This Q&A originally appeared in WQP October 2020 as "Community Conversations"
Environmental Health & Engineering Inc. recently released a report titled “Risks to Drinking Water Quality in the U.S. and Benefits of Point-of-Use Filtration” in collaboration with Helen of Troy experts expanding on risks to drinking water quality in the U.S. and the benefits of point-of-use (POU) filtration. WQP Managing Editor Lauren Del Ciello asked Mike Mitchell, director of Advanced Technologies of the Health and Home division at Helen of Troy about key points of the study and the role of water treatment professionals to engage with their communities to combat these issues.
Lauren Del Ciello: What are the greatest contaminants of concern to U.S. drinking water quality currently?
Mike Mitchell: In my role as Director of Advanced Technologies of the Health and Home division at Helen of Troy and also as a board member of the Water Quality Association (WQA), I spend the majority of time looking closely at lead and its impact on drinking water quality. Lead, of course, can cause serious damage to the brain, kidneys, red blood cells and nervous system, and even low levels can be dangerous. Thus, the public water systems are mandated to test drinking water regularly and to share monitoring data with the EPA, as well as publish annual reports with updates on drinking water quality within their water systems.
Additionally, proposed legislation, such as revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule, may require more communities to address lead-contamination issues. The revisions include more stringent guidelines on identifying, monitoring and replacing lead service lines - including a mandate to provide pitchers and filters immediately to impacted residents. It also includes a lower threshold (action level) for lead levels in the water decreasing from 15 parts per billion (ppb) to 10 parts per billion which requires affected municipalities to find an interim solution to ensure residents have access to safe drinking water.
Looking at contaminants more broadly, PFAS chemicals are also a concern cropping up in almost every state. These chemicals come from the residue of nonstick coatings and waterproofing chemicals, which run off and can contaminate drinking water supplies. And finally, it’s important to monitor Disinfection By-Products, DBPs, where disinfectants like chlorine and chloramine can interact with the naturally occurring organic matter in water. We’re still learning about all the effects these chemicals may have on human health.
Del Ciello: How can drinking water quality be compromised following initial treatment?
Mitchell: We have an aging infrastructure in many parts of the United States. It may be a long way from the treatment plant to the kitchen sink, and the nature of water is that it easily dissolves and incorporates other substances, so drinking water may become compromised in a number of ways. Following the initial treatment of water at a treatment plant, lead pipes and solders either under a street or in a home, may contribute to unsafe lead levels. Additionally, if there are improperly disposed chemicals or animal wastes in the environment, these may leach into the soil and enter drinking water systems through weaknesses or cracks in the distribution system.
Del Ciello: What risks does aging water infrastructure pose, and how can these risks be mitigated?
Mitchell: As new types of contaminants are discovered, some treatment plants aren’t set up technology-wise to address those new contaminants. Chemicals from soaps and fragrances, as well as hormones and pharmaceuticals are called “contaminants of emerging concern,” because we just don’t know yet what kind of long-term effects they have on the body—but we do know that they have been found in some drinking water supplies even after the water has been treated.
In some communities carbon beds have been added to improve the quality of water by reducing disinfection by-products. Some older communities or communities with less resources have not, and in some cases cannot, implement such solutions.
A second issue is, again, the quality of the transport system that gets the water from the treatment facility to a house. Older systems are sometimes constructed with materials that are no longer safe to use and lead is a good example of this. I would recommend some form of filtration system for at least the drinking and cooking water. These systems don't have to cost a lot of money and you can find systems that are designed and certified for the specific contaminant of concern. PUR offers both end of tap and pitcher systems that are certified to reduce several contaminants.
Because contamination can happen anywhere along the chain, the best way to reduce water contamination is to install a point-of-use filtration system, such as a faucet-mounted filter that reduces contaminants right at the tap. PUR faucet filters are certified to reduce over 70 contaminants including lead, mercury and certain pesticides, while PUR pitcher and dispenser filtration systems are certified to reduce many contaminants including mercury and certain industrial pollutants.
Del Ciello: Beyond infrastructure, what role do fixtures play in water quality, and how does the 2014 lead update impact this?
Mitchell: Before 1997, most faucets were brass or chrome-plated brass, and they could contain up to 8 percent lead. That was an issue because if water sat overnight in that kind of faucet, the first water poured out of it in the morning could contain higher levels of lead. Older plumbing fixtures may be a source of lead in drinking water, as lead is often found in the ore used to make copper. In the past this was not as strictly regulated as it is today. Older plumbing fixtures, as well as the solder used to attach and secure these elements, may leach lead into drinking water.
Newer systems are usually cleaner and safer to use. However, if a system is from prior to 2005, one may want to consider updating to a newer, cleaner system. The EPA has strengthened the requirement for the reduction of lead in these elements.
The Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act was passed in 2011 and was put fully into effect in 2014. It requires lead-free fittings, which it defines as less than 0.2 percent lead in solder and 0.25 percent lead in materials. . If a system is older, one may want to consider upgrading.
Del Ciello: How are private water wells uniquely at risk to contamination concerns, and what role does monitoring play there?
Mitchell: The main issue with a private well is monitoring. Many wells are tested when the home is constructed or sold but rarely after that. Wells may be contaminated over time depending on what is buried underground at or near the well. Private wells tend to be located mainly in rural areas, and whether they are located in or near septic or agricultural areas, these wells may be vulnerable to microbial contamination due to fecal organisms from either septic tanks or by being close to agriculture in general.
Del Ciello: How can water quality professionals work to educate consumers regarding the benefits of point-of-use devices as a final barrier against aging infrastructure issues and rising contaminants of concern?
Mitchell: We hurt ourselves and our industry when we rely on fear or scare tactics. Instead, we need to educate consumers about the journey of water – and the various points at which drinking water may become compromised following its treatment at the plant through its arrival at a home. We need to need to be up-front and honest about risk of different contaminants and the advantages of using point-of-use water filtration devices and really let consumers make an informed decision.
Our industry needs to educate consumers about the investment and time required for a lead service replacement program and the role that point-of-use water filtration devices can play in the journey. For example, pitcher and faucet filtration products can be used as a short-term solutions for communities tackling long-term changes to address water contamination issues.
Just recently, we launched PUR Community to help municipalities experiencing water quality issues with immediate and cost-effective point-of-use filtration solutions. This partnership combines PUR’s industry leading technology and expertise with the municipality’s unique insights, gained from serving their communities every day, to create a customized program to address water quality needs and consumer education.