Mar 30, 2017

Contaminant Overload

Drinking water contamination concerns arise across the U.S.

This article is the first in a series on contaminant removal that will explore contamination concerns across the U.S. and how they are being addressed. Last year was a year to remember for the water treatment industry: From spills to lead to emerging contaminants, drinking water issues were constantly in the news in the U.S. and around the world. These reports have brought attention to contamination concerns and the state of the country’s drinking water infrastructure.

The internet and social media provide consumers a wealth of information about the latest contamination concerns and water treatment solutions—some of it reliable and some not. Water treatment dealers can help consumers sift through the information and choose effective, cost-efficient products and systems to resolve their water quality concerns.

Buried the Lead

America’s aging infrastructure has become a ticking time bomb for contamination.

New York state, for example, has suffered from multiple contamination crises in the past year, notably in the town of Hoosick Falls, where perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) contamination was found in groundwater supplies. “Water contamination from industrial sites and inadequate treatment facilities, agricultural and storm water runoff, aging pipes, and other structural problems are among the problems that must be addressed to ensure New York has clean and lead-free drinking water,” said state Controller Thomas DiNapoli, according to a February New York Daily News report.

DiNapoli estimated that upgrading water infrastructure across the state could cost $40 billion over the next 20 years.

Aging infrastructure also can be a major contributing factor to lead contamination—a problem that is widespread in the U.S. According to a report by CNBC, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data show only nine U.S. states report safe lead levels in their water supplies: Hawaii, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, South Dakota, North Dakota, Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas. “According to EPA, 41 states had Action Level Exceedance in the [past] three fiscal years, meaning states have reported higher than acceptable levels of lead in drinking water,” the report stated.

Federal regulations rely on public water systems to conduct water testing to determine whether lead is present in the water supply. An investigation by USA Today “found that 9,000 small water systems together serving almost 4 million people failed to test properly for lead in the past six years, meaning the toxin could be there without anyone knowing.” According to the report, more than 25% of those systems had repeat lead testing violations.

Schools are an area of special concern when it comes to lead testing due to the effects lead contamination can have on childhood development. “In fact, recent water tests are flagging public schools all across the nation for unhealthy lead levels, as it becomes increasingly obvious that aging school infrastructure threatens the youngest among us and poses a substantial public health danger,” wrote well water testing company Simple Water on its blog.

Reports of high lead levels in schools are cropping up across the country. According to a February New York Post report, water from multiple non-drinking water samples in a New York City school were found to have lead levels higher than in Flint, Mich. Although the faucets were not specifically used for drinking water, they were “removed from service until the water [could be] deemed completely safe.”

New York City’s lead testing practices for schools already were a matter of concern. The New York Times reported the day after the New York Post report, “When experts said last year that New York City’s method of testing water in public schools for lead could hide dangerously high levels of the metal, officials at first dismissed the concerns. They insisted that the city’s practice of running the water for two hours the night before taking samples would not distort results.”

According to the report, the city nonetheless changed its protocol, with alarming results: As of early February, nine times as many faucets as last year were found to have lead levels above EPA’s 15-ppb action level. In schools where lead problems had been detected by the old protocol, new testing revealed even higher lead levels.

More Contaminants & Spills Likely

In the first few months of 2017, Congress has taken steps toward changing environmental regulations that could impact water quality. In February, it voted to eliminate the Stream Protection Rule, which prevented coal mining debris from being dumped into nearby streams. President Donald J. Trump signed the legislation Feb. 16.

A 2011 report by the Physicians for Social Responsibility and Earthjustice titled “Coal Ash, The toxic threat to our health and environment,” called coal ash “one of the dirtiest secrets in American energy production.”

According to the report, the effects of coal ash can be devastating. It cites a disaster in Kingston, Tenn., where the earthen wall of a 40-acre coal ash disposal pond at a coal-fired power plant collapsed in December 2008, releasing “more than 1 billion gal of coal ash slurry into the adjacent river valley, covering some 300 acres with thick, toxic sludge, destroying three homes, damaging many others and contaminating the Emory and Clinch rivers.” In the aftermath of the spill, EPA tested water samples and found elevated levels of many heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, thallium, barium, cadmium, chromium, mercury and nickel.

According to “Origin of Hexavalent Chromium in Drinking Water Wells from the Piedmont Aquifers of North Carolina,” a study by Duke University’s Nicholas School of Environment and published in Environmental Science and Technology Letters in October 2016, research indicates coal ash is leaching from storage sites into water supplies, spreading contaminants like selenium and arsenic.

“The bottom line is that we need to protect the health of North Carolinians from the naturally occurring threat of hexavalent chromium while also protecting them from harmful contaminants, such as arsenic and selenium, which our previous research has shown to derive from leaking coal ash ponds,” said Avner Vengosh, lead author of the study. WQP Part 2 of this series will appear in the May issue of WQP. 

About the author

Susan White is a freelance writer and marketing consultant for water treatment professionals. White can be reached at [email protected]