This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Water Quality Products as "Balance of Power"
Those of us privileged enough to live in first-world nations can turn on a tap with access to a virtually limitless supply of clean, safe water at any time of the day or night. The same applies when eliminating our waste; we simply flush our problems away, giving no thought to the infrastructure, equipment and people working tirelessly behind the scenes to make our lives safer and more convenient than our ancestors.
Safe delivery of drinking water, along with disposal of waterborne waste are the hallmarks by which all civilizations are judged. The safety of municipal water is something to be proud of, but we are increasingly facing discoveries of water quality problems that sicken and sometimes even kill people.
When I travel in Africa and the Middle East, it is not uncommon to experience city water outages that last for hours every day. The water supplied is not expected to be pristine; people are just grateful to have any at all. Even in advanced cities like Beijing and Shanghai, potentially unsafe levels of industrial toxins as well as the potential for pathogenic bacterial contamination force one to use bottled or purified water for drinking, cooking and even dental hygiene. Every year, there are more than 3.4 million deaths from waterborne illness, making it the leading global cause of death and disease. Most of those deaths are young children–as many as 4,000 every day around the globe. At any given time, close to half of the people in the developing world are suffering from some type of waterborne disease. In the first-world, however, our water problems are less fatalistic and much more nuanced.
Since ancient times, wars have been fought over water, whether for drinking, agriculture or navigability. Today’s water wars are more about the quality of water, who made it dirty, and most importantly, who is going to pay to make it safer. While it is popular these days to cast aspersions at organizations like the U.S. EPA and various state EPA’s, it has been my experience that these people are tasked with an almost impossible task; they study potential contaminants, create hazard-assessment profiles, evaluate potential treatment technologies, study the financial and infrastructure impact of any new rule, all while attempting to satisfy politicians and constituents clamoring for quick fixes to things that they are afraid of.
A good example of this is the current hysteria surrounding perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), of which we currently know that there are hundreds of individual compounds that have been widely used in industry during the last half-century and are making their way into water supplies through direct pollution, as well as indirectly through usage.
As of July 2019, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has spent more than $550 million on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS)-related activities, including epidemiological studies, provision of bottled water and furnishing in-home water filtration systems. The Pentagon recently has estimated that cleaning up on and around DOD facilities could cost at least $2 billion in taxpayer dollars. Lawmakers currently are clamoring for the EPA to establish a regulatory limit on an entire class of chemicals before a complete health assessment has been made, and at levels that are extremely difficult to detect with today’s technology.
One of my biggest frustrations about working in the water quality management and improvement industry is that one is usually playing a game of “catch-up,” where we sometimes do not even know that certain contaminants are in the water until specific tests are performed. Most of the current crop of emerging contaminants of concern are colorless, tasteless and odorless in water at concentrations that have the potential to cause harm to humans. People in Michigan consumed water containing PFCs for decades without even realizing it, and the same happened in other places with lead, hexavalent chrome and a host of other natural and manmade contaminants. We simply do not know that the contaminants are there unless we specifically go looking for them, and we rarely go looking for contaminants until people get sick. We still are behind the curve when it comes to testing technology.
Making Good Water Better
Municipal water providers do the best job that they can with the tax-dollars allocated to them, but their job is extremely difficult, since less than 1% of the water that they deliver typically is ingested by humans. It is non-sensical to expect cities to provide purified water for landscape irrigation, toilet flushing or even bathing, as it would be a waste of energy along with a massive increase in costs. Risks must be measured, and a balance found between supplying good water and keeping that water affordable.
Infrastructure repair is one of the largest challenges facing the U.S. By 2025, the average age of the 1.6 million miles of water and sewer pipes in the U.S. will be 50 years. The pipes were all installed using materials and methods that we now know can contribute to downstream contamination after clean, safe water leaves a municipal plant. In addition to the contamination risk from old piping, some experts suggest that as much as 30% of municipal water is lost to leaks before it ever reaches the end user.
Utilities around the country currently are facing the Sisyphean task of unearthing and replacing water distribution mains, laterals and service lines, especially those containing lead or leaded components. Denver Water is proposing replacing up to 90,000 lead water service lines for older buildings with copper lines over the next 15 years in what could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. In Chicago, this task is projected to take at least 20 years and in excess of $3 billion, while causing significant disruption to traffic and other land use.
While American infrastructure certainly is past its prime, we still enjoy some of the safest water in the world. For example, in 2017, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 6,939 annual total deaths were documented for 13 diseases caused by pathogens that can be transmitted by water. Of the 6,939 deaths, 91% were associated with three environmental pathogens that can grow in water system biofilms: Legionella (Legionnaires’ disease) (250 deaths); NTM (1,216 deaths); and Pseudomonas-related pneumonia (1,618 deaths); or septicemia (3,217 deaths). Of the 6,939 deaths, 7% were associated with seven pathogens transmitted by the fecal/oral route: Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, E. coli, Giardia, Hepatitis A, Salmonella non-typhoidal, and Shigella.
Americans now are more aware and educated about water quality, and many are now shunning the tap completely–almost 60% by some reports–in favor of bottled water, or adding point-of-entry (POE)/point-of-use (POU) filtration devices to provide the water quality that they want. While centralized water treatment is the textbook ideal, practical application is difficult, expensive, and becoming increasingly impractical as more and more contaminants of concern are being discovered.
Partnerships for Success
Water filtration and purification devices are critical in ensuring delivery of clean, safe water to consumers. It is simpler, smarter, and much more cost effective to install a final barrier technology in a home than ever before. Equipment with certified performance claims can be installed by contractors who possess the necessary training, such as a Certified Water Specialist, and are appropriately licensed in their locality to perform the work safely.
With proper maintenance, POE and POU devices can easily meet and exceed regulatory requirements. Federal, state and local governments can even subsidize the acquisition of these devices more cost-effectively than only performing major infrastructure upgrades. All parties need to actively be involved to develop sustainable and affordable solutions for protecting users from as many waterborne contaminants as possible. This will require coordination and cooperation at all levels, from research to regulation, contractors to organized labor, and of course, the water treatment specialists all working together as separate and equally important parts of providing protection to our communities.