Thursday, April 28, 2005

Poll: Americans are increasingly worried about pollutants

As this article describes, a recent poll of Americans found that 58 percent believe chemicals and pollutants are more of a threat now than they were 10 years ago.

For venture investors, this points to some of the emerging opportunities for new technologies in pollutant monitoring and abatement. As concerns rise, so does pressure on drinking water utilities, local environmental regulators, etc. to
  • a) know what contaminant levels look like in drinking water, air or emissions as the case may be; and
  • b) have some kind of plan for bringing those levels down to reduce exposure.
The development of new technologies can then also create even more pressure for their use, in a bit of a virtuous cycle driving rapid technology adoption.

Case in point -- For years the allowable level of arsenic in drinking water was 50 parts per billion (ppb), but after the Safe Drinking Water Act was passed by Congress requiring the EPA to re-evaluate that standard, as of January 2006 many utilities around the country will have to meet much more stringent allowable levels of 10 ppb. Why 10 ppb? In part because that was close to the lowest level that could be detected and achieved via treatment (3 ppb was actually the "Practical Quantitation Level", to be precise) at the time the new standards were being written, and in part to balance costs with benefits. But scientists have identified no "safe level" of arsenic in drinking water, having seen evidence of effects on cancer rates even at levels below 1 ppb.

Many utilities across the country are going to be in violation of this revised 10 ppb standard, some based on human-caused contamination, some based on region-specific naturally occurring levels of arsenic in groundwater (see the map here to see if your area is affected, if you're curious). No matter what the cause, however, all utilities are going to have to have a better sense of their contamination levels, and a plan for abatement when levels are too high. This is going to drive significant spending on testing, monitoring and abatement technologies, and smart cleantech venture investors are looking to get out ahead of that uptake.

And what happens if someone develops new technologies that can detect and achieve even lower levels of arsenic than are currently feasible? There's a good chance that could eventually drive down allowable levels yet again, creating a new cycle of technology adoption. Given the rising concerns Americans have about chemicals and pollutants as described above, the public won't likely tolerate having their water utilities fail to meet drinking water standards, no matter how stringent.

Now let's further extend this example: Looking outside of the U.S., proven arsenic detection and abatement technologies have even more opportunities to be used in international markets. In Bangladesh, for example, arsenic poisoning from contaminated wells is threatening tens of millions of people, which has attracted the attention of organizations (such as the World Health Organization) who have expressed a desire to fund the purchasing of technologies and systems to help ameliorate the problem. So technologies developed to address domestic pollution worries and increasingly stringent standards can find large markets overseas as well.

Arsenic in drinking water is just one example of how rising concerns about pollutants and chemicals could drive increased adoption of emerging water, wastewater, soil and air treatment and monitoring technologies. As the poll cited above shows, this driver is growing even stronger over time.


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