Think Your Public or Bottled Water is Safe?

Before hopping a northbound Greyhound to visit my daughter recently, I went online to buy her a good, long-lasting water filter to strain the fluoride, bleach, birth control pills, drugs, bug killer and other mysterious poisons from her St. Paul, Minn., drinking water. What better birthday gift, eh?Columbia River

The selection was astounding – a virtual array of filtration devices that eliminate the above-mentioned contaminants, plus a host more, including iron, hydrogen sulfide, lead, mercury, calcium carbonate, magnesium, chromium, bacteria, algae and fungi. A radiation filter even removes Iodine -131 , Radium-226, Strontium-90, Cesium-137, Uranium-238, Ionic contaminants, Hexavalent Chromium and more.

Columbia RiverI wondered, how did all this junk get in our water in the first place?

Overwhelmed, I got on the horn with Hilary Ohm, owner of Highwater Filters in Colville, Wash., who walked me through various filters and applications.

“Municipal systems test for certain things,” Hilary told me, “but they go for the low-hanging fruit, the contaminants easiest to detect. There are just a myriad of others that are not tested for, such as hexavalent chromium (remember “Erin Brockovich”?).”

Hilary explained that fluoride is actually a rat poison and dangerous at high levels, but is used in many municipal systems to prevent tooth decay. Advocates believe it’s a harmless and effective additive; those opposed doubt its safety and are concerned about potential health effects. Another controversial public-water additive is chlorine, widely used to kill bacteria.

“What is that doing to our bodies that are full of good bacteria?” Hilary asked.

Highwater Filter

This handsome unit also eliminates fluoride

I eventually picked out an attractive countertop model Hilary recommended based on my daughter’s location and needs. To my surprise, the filter arrived in Minnesota before I did, and even included additional instructions and a birthday greeting from Hilary.

Because my daughter lives in a historic 1920’s building with a kitchen sink big enough to bathe in, but no counter space, we visited Goodwill for a shelf and brackets. Everything was installed in 30 minutes.

Then it was time to relax.

With rare time for loafing, I called to chat with Hilary about water pollution. I was intrigued with her business blog, Highwater Marks, which includes her thoughts on fracking, river salinization, ocean acidification, drought, energy production and future of water.

Three Mile IslandAs it turns out, Hilary has been an environmental advocate for 30 years. As a Plattsburgh, N.Y., college student in the early 1980s, Hilary was among the throngs of hippies and activists who protested against environmental degradation. She turned down a college basketball scholarship to “save the world.”

Since 1999, Hilary has served on the board of “Citizens for a Clean Columbia” in northeastern Washington. The group worked closely with the Colville Confederated Native American tribe and State of Washington to compel a Canadian lead and zinc mining company, Teck Comingo, to be held accountable for tens of thousands of tons of toxic slag dumped into the Columbia River for almost 100 years.Hilary Ohm 1979

The coalition also demanded the Environmental Protection Agency study the slag’s effect on water, soil, fish and wildlife, recreation and local human health, among other things. The studies, funded by Teck, are now being conducted, but due to complexities have taken close to a decade to be completed.

So, it is only natural for someone with intimate knowledge of the dangers lurking in our water to now own an online water-filter business and continue to advocate for clean water.

Columbia River snow

“If you were to see the beauty of this area, you would understand,” Hilary said when I asked how she fits environmental activism into her schedule. “I think we all deserve to have clean air and water.”

Hilary explained, because of humanity’s lifestyle, it is inevitable we must deal with dangerous byproducts. Since we have to live with these materials, we need to do all we can to minimize the damages for future generations, she said.

Buying the web-based business was purely accidental, Hilary said. When her position at a Microsoft call center was outsourced several years ago, Hilary looked online for a way to support herself, yet remain in the remote area she loves. That’s when she stumbled across a water-filter business for sale.

“It fit perfectly with my passion for clean water,” Hilary said.

Hilary said losing her job was a humbling experience that motivated her to help make the change she envisions for our country – a vision that includes vibrant small businesses competing in the marketplace and pure drinking water for everyone. She believes in giving back and supports charities that provide clean water to those in need.Hilary Ohm poster

When Hilary discovered the company for sale, it sold only Swiss-made Katadyn water filter products. Under the new name of Highwater Filters, the business quickly expanded to include a wide variety of American-made water treatment products.

“We believe in supporting U.S. manufacturers who use American workers to produce their products,” Hilary said. Highwater Filters also emphasizes non-electric water treatment and explains why buying water bottled in plastic containers (which is unregulated) is not a healthy or convenient choice.

Bisphenol A, or BPA, is an industrial chemical used in some plastics, including many water bottles. Studies have shown that it can seep from plastic into food and beverages,” according to Hilary’s Highwater Filters’ blog. “Although the FDA currently considers it safe in small amounts, evidence is building that it could have negative effects on children and fetuses, even in small doses.”

In 2006, a panel of experts concluded: “BPA at concentrations found in the human body is associated with organizational changes in the prostate, breast, testis, mammary glands, body size, brain structure and chemistry, and behavior of laboratory animals.”

Hilary said the FDA is continuing to study the effects of BPA, but has yet to recommend a total ban.

Even those of us with deep drilled wells aren’t guaranteed of pristine water. Arsenic is just one of the toxins common in wells.

Perhaps if we had heeded the warnings of scores of environmental activists like Hilary in the 1970s, we might not be buying expensive bottled water today.

“Our reserves of clean drinking water are dwindling,” Hilary said. “Every time clean water gets polluted with harmful chemicals, there is less. As the population grows, the demand is even greater.”

To learn more about Highwater Filters products, visit the site and Hilary’s Highwater Marks blog.

Photos of the beautiful Columbia River in northern Washington State taken by Hilary Ohm. Hilary also provided the historic photos of her early activism. She is still active today, protecting the Columbia River, among other environmental endeavors.

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