EarthTalk: I saw a cover line on a magazine
that said, “The next world war will be over water.”
Tell me we’re not really running out of water!
-- Nell Fox, Seattle, WA
fully one-sixth of the world’s human population
lacks access to clean drinking water, and more than
two million people - mostly kids - die each year from
© sektordua, courtesy Flickr
fully one-sixth of the world’s human population lacks
access to clean drinking water, and more than two million
people—mostly kids—die each year from water-borne
diseases. The U.S. Agency for International Development
(USAID), an independent organization that provides economic,
development and humanitarian assistance around the world
in support of the foreign policy goals of the United States,
predicts that by 2025, one-third of all humans will face
severe and chronic water shortages.
to say, water is of primary importance to our survival,
and protecting access to and the quality of fresh water
supplies will likely become more and more of a challenge
in the coming years. According to the non-profit World Water
Council, the 20th century saw a tripling of the world’s
population while freshwater use grew by a factor of six.
With world population expected to increase as much as 50
percent over the next half century, analysts are indeed
worried that increasing demand for water, coupled with industrialization
and urbanization, will have serious consequences both for
human health and the environment. Access to freshwater is
also likely to cause conflicts between governments as well
as within national borders around the world.
to USAID, the world’s “water crisis” is
not so much an issue of scarcity as it is of poor management
and inequitable distribution. The hardest hit regions have
been countries in the Middle East, North Africa and sub-Saharan
Africa. Worldwide demand for water is presently doubling
every 21 years.
problems are not the sole purview of the developing world
though. We here in North America have polluted and diverted
our fresh water supplies far beyond nature’s capacity
to restore the flows, notably in the West where sprawling,
thirsty metropolises have grown up in deserts where the
only way water can be provided is to siphon it from other
how do we fix the world’s water woes? The key lies
in using water more efficiently—especially in agriculture
and industry, which together account for over 90 percent
of the world’s total freshwater use. But changing
the practices of millions of farmers and businesses around
the world is a Herculean task.
Salina, director of the award-winning documentary film,
FLOW, about the world’s dwindling water supplies,
thinks it can be done if world leaders, international banks,
the United Nations and other governmental organizations
establish cooperative agreements for the use of bodies of
water, including groundwater, and economic mechanisms to
make sure those who need access to water can get it.
for the developed world—where we use 10 times the
water as do developing countries—Salina remains pessimistic.
“If our own leaders were serious about solving problems,
we would not allow corporations to discharge pollutants
into our water sources,” she says. “Instead
of spending billions on technologies that clean up pollution,
we would be using resources to prevent water pollution in
the first place.”
Water Council; USAID;
Flow the Film.
EarthTalk: There has been a lot of news about
lead-tainted children’s toys being recalled. Where
are these toys ending up and are they creating pollution
-- Michael O’Laughlin, Tigard, OR
Parents and consumer advocates gather near the Capitol
in May 2008 to press for stronger consumer product
safety reforms, including for children's toys.
© Joe Newman, courtesy Flickr
The biggest problem
with the recall of millions of lead-tainted toys over the
last few years has been getting shops and consumers to comply.
According to Mattel—which has issued dozens of recalls
in recent years, including some 2.2 million Chinese-made
toys contaminated with lead paint—historically only
about six percent of recalled toys are returned. For those
that do come home to roost, Mattel sells or reuses the zinc
and some of the resins they contain, and then recycles as
many of the other components as possible, off-loading the
lead to companies that specialize in the safe disposal of
But what becomes
of the 94 percent or so of the recalled lead-tainted toys
that don’t make it back to Mattel? Many of them no
doubt have found a comfortable home with a child somewhere
long before word of the recall—ignored or missed by
parents—got out. Of the remaining toys, some of those
that were recalled in the summer of 2007 ended up on auction
website like eBay and business-to-business sites like Made-in-China.com—and
then eventually into the hands of unwitting consumers, many
of them overseas.
there is still no federal law or regulation against reselling
recalled toys, although some members of Congress are trying
to change that. For its part, eBay has agreed to try to
keep recalled products off its auction website, but enforcement
can be a challenge.
The fact that
these toys got out there for sale in the first place is
the real shame, as research has shown that kids who have
been exposed regularly to lead or lead paint have lower
IQs and may experience learning disabilities as well as
The good news
might be that recalls are getting more exposure than ever,
with better results. Illinois-based RC2 Corporation has
already gotten back upwards of 70 percent of the 1.5 million
lead-tainted Thomas & Friends wooden railway toys it
recalled just last year. While there is still no nationally
accepted procedure governing the disposal or recycling of
such items, individual companies are bound by the laws of
their respective states regarding disposal of the harmful
materials. Those who worry about lead leaching out of landfills
and into groundwater and soils would like the see the federal
government mandate strict safety rules for dealing with
lead and other hazardous materials.
about whether a particular toy or other item has been part
of a recall should check online at the “Recalls and
Product Safety” section of the U.S. Consumer Product
Safety Commission’s website. If a given product has
been recalled, you can probably return it to the store where
you bought it and let them deal with the hassle of getting
it to the manufacturer. Or if you know an item was recalled
for hazardous materials, you can drop it off at your local
municipal hazardous waste collection facility. The website
Earth911 provides a comprehensive national database of such
Product Recalls; RC2
Recall Information; U.S.
Consumer Product Safety Commission; Earth911.