Join 5,000 people fighting climate change with our fun, bite-sized plans

August 2020 | Water Pollution

Dihydrogen monoxide can kill you, bro

In this post, we read, listen, act, and reflect on November's topic: fracking. This article has been adapted from our sustainability newsletter, so please sign up for it to stay in the loop.

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

What’s covered:

  • READ - defining the water pollution problem and why it matters
  • LISTEN - how sewage works and how much % poop is in your water (ew, I know)
  • ACT - what you can do, including a list of things that are not flushable (like flushable wipes! seriously.)
  • REFLECT - shady lack of regulation in the United States that makes drinking water dangerous in many places

In middle school or on Tumblr, I can't remember which, there was a solid month where people thought it was the funniest thing ever to warn others that they might potentially be drinking dihydrogen monoxide. (Yup, that's H2O, otherwise known as water.)

Anyways, that was years ago when we were bored enough to invent problems. In 2020, we've got more than enough to worry about... and unfortunately, that does involve our buddy dihydrogen monoxide. I'll stop calling it that, though, cause it's super corny.

On that note, August is National Water Quality Month! That's going to be the topic for this month's Changeletter.

In today's READ module, we're going to talk about how "water quality degradation translates directly into environmental, social and economic problems," according to UNESCO. Before doing the research for this week's newsletter, I've only ever thought about water quality as it pertains to places like Flint, Michigan.

I had a lot to learn.

Fight climate change in a way that works for you.

💌 Thinking about sustainability can be overwhelming after a busy workday, so we're here to help. Join over 5,000 other busy people and subscribe to Changeletter, a bite-sized action plan that'll take you 3 minutes or less to read every week.
Headshot of Ash Borkar (a woman with glasses and a cardigan)
"The info is always timely, actionable, and never stale." - Aishwarya Borkar,
Headshot of Meghan Mehta speaking at Google with a microphone in her hand
"Making social change always felt so overwhelming until I started reading this newsletter." - Meghan Mehta, Google

🎯 Action step 1 of 4: READ — Let's start by looking at a few articles together.

READ: This is going to be a little gross

I'm just going to lay out some facts for you. These are all from UNESCO.

1. Over 10% of people worldwide lack safe or improved drinking water.

2. Lack of sanitation is one of the most significant forms of water pollution.
2.4 BILLION people live without any form of sanitation. In other words, ~30% of people in the world are living in unhygenic conditions.

3. We're contaminating the little water we've got.
90% of sewage in developing countries is discharged untreated directly into water bodies. According to the Global Water Partnership (GWP), only 3% of the world's water is freshwater, and of that, only 1.5% is accessible.

4. Water is a finite resource. But every day, 2 MILLION TONS of sewage drain into the world's water.

5. The problem is so large we can't visualize it. Industry discharges an estimated 300-400 megatons of waste into water bodies every year. A megaton is 1,000,000 tons. I can't comprehend it. Can you?

If there's one article I want you to read about water quality, it's this one from the NRDC. It's called Water Pollution: Everything You Need to Know, and it's a *really* good overview. Here's a few things I learned.

  • Water is uniquely susceptible to pollution because it is able to dissolve more substances than any other liquid on earth.
  • The agriculture sector is the biggest consumer of freshwater. As it consumes ~70% of our available water, it's also the leading cause of water degradation.
  • Water pollution affects human health as well as the environment, especially to marine life. This month's topic is SUCH a big deal because poor water quality affects our lives and our ecosystems.

That's all for today. I really want us all to sit with this information and think about what we take for granted, and more importantly, how empowered we are to make a difference here. Read the article!

Sign up for our newsletter if you learned anything new in this edition! I didn't know much about water pollution before, so I'm curious where other people are at. You can reply directly to our newsletter welcome email or get in touch at

🏁 Checkpoint: This is the end of action step 1 of 4: READ.

🎯 Action step 2 of 4: LISTEN — we'll watch a short video or listen to a podcast to further expand on our topic.

Where does your poo go after you poop?

When we create waste in our homes that goes into the water system (sinks, toilets, drains), it’s out of sight -> out of mind for most of us.

I won’t let you off the hook that easily.

We have got to take water pollution seriously, and one way to get educated while caring a little more is understanding where our waste goes. The video I’m linking is only 3 minutes long, and I’ve included a bonus video that explains water pollution for kids!

Here’s a few things I learned according to the Business Insider video:

  • Sewage plants actually don’t smell that bad!
  • Good news: sewage is not just treated for big, chunky trash. The system also filters out chemicals and smaller particles.
  • Some of the most common things that end up in the sewer system are sanitary wipes. Many things we write about in this newsletter require policy and structural change. Water pollution does too, but we can easily do our part in minimizing household items that end up in waterways.
  • News that stinks: federal standards require that at least 85% of organic material (AKA poops) are removed before water is recycled. In my opinion…15% is a LOT of poops left over.

Bonus: Here’s the video on water pollution you can show any little ones in your life. I confess I watched it and enjoyed it thoroughly - finally a simple explanation that gave me the info I wanted.

🏁 Checkpoint: This is the end of action step 2 of 4: LISTEN.

🎯 Action step 3 of 4: ACT — Now it's time to do something. Let's go!

ACT: Drain, drain, go away

Before I share 4 actions you can take to minimize water pollution, I want to introduce Zöe Pettit, one of our most supportive readers. I love collaborating with her because we share a “do your best” approach to sustainability, welcoming you wherever you are on your climate journey. Here’s more about her blog, Cut the Crap! We got our actions 2 and 3 directly from her site.

