Protection of the environment is protection of health, and the theme of today’s workshop demonstrates this connection very well: you cannot separate the source water from the drinking water. In the past, the relationship between water and health was often dominated by floods, which brought diseases such as cholera, dysentery, and hepatitis A that were among humanity’s greatest challenges. Even diseases associated with standing water, such as malaria, often resulted from the large water influxes caused by floods.
The twentieth century, with its increased industrialization and improved agricultural processes, gave us a greater complexity of waterborne threats to human health. A wide variety of contaminants were being put into source waters and ultimately into drinking water supplies, thereby imposing a whole new set of challenges for ensuring safety.
Improvement in the monitoring networks administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Geological Survey, and state and local agencies led to better documentation of the extent of these threats and also pointed out the need for legislation such as the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. The challenges, being too broad for local governments to meet by themselves, clearly required federal standards to safeguard the quality of drinking water and protect environmental health.
Our past achievements, however responsive for their time, are still part of the past. We are now at the beginning of a new century that presents its own water-related environmental health challenges, which the public health and science communities will have to address.
Nonpoint source pollution, for example, is one of the greatest and most extensive threats to drinking water supplies, public and private alike. Similarly, emerging contaminants—such as complex compounds resulting from pharmaceuticals—are increasingly being identified in the surface and groundwater supply. They pose new challenges in understanding not only their evolution but their effects on human health.
Finally, it is hard to discuss health issues without thinking about September 11 or the anthrax concerns of 2001. Terrorism adds another dimension to our concerns about water supplies and the potential effects of their contamination, whether inadvertent or intentional, on human beings.
The idea for this workshop emerged from a series of discussions among Roundtable members on key issues now facing the environmental health community. The occasion gives us an opportunity to invite experts to come in and inform us about some of the current conditions, and how well we are dealing with them, and about some of the challenges we are likely to encounter—and had best be prepared for—in the future.
This workshop posed a number of very important questions to help us chart a course for the twenty-first century:
What are the current and future challenges to ensuring public health as it relates to water issues?
Where is the disconnection between policy and reality—in particular between water treatment practices and scientific understanding?
Where is our scientific understanding deficient in its ability to inform water policy?
Are there additional research needs for agencies that work to safeguard public health?
What are the barriers to pursuing this research or to achieving the necessary improvements?