Phosphatemia—How Green is your Water?

Phosphate in drinking water
Colorimetric phosphate test

My swimming pool has a thin green carpet. The fish and frog pond is choked with weed and slime. Even sugar water in the hummingbird feeder turned cloudy in 24 hours. What’s going on?

Now I’ve lit my pipe let’s start the inquiry, Dr. Watson.  Does the water have a common source? Is it polluted?

Yes and no, Holmes. The water originated from our faucet, but we didn’t spread fertilizer in the garden.

Hmm. Tell me, then, what can make stuff grow quickly in water?  

My dear Holmes, I’m reminded of rapidly growing dead zones in the Bay during summer, though the tides were ‘red’ with algae, never green. But if I have the same problem at home the answer must be phosphate.

Congratulations on your deduction and commiseration with the slimy state of your water. Now give it a test.


A combination of colorimetric and laboratory tests confirmed high levels of phosphate in samples from all three sources, but even higher straight out of the tap people drink from. In excess of 4,000 parts per billion, exceeding the sanitation capacity of free chlorine in the pool. How so, when only <100 ppb from the garden well and rainwater barrel?

Remember Flint, Michigan, in 2014? The city managers (that’s what they call them) switched the water supply to save money. Instead of the Detroit river where phosphate was added they drew from the Flint river which has only a low natural level.

Phosphate is added to domestic water supplies around this country, Britain and others included, to avoid poisoning children in homes that still have lead plumbing. It reduces lead in drinking water by coating pipes. Few people seem to know or ask what’s in their water. Phosphate isn’t mentioned in the James City County Water Quality Report, although plenty about bacteria.

Like other living organisms, bacteria need phosphorus to grow, and some kinds are able to liberate more from insoluble mineral. The municipal answer to lead provides more food (PO4) for bacteria and algae to grow, and that consequence is fixed by pumping more chlorine in our water.

Holmes didn’t seem worried about drinking our local water (or that in Baker’s Street, London). He is glad of a generous helping of phosphate in his diet to top up his hydroxyapatite and ATP reserves, but spurns colas supercharged with phosphoric acid for the sake of his brain.

Waldeinsamkeit

Yellowstone National Park
Photo: Yellowstone National Park (RG)

Is there anything about the pandemic that hasn’t been said a hundred times already? It is no secret that one of the healthiest places to rest from screen fatigue and lockdown lethargy is outdoors.

People have rushed to national and state parks and to the coast for a dose of ‘nature.’ Take, for example, Yellowstone National Park. Gate registrations of recreational vehicles surged every month in 2020. In the peak month July 2020, 365,937 were recorded compared with 320,464 12 months earlier. When this post goes out, I too will be breathing mountain air, except in the ‘Mon.’ Phew. That feels better!

Seeking peace through a mindful stroll among trees has a long history among forest-loving Celtic people and forest-bathing Japanese. So important is it in Germany that a new word was created by conjugating two unrelated words, for which the language has a facility. Waldeinsamkeit (forest plus loneliness/ solitude) captures an entirely positive feeling with no English equivalent.

Nothing green and vegetable is more loved than a tree. Perhaps because we venerate their long lives—counting rings and planting saplings to memorialize life events. Perhaps out of gratitude for what they provide—permaculture food and the most versatile material for crafting our needs. They keep on giving: hardly something we can boast. It’s hard to imagine a civilization emerging without them or human beings even evolving. Weren’t we molded from the genome of an arboreal ape?

To go to the woods and forests is to go home, as if on a family visit to a third parent. They grew deep roots in mythology and religion. The Druids had their sacred groves and other cultures cherished the Banyan tree, Bodhi tree, and Christmas tree as symbols of growth, decay and renewal. Dryad spirits of the woods populate poetry and literature while Tolkien’s Ents guarded the forest. And, despite casting off superstition in the modern age, the mystique endures through scientific discovery of the wood wide web in which vibrant communities connect tree to tree and tree to fungus and microbe.

