Water: I spent last week watching it flow over Northern California. In the Sierras, I reveled in crystalline snowflakes floating down to powdery depths. In the foothills, I saw land lush and green, its life energy flowing into blossoming trees. I drove home past reservoirs full to overflowing and storm-swollen rivers and streams. Here in the Commonweal Garden, the creek is singing, accompanied by frogs. Our new swale is slowing the downhill flow, helping water sink into the soil and replenish the groundwater; some of this will continue out to the sea.
Water also flows through and replenishes human beings. An average adult man is made of 60 percent water, a woman 55 percent, babies 78 percent. Water gives us structural form on a cellular level. It delivers oxygen to our cells, flushes metabolites and toxins from our bodies, functions as a shock absorber for our brain and spinal column, and helps make neurotransmitters and hormones. Water allows us to function; without it, we cannot survive more than a few days to a week.
It is also precious. Of all of the water in the world, only 1 percent is fresh. Most of that lies in the ground or in glaciers; less than 1 percent of freshwater is contained in rivers and lakes. Yet this fluid is central to life on Earth. For good reason, it has been held as sacred by so many spiritual traditions, including that of the indigenous people of North America.
What do we bring into our body when we drink tap water or, much worse, bottled water? Microplastics and endocrine disrupting chemicals, including phthalates, that come from household cleansers, beauty products, pesticide-laden agricultural runoff, air fresheners and fragrances that are altering our bodies and fertility rates. Pharmaceuticals from antidepressants, antibiotics and pain medications. What affect do these contaminants have on our bodies?
We are only beginning to find out how microplastics affect us. We are fortunate to be spared the fate of marine creatures, birds and fish that swallow intestine-blocking plastics, yet microplastics have been found in human stool samples. Given what we know from animal studies, this is likely creating inflammation in the gut and absorption into our bloodstream.
Some are raising the question: are plastics in our bodies linked to the rise in colon cancer in young people? Or to the increase in inflammatory bowel disease? Or to other increasingly prevalent health challenges? We don’t truly know, as we have not studied it.
The effects of endocrine disruptors have been widely studied. These molecules interfere with the hormonal control of development; impacts are thought to be most pronounced on the developing fetus, but also affect the development of language and cognition; the timing of puberty; fertility; and, likely, insulin sensitivity. In the Western world, sperm counts have decreased by 50 percent in the past 50 years and continue to fall.
The dose of pharmaceuticals in our water is thought to be too low to have an impact on human health, although that, too, has not been studied. We know that fish, frogs and other sensitive creatures living in water are affected. Altered expression of gender traits, nest-defending behavior and predator evasion are some of the many impacts our medications have on these creatures.
How can we regain a reverent, sane and supportive relationship with this most precious life-sustaining element, our water? How can we pull back from the reckless endangerment of our ecosystems, our world, our bodies and the bodies of our children and children’s children?
In my home, we ask at every opportunity whether we can avoid purchasing or using something wrapped in or made of plastic—especially things designed to have a short lifespan. We avoid glitter, straws and plastic bags, including the goody bags given away at birthday parties. We reject the notions that our air needs “freshening” (air polluted with toxic chemicals) and that our skin needs “smoothing” (lines of aging filled in with plastics). We avoid fragrance-laden products. We try to eat as freshly as possible. We notice how plastic is everywhere and try to turn away from consuming what we don’t truly need. We recognize that the Earth, her waters, and all of her living creatures need us to do our part, even when it is difficult or inconvenient.
It is also important to bring this consciousness into our work. As a start, at our community health center, we are making more conscious decisions about our dishes and utensils, and we are reviewing what we can recycle. In my role as a physician, I minimize the prescription of pharmaceuticals whenever possible and safe.
I am grateful to all of the organizations and businesses that continue to look for ways to reduce waste and the use of harmful chemicals. Pulling back from our dangerous love affair with plastics and chemicals will take engagement at every level.
As I watched the water flowing in rivulets off of pastures and farmland into our creeks this week, I felt gratitude to live in a place where so many farmers eschew pesticides; where so many people are conscious about what goes down their drain and into our watershed; where our ethos is to recycle, curb consumption and live naturally; and where so many hold the rain as a blessing, the power of nature with awe and wonder, and the Earth as a sacred, living, breathing being to love and tend.
And as we collectively begin to peer into the murky depths of what we have wrought, we will benefit from listening carefully to indigenous wisdom regarding tending relationships with the natural world. Our water is sacred, just as life is sacred. Our ability to live here on Earth will ultimately depend on whether we can remember this, and bring our thoughts and actions back in accordance with this truth. May we each ask ourselves, what is one change I am able to make, today?
Anna O’Malley is the founder and director of Natura Institute for Ecology and Medicine and practices medicine at the Coastal Health Alliance. She is in love with her outdoor shower and the water conservation it supports.