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Jan 4, 2019

British poet W. H. Auden once noted, “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.”…I am not sure about his use of the number thousands…but I am sure he was right about the water.

Our Earth is sometimes compared to a magnificent blue marble, especially by those privileged few who have been lucky enough to gaze upon it from space. This is due to the predominance of water on the Earth’s surface. I’m sure that you know that the Earth is largely covered with water. Water covers about two thirds of the Earth’s surface. Interestingly, only about five percent of that water is fresh water versus salt water…and two thirds of that tiny percentage of fresh water, 69 exists as ice. But, if you melted all that ice, and the Earth’s surface was perfectly smooth, the sea levels would rise to an altitude of 2.7 km. With the water that brings us life as we know it in such dramatically short supply, you would think that we would protect it with an immeasurable passion…but instead we ignore it with unimaginable malaise. So here is some of the bad news in shocking statistics…

  • The Mississippi River carries an estimated 1.5 million metric tons of nitrogen pollution into the Gulf of Mexico each year, creating a “dead zone” in the Gulf each summer about the size of New Jersey.
  • Approximately 40% of the lakes in America are too polluted for fishing, aquatic life, or swimming.
  • Each year 1.2 trillion gallons of untreated sewage, storm water, and industrial waste are dumped into US water.
  • Every day, 2 million tons of sewage and industrial and agricultural waste are discharged into the world’s water, the equivalent of the weight of the entire human population of 6.8 billion people.
  • About 10% of America’s beaches fail to meet the federal benchmark for what constitutes safe swimming water.
  • By 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas plagued by water scarcity, with two-thirds of the world's population living in water-stressed regions as a result of use, growth, and climate change.

The challenge we now face as we head into the future is how to effectively conserve, purify, and distribute the water we have. And to make matters worse plastics are attacking our oceans. In 1950, the world’s population of 2.5 billion produced 1.5 million tons of plastic; in 2016, a global population of more than 7 billion people produced over 320 million tons of plastic. Every day approximately 8 million pieces of plastic pollution find their way into our oceans. There may now be around 5.25 trillion macro and microplastic pieces floating in the open ocean. Weighing up to 269,000 tonnes. Recent studies have revealed marine plastic pollution in 100% of marine turtles, 59% of whales, 36% of seals and 40% of seabird species examined. 100,000 marine mammals and turtles and 1 million sea birds are killed by marine plastic pollution annually.

And Every year, more people die from unsafe water than from all forms of violence, including war.

On this episode, we are joined by two pioneers who are working to use chemistry and technology to safely reduce/eliminate hazardous chemical contaminants and pathogens from water to protect life and make clean water more easily accessible for all humanity. Dr. Terry Collins is the Teresa Heinz Professor in Green Chemistry, Chemistry and Director, Institute for Green Science at Carnegie Mellon University and Professor Ryan Sullivan, working in both Chemistry and Mechanical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.