updated 8/27/2010 5:50:16 PM ET 2010-08-27T21:50:16

When it comes to pollution, there's an old saw: "The solution to pollution is dilution." As if simply diluting toxins and pollutants to the point of invisibility takes care of the problem.

On the other hand, one of the laws of physics says, "energy can neither be created nor destroyed: it can only be transformed from one state to another." And that's the law.

The truth is, no matter how diluted pollution becomes, nothing ever goes away entirely. It's changed, reduced, converted, transformed, but it's still there in some form.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution last week reported finding a giant underwater plume of hydrocarbon chemicals deep in the Gulf. It's diluted, not visible to the naked eye, but many of the chemicals that make up crude oil are still there, to find their way into the human food chain through seafood we catch in the Gulf and eat.

At some point, when it becomes even more diluted, fishing will resume and Gulf seafood deemed safe again. But are the chemicals really gone?

The EPA, FDA and other government regulators have set thresholds for what levels of toxins are acceptable as safe in food and water for human consumption. This has always puzzled and bothered me.

Back in the early 80s, public health authorities in New York issued warnings that pregnant women and small children should not eat striped bass caught in the Hudson River because of PCB contamination. BUT, it was OK for non-pregnant women and adult men to eat the fish -- all based on a parts-per-million threshold. And I remember thinking, wait a minute! If it's bad for pregnant women and kids, why isn't it bad for me, too? Fact is, it is bad for me, or could be.

What we know now is that some people can be very sensitive to micro-doses of toxins, carcinogens, and other pollutants. The "safety thresholds" are an "educated guess" as to what's safe for human beings to consume; a very educated guess, but they don't necessarily work as an absolute gauge of safety for everyone.

The Silent Spring Institute recently conducted a survey of emerging contaminants in drinking water on Cape Cod, Mass. They discovered many pharmaceuticals in the water -- in trace amounts, to be sure, but there they were -- birth control, male enhancers, antibiotics of various kinds, anti-depressants, and others.

Our bodies only metabolize a portion of the medicines we take. We pass the rest in our urine, and it goes back into the world. In the case of Cape Cod, it goes into private septic systems that separate out solids (to be consumed by bacteria), and percolate the water back into the water table, water still containing pharmaceuticals. The water migrates through the aquifer to a town well, it's pumped out, and it ends up in someone's glass of water as a micro-dose of someone else's medicine. It's a tiny, tiny amount, but this can't be good.

The only way to absolutely avoid the dangers of pollution is not to pollute in the first place! We have to get better at that, a lot better, on both public and personal scales. There are ways to reduce exposure to bad things in the environment, but the key here is to stop putting those things into that environment in the first place.

Just because you can't see pollution doesn't mean it's not there.

Paul Gasek is an Emmy Award-Winning Executive Producer and the Senior Science Editor at the Discovery Channel.

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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