Recent best-selling books about trees or set in forests add to a perennial genre: The Overstory, The Hidden Life of Trees, Game of Thrones, etc. Children’s books too: The Magic and Mystery of Trees, The Tree Lady, etc.

I close in contradiction. One of the goals of going outdoors is to leave paper and screen behind, but hurry home to one of the finest short stories for children and adults. The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono is an inspiring story of a shepherd living as a hermit in the desolate mountains of Provencal. He transforms the landscape by planting acorns that grow into a forest. A CBC cartoon movie narrated by Christopher Plummer and available on YouTube captures the story beautifully of how an unselfish activist can make a difference for humanity and the environment.

Pepysing back at the 1665-66 plague of London

I aimed for a weekly post about the health of the natural world, but here I am dwelling on coronavirus again. Is anyone undistracted by this pandemic?

This time I dusted off my copies of Samuel Pepys diaries in which he recorded the bubonic plague in the city I grew up in. Londoners were familiar with the scourge. The Black Death carried off most of the population across Europe in the 14th century and made other appearances. Although believed to be carried in the air (‘miasma’), human contact was a known agency too. Inbound merchant vessels had to rest at anchor for 40 days before disembarking (a number straight from the Bible). Plagues then took months to sweep across the known world in merchant sailing ships as we became more connected by trade, but it only takes a few hours or days by air travel today.

Pepys wrote in August 31, 1665: “the plague everywhere through the kingdom almost. Every day sadder and sadder news of its increase. In the City died this week … 6,102 of the plague. But it is feared the number of the dead this week is near 10,000”. He had little confidence in statistics because the poor were often unrecorded and Quakers forbade tolling the bell for their losses. Nor will the true number of coronavirus deaths be known for a long time.

Two weeks later: “To hear that poor Payne, my waiter, hath buried a child, and is dying himself. To hear that a labourer I sent but the other day to Dagenhams is dead of the plague and one of my watermen …” Epidemic is merely numbers until its meaning is wrought in suffering people you know and care about. Willful ignorance and denial of science we currently witness in the news will surely be tested with the fire of personal tragedies to come.

Church on the hillA shipment of cloth from London to a tailor in Eyam, a small village near Sheffield, carried infected fleas in 1665. Dreaded buboes erupting with pus appeared on the skin of villagers. The Eyam community led by an Anglican priest is hailed as an example of self-sacrifice where quarantine was imposed to avoid spreading the contagion outside.

Beautiful myths grow up where facts are scarce. The priest sent his children away and the poor could not afford to go. But it is a fact that only a quarter survived, and maybe the odds in neighboring villages benefitted from ‘lockdown’. According to a math model, quarantine may have made matters worse for Eyam by prohibiting dispersal if closer contact led to a more deadly pneumonic (pulmonary) plague. If there is a hero in the story, it is the priest’s wife because she stayed and died.

We constantly ask how the current ‘plague’ will end, and when?  In Eyam it burned out by running out of victims (from herd immunity?), but no one imagined it would take a literal fire in London.

Pepys wrote on September 2 of the following year: “With my heart full of trouble, to the Lieutenant of the Tower (of London), who tells me that it began this morning in the King’s baker’s house in Pudding-lane, and that it hath burned down St. Magnus’s Church and most part of Fish Street already … and did tell the King (Charles II) and the Duke of York what I saw; and that, unless his Majesty did command houses to be pulled down, nothing could stop the fire.” It seemed perverse to add to the physical and economic destruction but in the end was the best policy.

Sometimes we have been lucky in history with leaders who rose to the challenge of crises with coordinated, compassionate and effective responses. This time we have seen dithering politicians scared that bold responses might dent their standing and blind to the bigger picture. This coronavirus emergency is terrible and a vaccine is an urgent goal, but unless its roots in careless stewardship of nature are acknowledged the ancient cycle of plagues will be repeated, because everything is connected.