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Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell is directing the Department of Environmental Protection to strengthen the notification procedures that public water suppliers must follow to alert residents when there is an imminent threat to drinking water supplies. Enhancements include the use of reverse 911 calls, door-to-door visits and bullhorn announcements to augment notices provided to local media.
"There is no margin of error and no time to wait when it comes to protecting the health and safety of Pennsylvania families and businesses," Gov. Rendell said. "We need to make emergency public notification systems more effective at reaching all customers immediately in times of crisis. We need water suppliers to take their message directly to residents."
DEP Secretary Kathleen A. McGinty said the commonwealth aims to enhance advisories so they state clearly what actions residents need to take to stay safe. The department will propose revisions to Pennsylvania's Safe Drinking Water Regulations to specify an expanded list of situations that require a public water supplier to report to DEP and notify customers.
Water supply warnings can be lifted only upon approval by DEP, and only after all corrective measures are completed and follow-up samples show levels back to normal. The department is developing equally direct public notification measures for suppliers to use to tell customers that an advisory has been lifted and the threat is over.
At Governor Rendell's direction, DEP inspectors have begun a thorough review of community water systems' emergency response plans and operation and maintenance plans to encourage the facilities to incorporate enhanced communications, such as recorded messages from automatic telephone dialing systems or door-to-door delivery of information, prior to regulatory changes.
McGinty said the revised notification procedures will embrace technology, allowing companies to provide an opt-in system so individuals can request to be contacted by e-mail, text message, beeper, cell phone or other personal electronic devices in the event of an imminent threat situation. Water systems would have to conduct annual drills to test the chosen communication methods.
"We need to update our public notification system so that timely, reliable information never leaves room for fear and confusion," McGinty said. "Recent experience has shown that the public is not always getting the safety information it needs soon enough."
The secretary unveiled the proposed reforms at the Cornerstone Coffeehouse in Camp Hill, Cumberland County, a popular restaurant in one of the communities affected Dec. 10 by an accidental release of fluoride into public drinking water at the Pennsylvania American Water Co. treatment plant in Fairview Township, York County.
Although a "do not consume" advisory was provided through area broadcast news media, warnings were not repeated frequently enough for most residents to have been informed. Moreover, the advisories were scattershot and inconsistent. Many people were not watching televisions or listening to radios that Saturday afternoon. Some who lived nearby the treatment plant were notified by firefighters; others learned from friends or family members as the day wore on.
Many residents were dismayed they had not been more quickly and effectively notified that their drinking water might have been dangerous and that independent information about the contaminant was so difficult to find. Coffeehouse owner Sue Pera struggled to get news about whether the water used in her coffee and other products was safe.
While drinking even high levels of fluoride does not necessarily have serious short-term health effects, there have been documented cases of fluoride poisoning and death across the country due to excess fluoride contamination. The most sensitive populations at risk are children under the age of six and people on kidney dialysis. Long-term exposure to high levels of fluoride can lead to mottled teeth in children and bone disease.
McGinty pointed to other cases that demonstrate a need to strengthen the notification procedures. In 2005, Pennsylvania issued 21 “boil water” advisories for events such as flooding, water line breaks and equipment breakdowns; five “do not consume” advisories for suspected or actual contamination incidents, such as the fluoride spill; and two “do not use” advisories because of contamination.
The type of notice matches the perceived threat. If the threat ismicrobiological, the notice typically contains a "boil water" advisory. If the threat is a chemical, then the notice is either a “do not consume” if there is concern about exposure via ingestion, or “do not use” if there is risk from dermal or inhalation exposure.
“Enhanced public notification procedures will go a long way to reassure residents that the water they have is safe, clean and healthy,” McGinty said. “Moreover, informing residents and businesses promptly and effectively that the threat no longer exists will save money and ease concerns.”