The medical geology of our water

“Nia:wen” was the first word the elder taught me that day by the river four years ago. Later, when things got truly confusing, twisted and turned up-side down and backwards, it’s the word I come back to… and the river – who never lies or “miscalculates.”

Normally, I am collecting water samples and comparing the results to a vast river of black and white health data. But that day I began my collection of traditional stories about the water (“Ohneganohs” in Cayuga) which added a rainbow of colour and meaning to those numbers and helped me to find my way through it – like having a compass or a map of ideas, words and sounds.

I am a Medical Geologist, a weird kind of in-between-fits-nowhere-hidden-in-the-background-no-funding kind of scientist. Depending on who I’m talking to, I either spend my time looking after sick pet rocks or studying the relationship between the environment and health. Either way, I’m really busy these days.

There are about 300 of us scientific curiosities in the world, spread out over 80 countries. We have a newsletter, biannual conferences and even a web-site ( Some of us have come to recognize the great value of indigenous traditional knowledge when it comes to making connections between the tiny dots of data that modern technology provides.

But so far as I know, I’m the only one I know of who specializes in water chemistry and mother-child health. Being mostly white males in their 50s and 60s, even the other misfit toys think I’m a freak when I start talking about the relative merits of breastfeeding versus infant formula.

Still, everyone was created for a purpose and I’ve decided that reconnecting the mothers of our nations with the water so that we can protect ourselves, our families and Mother Earth is mine.

I’ve talked myself hoarse about child mortality and drinking water chemistry at municipal council meetings, written a 184-page university thesis on groundwater chemistry with three babies under five-years-old rotating position on my two hips, and contributed to United Nations and Pearson Peacekeeping Centre books on air and water quality and human health.

But all that and $1.55 will get me a cup of coffee (no extra charge for the chemical contaminants in Lake Ontario and the Ottawa River, water treatment additives or heavy metals leached out of the plumbing) in the cafeteria at Queen’s Park or Parliament Hill, where the policies, laws and regulations of our multi-national society are decided.

There, you’ll find yet another group of predominantly middle-aged, white males who are sipping on bottled water and don’t want to hear my baby talk. Especially since they have much more important things to talk about: economic growth and sustainability, sending troops to Iraq, and how to keep 40-year-old oil pipelines alive as long as possible.

Since most of those high-level decision-makers grew up without access to traditional knowledge (closest to quantum physics or string theory in modern science) they are typically unaware of how a resilient economy is based on a stable society, which is only possible if you have a healthy environment. They are blind and deaf to how watching and listening to frogs and turtles will help them reduce their healthcare spending.

Things like clean air and water and nutritious food have little or no monetary value in settler government, and this is largely because they’re also bad at math.

While most western-trained science geeks (who think that medicine wheels come on ambulances) are generally decent at basic arithmetic, when asked to put 2 + 2 together, the average politician typically gets an answer anywhere between 5 and 7 after they’ve added in their collective fear, greed and ignorance.

And this is bad news if, as medical geologists are fond of pointing out, “genetics loads the gun but environment pulls the trigger.” The average human drinks 55,000 litres of water (about 300 standard bathtubs) in a lifetime, with women consuming the most and early childhood being the most dangerous time for exposures to toxic substances, even at extremely low levels.

With the current government’s preoccupation with “public cents” and not “common sense” of traditional knowledge keepers or modern scientists, it’s really not surprising that the water is in the state that it’s in and that we are experiencing record numbers of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and mental health problems with no solution in sight.

The truth is that the regulations we have about what we test for in water and how we do it only protect the polluters. Changing this by working together with good minds and intentions is the work of our generation.

Which is what brought me back to the river I grew up beside, a Haudenosaunee grandmother and the Two Row Wampum Treaty of 1613.

Despite what the relationship between First Nations and colonials looks like now, it’s important to remember that we started off well. To share and combine the ancient wisdom of Indigenous peoples with the technical and scientific innovation brought by the newcomers was a beautiful idea, a saving idea.

Much like science-based policy is a beautiful idea that could save future generations from the idea that our children need treatment with modern technology and policy intervention instead of the water itself.

Winter is the time for stories. Over the next weeks, I’ll be sharing the traditional stories and data bits n’ bytes about the water-health connection that I’ve picked up along the trail over the past four decades in a series of short articles that I hope you’ll find both interesting and useful.

A big “Nia:wen” (Mohawk is harder to learn than the elements of the Periodic Table) to the trees and the Two Row Times for being “experimental” and giving me this opportunity.

In the spirit of the Two Row,
Heather Gingerich

P.S. I’d also love to hear your stories, try to answer your questions about western science (dysfunctional as it is) and help connect you with people and data that might help you do your part in healing Mother Earth. Please contact me at or text me at 519-533-3123.

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