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. 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 are."
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 U.S. 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. "They 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 influencing people?'"
"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. "There 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 public."
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 PCBs.
"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 pipe."
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 plant. 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 Chesapeake Bay.
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. "You've 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."