Poo is gross, but it's nothing compared to the other stuff we're dumping into our environment

I got several e-mails about the dog-shit/plastic-bag problem, enough so that they almost spurred my conscience. They almost spurred it all the way into the neighborhood of "chagrined," if that neighborhood is anywhere near "amused."

The plastic-bag people were the nicest. I found their earnestness touching, and clearly, they understood the validity of my point of view, suggesting that the problem might be solved by biodegradable plastic bags. These, they said, can be purchased online.

The key problem with this solution is the word "purchased." Most people can't afford to spend money on plastic bags. They get them for free at the supermarket. Until giants like Wal-Mart start using them, most of our dog shit will invariably be bound up and sealed in carriers bearing that logo, or those of Fry's or Safeway.

The bacteria people, however, were downright nasty, insulting my character, my relatives and, of course, my dogs. Ostensibly, they were concerned with things like fecal coliforms, E. Coli and the like. But I sensed a certain insincerity and ad-hoc quality to their arguments: I suspect they'd simply sullied their closed-soled loafers one too many times and were pissed off.

However, they got me to thinking about the problem of not just dog shit, but shit in general. The more I thought and the more I read, the more I came to understand that ruined shoe-shines are the very least of our problems.

Inescapably, everything that eats, shits. When nature is in balance, this doesn't create a problem, since the organic components of waste are recycled by the biosphere. But if nature gets out of balance--if, for example, a far too numerous and obsessively manipulative hairless ape reproduces beyond all reasonable bounds--this very same biosphere gets overloaded. Oh, it can still handle the average turd. It can even handle some of the turds of its livestock (according to the University of Illinois, a 100-cow dairy produces as much organic waste as 2,400 people), but there comes a point at which the system gets overwhelmed.

Bacteria is a problem. Anyone who's ever lived in a heavily populated coastal area like San Diego has experienced beaches closed due to untreated sewage runoff--in other words, shit in the surf. But compared to most of the waste products with which we routinely pollute the environment, poo poo is mostly trivial.

According to Prof. M. Berezowsky, in a paper called "Environmental Geology of Urban Areas," we routinely dump the following into the environment:

· Loads of nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers, causing algae blooms in the oceans and suffocating sea life.

· Lead from tire wear, oil, grease and atmospheric fallout.

· Iron from auto rust, highway parts, engine parts.

The list continues: chromium from engine parts and brake linings, bromide from exhaust, cyanide from de-icing products. Sulfates come from roadway beds and fuel. There are petroleum, PCBs, pesticides, pathogenic bacteria from stockyards, rubber from tire wear and asbestos from clutch and brake-lining wear.

As far as sewage goes, granted, we do treat it. In Tucson, we even re-use some treated sewage water to irrigate parks and golf courses.

However, until very recently, most sewage was put back into the environment after the removal only of large solids and some nitrates and phosphorous. It's not the sewage treatment industries' fault. I'm sure they're doing their best. But it's kind of an arms race. As soon as they figure out how to get the newest nasty thing out of our wastewater, someone invents something nastier to dump back into it.

One of the nastiest: endocrine disrupters. An endocrine disrupter compromises the endocrine system by effecting hormonal activity. Effects have been reported in mollusks, fish, reptiles, birds and mammals, including seals and polar bears. Anyone who thinks these substances don't have anything to do with them ought to give it another think. Maybe those titties Joe Six-Pack is growing while eating Doritos and watching sports on TV have a little environmental oomph spurring them on.

In any case, what was I talking about again? Oh, yeah, dog shit. Well, it is a problem, one that everybody can agree on. An old guy I know walks his neighborhood every day, leash in one hand, weighted Safeway sack in the other. I always thought he was such a good citizen until I watched him one day: The minute he steps out his door, he leans over, picks up a rock and puts it in the bag.

I can hardly blame him. Who wants to wander the neighborhood carrying a sack full of poo?

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