Sonoma County Gazette, February 2013

I love the Russian River.
The Russian River is a source of joy for those seeking respite from busy lives: children kicking and splashing to their heart’s content, dogs running, jumping, and swimming, canoeists floating leisurely downstream, soaking in the sun. Letting go of all our cares, we feel connected to everything we survey.

The river provides wildlife with food and nourishment.  It provides habitat for protection from predators and a place where they can reproduce and flourish and lead the good life.  At this time of year, the river also importantly provides drainage for runoff from surrounding hills.

The river not only provides sustenance for humans and wildlife, it nurtures the land itself and the riparian plants and trees, and is more important to natural survival than everything but the air we breathe and the warmth of the sun.

The river and its tributaries connect humans in ways we often take for granted although we depend on the water for drinking, swimming, bathing, cleaning, industrial use, fire suppression, and much more.  Are we too spoiled as we turn on the tap or the hose and always assume a steady flow of water will come out? And we also expect it to be clean, free of toxins, bugs, and dirt. We all expect that, don’t we, or at least those of us who have lived our lives where water is abundant and cheap?  (How wasteful that we use drinkable water to flush toilets and so good that we are using less and less of it for this purpose.)

Sometimes we are careless or ignorant about how to protect this precious resource.  Some dump their waste, garbage, and toxic products into the river, as though it were a garbage dump, absorbing all the things we no longer want where aquatic creatures have to live full time. Sometimes we are too lazy to dispose of waste properly and expect the river to just carry it to the sea.

Every September, for the last 15-20 years, private citizens have organized to clean the river of tons of tires, refrigerators, stoves, cars, dirty diapers; you name it, they found it.  The river is getting better they say, but we anticipate the day when the cleanup won’t be necessary, when all people care enough to treat the river with the respect it deserves. Is that asking too much?

We have all had experiences where we ultimately learn about the harm we did before we knew better.  I grew up in the big city of Chicago, with its corrupt politicians and police and dirty water.  I swam in Lake Michigan, a few miles from the steel mills, but had no idea what the water contained.   I did know that a lot of kids had polio in the mid-1940’s. Everyone was talking about it.

Children were also very sick with colds and flu every winter and the theory was held that enlarged tonsils were the cause.  Looking for any remedy that would protect their children from the dreaded disease, parents went along with the popular remedy of removing the tonsils (a practice long since ceased), either surgically or by shrinking with radiation.  (This was before the vaccine.)

Because of the polio scare, it was believed that the safest remedy was shrinking the tonsils of young children with radiation.  There was concern that children getting surgery in the summer would be more likely to contact polio and in the winter, more likely to contact a respiratory infection.  Either way, radiation was seen as the more desirable of the two.

So when I was seven years old, I was put under the big machine twice and my tonsils, never really a serious problem, were shrunk.  At the same time, it was also common to give patients annual chest X-Rays as part of their regular check up.  Shoe stores had X-Ray machines where kids could press a little button and view the skeleton of their feet to see if shoes fit properly.  Needless to say, people simply did not know how much damage radiation could do.  (While we know a lot more now, some may say that is still the case.)

Twenty five to thirty years later, it was discovered that many of the children who received those treatments had thyroid cancer.  Hospitals started sending letters out to all involved, telling people to get checked.  Thousands of surgeries were scheduled as it was discovered that a very high percentage of treated patients had tumors in the thyroid, some benign and some not.  When I was checked, the results were unclear.  It was decided that I should have surgery.  And I did, 27 years after being exposed.  I was both unlucky and lucky.  I had cancer, but it was in its very early stage and easy to cure.

This is not the only time we have been told something was safe and necessary and later discovered it was neither.   There was hysterectomy for fibroid tumors, estrogen substitute made from mares’ urine to treat menopause symptoms, extensive long-term use of acid blockers for reflux, etc.  And lately there is the issue of the lack of monitoring of endocrine disrupting chemicals in our water supply ( for more information).

So when the Utilities Director for the City of Santa Rosa drank a sample of their treated wastewater (supposedly) in the mid-1990’s and touted its safety for dumping large amounts of it into the Russian River, it was with a healthy skepticism that many didn’t believe him.  In fact, many river residents found it hard to believe that he did not know that practice was risky and believed he was recommending it because river dumping was the easiest and cheapest way for the City to deal with its discharges.

For economic expediency, companies and utilities and property owners often fight regulations and monitoring.  Yet the more we know about the impacts of our actions, the more opportunities we have to change the way we do things to serve the needs of everyone.  The more we see and know about the problems in our environment, the more we understand the importance of protecting the safety of all the life we love.  At least, that is what has motivated me personally  for the last 34 years to do all possible to educate citizens and governments about some of the problems in our environment that are harmful and need to be addressed.  Now we need the lambs to become lions for the cause. As some of us age, the ranks of environmental activists have been thinning even while the problems increase.

What does it take to become an activist?  What does the job entail?  Learn more in a future column.