Alex Prud’homme interviewed by Maeve  Vanessa Scanlon

At a time when we are concerned about the diminishing reserves of petroleum and other fossil fuels, Alex Prud’homme’s book The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Fresh Water in the Twenty-First Century sheds light on a natural resource that is becoming equally as scarce. In the following exclusive interview, Prud’homme discusses the depletion of our water supply, the potential for worldwide “water wars” and how we can all reduce our own ripple effect.
HUSTLER: First and foremost, what is the “ripple effect”?
ALEX PRUD’HOMME: This is essentially a series of consequences that impact water supply in ways most of us don’t understand. Sometimes those ripples are unintentional effects. Even the simplest things like washing your hands, watering your lawn or powering up your computer can have great ramifications that we’re not aware of. If you wash your hands with antibacterial soap, a chemical in there can survive the treatment process and get into waterways and can negatively impact fish. Same with herbicides that we use on our lawns to get rid of dandelions. There’s a substance [in herbicides] that inhibits the fishes’ ability to ward off disease. It may even be causing “intersex,” meaning that male bass fish are developing eggs through their testes.
That’s science fiction stuff.
It’s really spooky. I was down in Chesapeake Bay, near Washington, D.C., studying this with scientists. It’s really troubling because it turns out that the endocrine system in fish is very similar to that in humans.
Humans can be affected by these substances in the same way as fish?
Scientists are very concerned. There’s the potential that it could be turning humans into intersexes at some point in the future. That’s one set of ripple effects [just from] washing our hands or spraying our lawns to keep the weeds away.
[Editor’s Note: Pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and consumers have legally released into this country’s drinking water more than 271 million pounds of drugs and chemicals, including lithium, nitroglycerin, copper, antibiotics, anticonvulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones. At least 51 million Americans are drinking pharmaceutical- tainted water, and the federal government has chosen to turn a blind eye to this.]
You claim that using electrical power, like turning on a computer, can have a similar ripple effect.
That confuses a lot of people. When you leave a light on, you’re using up a lot of energy. Whether it’s nuclear or ethanol or solar or coal or gas, all of those power sources require lots of water. Every energy source has to run on industrial works or giant cooling towers or processing plants of some sort. Not only do they use lots of water in these processes, but they have to dispose of their waste. Often, this seeps into the water supply. We don’t really think about the impact that getting energy to our homes has on the water supply, so we never connect those dots. But power is a huge water user.
It’s a strange dot to connect.
I started looking at this all across the country and started noticing this pattern. There are so many pressures on our limited water supplies—population, climate change, shifting diets, shifting demographics, all these new ways of using water—that we can no longer afford the luxury of being ignorant. We can no longer stick our heads in the sand and say, “Well, we don’t know the impacts.” Now we do know the impacts, and we have to start paying attention to this and start thinking about water in a new way and value it as a limited resource.