Water, Water Everywhere But….Is It Safe

The announcement of Kate Middletown’s cancer woes has triggered increased attention to a simmering epidemic of cancer cases among younger people that are increasingly fatal because they go undiagnosed since their doctors aren’t looking for cancer markers for conditions that usually affect only older people.

According to an opinion piece published on CNN by  Dr. Jalal Baig, a physician and writer based in Chicago, “The global incidence of early-onset cancer increased by 79.1% and early-onset cancer deaths rose by 27.7% from 1990 to 2019, according to a 2023 study in the journal BMJ Oncology. More granular data on this uptick published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that from 2010 to 2019 in the United States, breast cancer accounted for the highest number of cases in this younger population, while rates of gastrointestinal cancers were rising the fastest.”

Dr. Jalal Baig is part of a new generation of public-facing doctors and researchers who use social media to raise awareness about under-reported medical conditions, whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, NBC News, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy and other publications.

In the CNN article, Baig explained that, “Early-onset cancer, which is defined as happening in adults under 50 years of age, is no anomaly. In fact, it is part of a rising global trend in which newly diagnosed cancer patients are getting younger. Further, it deflates the myth that cancer is the preserve of older people.”

Now, for my two cents worth of uninformed opinions:

As a cancer survivor since 2003, when I self-diagnosed a condition that turned out to be an advanced case of carcinoid that had been misdiagnosed for several years as nothing more than a bad case of acid reflux (I kid you not), I am definitely in this category of of early onset cancers because I was 55 when the cancer was finally diagnosed, but I was probably first “infected” (no one knows what causes carcinoids) at age 50 or earlier, which was when my “acid reflux” first manifested itself.

The science tells us that this type of cancer usually appears in the patient’s early sixties, so I was at least 15 years early. (I still have carcinoid in my system but it has been dormant according to annual checkups. Carcinoid is usually treated with surgery and is probably one of he best cancers to have if you have to have cancer. My particular version had a 15 year survival rate of 76%.  There are no statistics available for 20 year survival rates, so I guess I am on borrowed time.

Having now established my bona fides as a cancer survivor, let me now turn to what I believe is the not-so-secret dirty little secret about cancers in general:

I believe that the worldwide increase in cancer rates is due largely to the polluted environment in which we live. Regardless of how hard you try to eat only healthy foods, the facts of the matter are that our food supplies are saturated with additives, chemical enhancements, and contaminants, even if you are eating only a wholistic diet and purchase only non-GMO, “organic:” foods. (All foods are organic, by the way, since all foods contain carbon, usually in combination with  hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen.)

The recent discovery that virtually all the water we drink is polluted by microplastic materials that are so refined that they are almost down to the molecular level and cannot be filtered out by any mechanism, including heat distillation. A study published in  the Environmental Science & Technology Letters reports that boiling, and filtering tap water that contains calcium can remove up to 80- 90% of microplastics, which means that 10 to 20% of the microplastics will still be in your boiled water.

The water that comes out of your tap almost certainly contains microplastics because there is really no way to extract them all. In fact, that bottle of spring water you just drank from ALSO contains microplastics because the microplastics have entered the water cycle. Microplastics have been found in rainwater, which means the very expensive mountains spring water from Iceland or wherever is also contaminated.  Microplastics found in seawater can evaporate up into the clouds, since they are small enough to be carried along with the water vapor, and eventually rain down on us, getting into our drinking water and our food.

That sounds like its no big deal. Just boil and filter ALL OF THE WATER YOU DRINK, as well as all the water you use in food preparation, dish washing, clothes washing, brushing your teeth and bathing…and they you are still going to be exposed to  10 to 20% of the microplastics….but boiling water does something else to microplastics: the microplastics that are destroyed simply break down into their constituent chemicals, some of which are, of course, highly carcinogenic, and  some of those chemicals evaporate  but some will remain in the boiled water along with the microplastics that were not destroyed.

Distilling water is a pain in the ass but let’s say that you’re health conscious – or paranoid – enough to do it, even though you know that up to 20% of the microplastics will survive, and you will be producing carcinogenic chemicals in the process. Distilling which, unlike boiling water in an open container, turns water into steam in a closed container, then captures the steam in a separate container where it returns to its liquid state. This means that when you distill water, ALL of the microplastics – or their breakdown products – will remain in your distilled water.

Nevertheless, if you want to distill your water, go ahead. You can buy table top unit that will produce one gallon per hour for around $100,  The average person uses around 100 gallons of water per day. A family of four may use 100,000 gallons per year. Like I said, distilling water is a pain in the ass. It is also VERY expensive in terms of energy consumption.  You’ll be using a lot more electricity to run the $5,000 unit that can provide the 400 gallons that a family of four needs PER DAY.

Buying distilled water is pointless because the same distilling process means that the water in your five gallon jug of distilled water probably has some microplastics and some breakdown products from microplastics , which makes hauling those jugs home a classic pyrrhic exercise in futility.

But, really, how dangerous are these microplastics? Microplastics have been indicted by numerous studies for their association with colorectal, breast, lung and skin cancers, al of which are on the rise. Microplastics have been found IN THE LUNGS of lung cancer patients. They have even been found in human blood supplies so, in addition to all the fats we have circulating through out veins and arteries, we now have microplastics too. (There are good reasons to buy distilled water for certain uses, but drinking it isn’t advisable.)
Where do these microplastics come from? Microplastics first entered the environment around 5o years ago as ingredients in personal care products. That’s right. Make-up, shampoos, conditioners, and even toothpaste, but the massive increase in microplastic contamination result from the practice of dumping waste plastics into the ocean, which is where a lot of the plastics you put into your recycling bins really ended up. (It turns out there’s no real market for large scale conversion of used plastics because that’s a much more expensive process than producing the plastics from scratch. Only 9% of plastic waste is recycled into usable products….and that process releases microplastics into the atmosphere during the grinding and refining of the recycled materials.)
Once in the ocean, the plastics breakdown due to the corrosive effects of sea water combined with ultraviolet rays from sunlight. We are now eating fish contaminated with microplastics….but it doesn’t stop with fish. Meat, vegetables, fruit….anything that needs water has microplastics in them now.
We use plastics throughout the food manufacturing and distribution process. It would be literally impossible to maintain the current food distribution system without plastic wraps, plastic packaging, and plastic coatings. The “alternative” plastics made from organic materials, or corn starch, are simply not robust enough to survive the food distribution process. I will bet that you have some food in your refrigerator right now that is stored one of those ubiquitous plastic containers that Chinese restaurants use for take out soup.  (By the way, get out of the habit of warming stuff up in plastic containers because that can also release microplastics and their components. Use glass containers.)
So, how does microplastic contamination connect with increasing incidences of certain cancer?  No one actually knows because no one is tracking that data, or at least no one is publishing it. The fragmentary statistics I’ve been able to gather include one study that claims one million people die each year simply from ingesting microplastics, but that sounds a little fishy to me. How could they possibly accumulate that data?
One thing is clear, however. Early onset cancers of the same varieties that are associated with microplastics have increased dramatically since the late 199os, which is exactly the same time line on which the saturation levels of microplastics in our environment have increased.

That’s a purely anecdotal speculation. The bottom line, however, is that we can’t stop using plastics, which means we can’t stop making then, and that means we are going to continue to be exposed to them and there really isn’t very much that we, individually or collectively, can do about it….unless you want to live off the grid in the Pacific Northwest, raising all your own food.

Wait. That won’t work either. The microplastics are in the rainwater in the Pacific Northwest.