My aim for this site is to allow every single person to come here when they feel even the slightest bit activated and have a variety of options of ways to take action in your home, in your community, or world-wide even! It is so easy to feel overwhelmed and scared with everything happening in the climate movement, but it is seen time and time again if you can channel how you feel and push past it will allow you to be the very best activist you can be. - Zöe Pettit, Cut the Crap

So, here goes.

  1. DO NOT FLUSH STUFF THAT’S NOT TOILET PAPER! Sorry for yelling, but I need my inner self to hear, because I am guilty of flushing so many non-flushable items down the toilet out of ignorance. On this list: flushable wipes! floss! hair! And yes, flushable wipes should not be flushed.
  2. Flushable wipes cause the biggest trouble for toilets and septic systems since so many people use them and think that they are “flushable.” As a result, there have been public awareness campaigns, lawsuits, and countless stories of the problems they cause for sewage treatment centers. Brands are now being forced to remove the “flushable” and “disposable” labels and warn consumers not to flush them. - Hiller
  3. If you can’t handle a child, adopt a drain instead! Storm drains flow directly to local lakes, rivers, and wetlands, acting as a conduit for trash and organic pollutants. Adopt-a-Drain asks residents to adopt a storm drain in their neighborhood and keep it clear of leaves, trash, and other debris to reduce water pollution. Sign up here - it’s an activity you can do with friends and family for some COVID outdoor productivity before it gets too cold. #NoPoopyWater

  4. Watch where you blow. For those of you lucky enough to have a yard, when mowing it, do not blow clippings into the street or onto paved surfaces. Just 5 bags worth of leaves have enough phosphorus in them to create 1,000 lbs of algae growth in lakes and creeks (which is terrible for our water-dwelling friends).

  5. Understand your local water quality. Okay, so I’m still working on this, but you can pull up your Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) to understand your local water quality. Pulling up the information was easy for San Francisco… but I’m still trying to figure out how serious these contaminants are. (I searched “poop” but it was not found.) I welcome any help in interpreting the report!

That’s it for this section. I’m going to need some time to get over this whole flushable wipes scam.

🏁 Checkpoint: This is the end of action step 3 of 4: ACT.

Before we go any further, it's time for you to pledge your commitment. It takes less than 30 seconds to pledge and we can bother you about it in a friendly way, so we can hold each other accountable. Pledge here!

🎯 Action step 4 of 4: REFLECT — what can you commit to? What fresh perspectives can we look at?

REFLECT: Rocket fuel in our water?

Welcome to the next section of the "Nivi tells you how crappy your drinking water is, literally" show.

Okay, seriously though, this week, after this sentence, I will NOT be talking about poop! Great news!

Buuuut unfortunately I will have to tell you that there are 85,000+ industrial chemicals used in the United States. Guess how many contaminants are restricted by law? (Keep reading if you dare...)

One of the chemicals in our water - and also, our food - is perchlorate. It's a dangerous ingredient in rocket fuel.

Everything you see today is found in this Politico article: What Broke the Safe Drinking Water Act?

  • Perchlorate is dangerous. It "prevents the thyroid from absorbing iodine, which the gland needs to produce hormones that are critical for brain development"
  • Only California and Massachusetts limit the amount of perchlorate in drinking water. "The Environmental Protection Agency has so far found the chemical in 45 states, tainting water supplies of roughly 16 million Americans. It has been found in the bodies of every single American who has been tested for it."
  • Utilities companies don't have to let you know if perchlorate is in your tap water. A few things: vulnerable populations don't know to take steps to reduce their exposure. Also common household filters don't remove chemicals. ALSO bottled water is basically just tap water (we've learned this before in a previous edition), so you might be paying for perchlorate in your water. Since perchlorate is unregulated outside CA and MA, it doesn't have to be removed from bottled water.
  • The Safe Drinking Water Act says chemicals are assumed safe until proved otherwise. Yeah. Read it again.
  • 0 new drinking water contaminants have been regulated in the past 20 years. Out of the 85,000+ chemicals I mentioned earlier, only 89 have EVER been restricted by federal regulation.

    The Bush Administration's EPA also tested perchlorate on human subjects. The study had ethical and logistical concerns and only tracked effects over two weeks. Industry players have been exploiting scientific uncertainties in perchlorate studies as well, stalling the creation of regulation.

    Yup, this was one of the most appalling articles I've read in a while. And in June 2020, the current administration's EPA decided that they would - surprise - still not regulate perchlorate.

🏁 Checkpoint: This is the end of action step 4 of 4: REFLECT.

Check out our membership community for more resources like free weekly events with social justice experts, sustainable product discounts, pre-written email templates, a social impact job board, and in-person hangouts with new friends. Thanks for taking action with Soapbox Project!

Fight climate change in a way that works for you.

💌 Thinking about sustainability can be overwhelming after a busy workday, so we're here to help. Join over 5,000 other busy people and subscribe to Changeletter, a bite-sized action plan that'll take you 3 minutes or less to read every week.
Headshot of Ash Borkar (a woman with glasses and a cardigan)
"The info is always timely, actionable, and never stale." - Aishwarya Borkar,
Headshot of Meghan Mehta speaking at Google with a microphone in her hand
"Making social change always felt so overwhelming until I started reading this newsletter." - Meghan Mehta, Google