Do Not Use the Word "Trash": A Lesson On Water Pollution

Last night, I happened to browse through my son's study guide in his seventh grade class on Investigations in Environmental Science. The topic was eutrophication and the guide was asking my son to describe in his own words water pollution. The guide specifically stated not to use the word "trash". "Trash" does seem a general word and perhaps, it is time for my son to use specific terms. Not using "trash" may also help my son appreciate the fact that water pollutants responsible for eutrophication are often invisible to the naked eye. Water pollutants in the form of floating objects are of course easy to spot, but invisible ones, like nutrients from fertilizers, may easily be the factor that turns a living lake into a dead one. Years ago, in the town where my mother was born, I helped the local administration initiate a wastewater management project. The project faced strong opposition and perhaps, part of the reason was most people in the town had never seen the topic of eutrophication in their basic education.

The Philippines' K to 12 curriculum now includes nutrient cycling, population growth, and carrying capacity in its 9th grade science subject. Unfortunately, the topic seems confined to fish ponds. Seeing that what we do in our farms, whether we raise animals or crops, can impact the viability of a body of water is important in basic education. Issues of how we address pollution can be a political matter and how much we are informed influences how we act as members of society.

A constructed wetland in Paete, Laguna

While it is straightforward to see why floating trash in our rivers is bad, it requires much more to appreciate how nitrates and phosphates from the fertilizers we use can have a significant impact on water quality. It is not as obvious as throwing a plastic bag into a river, but the effects can be as devastating with pollutants that we cannot see. The following figure from the open resource Essentials of Environmental Science by Kamala Dor┼íner illustrates this challenge:

The Isaak Walton League of America offers an activity for the youth on the topic of water pollution. At the end of the activity, there are discussion questions provided. These questions come with the correct answers. And one question goes:

Is using sight and smell the best way to determine if water is polluted?
Answer(s): No. Although smell and sight give you clues about potential pollution problems, they don’t provide all the answers — and can even be misleading.

Maryland's Department of Agriculture provides a brief explanation of eutrophication on one of its educational resources:

Of course, even with basic education on this issue, it is still not guaranteed that most will understand this aspect of water pollution. In fact, Donald Trump has claimed quite recently that the US has the cleanest air and water in the world:

Above copied from Politifact

Trump perhaps is only using his eyes. And that is clearly not enough. The Environmental Performance Index (EPI), a project developed by Yale University and Columbia University, actually ranks the US 27th in the world. And one of the main problems that the US is facing are the nutrients that have found their way into the rivers and lakes of the United States. These have led to ecosystems that are no longer viable, according to a former head of the US Environment Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy.

The issue of nutrient pollutants in rivers and lakes is not easy to grasp especially when interests are about to collide. People need food either from crops or farm animals and as we begin to increase these activities in watersheds, the likelihood that pesticides, fertilizers, feeds, and animal waste finding their way into our rivers and lakes becomes much higher. In the short run, we may see initial benefits, but in the long run, we will simply have dead rivers and lakes.