Science Wednesday: Why Research Matters at Breakfast Time

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Tarlie Townsend

I cover breakfast cereal halfway with unsweetened almond milk, then add an ice cube and fill the bowl the rest of the way with cold water.

My flat mates think it’s pretty odd. What doesn’t strike them as odd, though, is that I consume water from the tap. Why would it? These days we can be confident that, when we turn on the tap, clear, potable water will flow out.

But maybe that shouldn’t be such a given. It’s not like we create pure water by combining two hydrogens and an oxygen in some giant combustion chamber. No, the water I put on my cereal has made it through the earth’s complex recycling system, and may have spent time on land, in the ocean, and in the air—so it’s actually pretty impressive that it comes out so clean.

But that wasn’t always the case.

Years ago, rivers and streams—common sources of drinking water—were also dumping grounds for human and industrial waste. Sure, people knew polluted water was unsafe to consume, but the details weren’t well understood. Before water could be clean enough to pour on my cereal, and before environmental laws (such as the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act) could be created to keep it that way, scientists had to tackle several important questions:

  1. What about polluted water makes it unsafe? What are its biological, chemical, and physical properties?
  2. How do we detect and measure a given pollutant?
  3. How much can be in the water without creating health concerns?
  4. How do we remove pollutants to actually get the water clean?

These were big questions, and answering them required several decades and the development of innovative technologies and analytical methods. I’m certainly grateful: without EPA research, I might have to eat my cereal with unsweetened almond milk!

Of course, continued research is necessary to keep up with our changing society. EPA researchers play a big role in this, working to update water infrastructure for the growing population, to protect our drinking water from terrorist threats, combat nutrient pollution and, ultimately, ensure the availability of safe and sustainable water resources for future generations.

About the Author: Tarlie Townsend is a communications intern in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. She’s also a senior at Indiana University, and would point out that, while almond milk is great in cereal, cow’s milk is really the superior coffee ingredient.

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