet.
The mosquito man would drive his truck through the neighborhood shooting his white, dense cloud of sweetness--we'd hop on our bicycles and get lost in the fog. VOC junkies.
Sperm counts are dropping. More and more boys are born with incompletely formed penises. No one is sure why, but phthalates have been implicated. Di-n-butyl phthalate flows with the effluent of treated sewge. It smells sweetish, like an ester.
Di-n-butyl phthalate makes plastics more pliable--it is a "plasticizer." Male reproductive organs may become more plastic as well.
While "fringe" ecologists have been screaming about endocrine disrupters for years, the plastics industry continues to maintain that there is no hard evidence linking phthalates to human hypospadias.
Still, enough evidence exists to raise the eyebrows of the Food and Drug Agency.
Everyone is exposed to small levels of DEHP [Di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate] in everyday life. However, some individuals can be exposed to high levels of DEHP through certain medical procedures. DEHP can leach out of plastic medical devices into solutions that come in contact with the plastic. The amount of DEHP that will leach out depends on the temperature, the lipid content of the liquid, and the duration of contact with the plastic. Seriously ill individuals often require more than one of these procedures, thus exposing them to even higher levels of DEHP.
Exposure to DEHP has produced a range of adverse effects in laboratory animals, but of greatest concern are effects on the development of the male reproductive system and production of normal sperm in young animals. We have not received reports of these adverse events in humans, but there have been no studies to rule them out. However, in view of the available animal data, precautions should be taken to limit the exposure of the developing male to DEHP.David W. Feigal, Jr., MD, MPH, "FDA Public Health Notification: PVC Devices Containing the Plasticizer, "FDA, July, 2002DEHP,
I discussed this with the chair of the department of pediatrics. The FDA warning interested him, but fixing it costs money.
Glass is too expensive. Glass breaks, too dangerous on a pediatric hospital floor. A shrug.
I have raised the issue with other doctors. More shrugs. People shrug a lot these days. I shrug a lot. What can we do? A shrug acknowledges a problem as unfixable. Dismissive.
Changes in the sexual morphology of fish exposed to sewage effluent have led some scientists to conjecture that humans also live in a "sea of oestrogens" and that the apparent increases in the incidence of certain reproductive conditions may be due to exposure to chemicals in the environment. The so called Sharpe-Skakkebaek hypothesis offered a possible common cause and toxicological mechanism for abnormalities in men and boys,that is, increased exposure to oestrogen in utero may interfere with the multiplication of fetal Sertoli cells, resulting in hormonally mediated developmental effects and, after puberty, reduced quality of semen. It was postulated that synthetic chemicals in the environment are the prime source of the excessive oestrogenic stimulation, with exposure through food and water being the primary route."Endocrine disrupters and human health," Editorial, British Medical Journal, 2001;323:1317-1318 (8 December).
Repairing a hypospadias is not difficult if the child has not yet been circumcised. The estrogen-like effects on a developing fetal brain are not known. Shrug.
Phthalates are less of a concern than shit. Poop smells like, well, poop. Phthalates smell like esters, vaguely reassuring. Refreshing.
Who is going to worry about a river that used to catch on fire anyway? Shrug.
Photo from the South Bergenite here.