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Drinking Water Quality & The Contamination of Public Drinking Supplies

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Message Bryan Daugherty
Devoid of any concern for our safety, we take for granted that everyday, we as individuals risk the consumption of a variety of contaminates into our bodies. Even those individuals who take great lengths to properly prepare food or sanitize themselves, their homes and workplaces, may forget one vital, precarious activity. It is perceived by most that much of the water that is delivered by rural or municipal water systems is unequivocally safe. We trust that these systems as well as those who run them are doing so effectively - that they are motivated by the overall concern for our safety. Even the finest water treatment systems can be ineffective in eliminating contaminates, both before and after it is processed. Although the Environmental Protection Agency has established legal limits for specific pollutants, there remain a significant amount of other contaminates that are not required to be tested for. Detection of these contaminates essentially falls upon the monitoring techniques and practices of public and private water boards.

Water authorities are governed by the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWR's) which have been set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These primary standards are enforced through the monitoring and reporting of water agencies, they can consist of violations of maximum contaminate levels (MCL's) as well as failures to adequately sample public water systems. For example, a significant monitoring violation would be that the system failed to take a large percentage of the required daily and monthly samples. The sampling of public water supplies is crucial to prevent the build-up of maximum contaminate levels, therefore, protecting public health by limiting these contaminates in drinking water is of great concern. There are as well National Secondary Drinking Water Regulations (NSDWR's) which are non-enforceable guidelines. These secondary regulations contain contaminates that "cause cosmetic effects such as skin or tooth discoloration or aesthetic effects such as taste, odor, or color in drinking water". The EPA recommends the testing for these contaminates however, it does not require water authorities to comply, instead, individual states may choose to adopt them as enforceable standards. Neither of these policies cover all known water pollutants, therefore there is a list of unregulated contaminates which "currently are not subject to any proposed or promulgated National Drinking Water Regulations". These untested pollutants include prior known or anticipated to occur pollutants in public water systems. According to General Manager, Robert W. Appleby of Elmira Water Board, testing of unregulated contaminates is determined by the County Health Department on a once a year basis or as requested. Elmira's Water Board performs up to 70 samples per month and theses samples are tested at an in-house certified lab. The primary water source for Elmira's 70,000 residents is the Chemung River however, they blend this surface water with water currently extracted from Hoffman Creek, and 2 publicly owned wells. While speaking with Mr. Appleby, he acknowledged the concerns of using surface water compared to groundwater, however, he feels that the "blend of both provides a great product".

Elmira's Water Board received one (1) violation in 1995 and two (2) in 1994, these violations emanated from treatment techniques regarding high turbidity. Turbidity "is the cloudiness or clarity of the water caused by particles in the water (sediment)". Turbidity is monitored on a 24 hour basis and this testing is a good indicator of the effectiveness of the filtration system. High turbidity levels are often associated with higher levels of disease-causing microorganisms such as viruses, parasites and some bacteria. These organisms may cause such symptoms as nausea, cramps, diarrhea and associated headaches. To contend with these violations, in 1996 Elmira built a new filtration plant which according to their 2004 Annual Drinking Water Quality Report, "consistently exceeds state standards and assures a high margin of safety". There have been no reported violations since 1995 of regulated contaminates or treatment techniques.

Unfortunately, the quality of water that is tested at filtration plants is usually of better-quality than that which ultimately reaches the consumer. The pipes which connect to the water main and those that reside in homes, can significantly effect drinking water quality. There are still some residences that are attached by lead pipes originally installed as well as older copper pipes within the home. Corrosion of these house plumbing systems can contribute to gastrointestinal distress, liver or kidney damage, delays in the physical or mental development in children, as well as deficits of attention spans and learning abilities.

Of even greater concern can be the effects of disinfectants and their by-products in the treatment of drinking water. Disinfectants include Chloramines, Chlorine, and Chlorine dioxide. These are water additives to control microbiological organisms such as Cryptosporidium, Giardia lamblia, Legionella, Coliforms and other various viruses which originate from human and animal fecal waste. These organisms are particularly present when utilizing surface water. It is essential to maintain chlorine residual in the water distribution system to prevent microbiological organism growth. Otherwise, an outbreak of gastrointestinal illness (diarrhea, vomiting, cramps) and pneumonia could consequently occur. The potential health effects of ingesting these chemicals are mild when compared to their byproducts, but they include eye and nose irritation, stomach discomfort, anemia and possible nervous system damage. The by-products of these disinfectants include Bromate, Chlorite, Halo-Acetic acids and Trihalomethanes. Their accumulation in human bodies can potentially cause forms of cancer, as well as liver, kidney or central nervous system problems. Another water additive that has received great scrutiny since its initial introduction is that of Fluoride. Evidence has indicated that this inorganic chemical has helped to promote strong teeth and the prevention of cavities. Fluoride, which at the time of introduction into water distribution system in the 1960's, was not utilized in toothpastes, mouthwashes and gums however, it is now currently promoted in most dental products. Excessive levels of Fluoride are now known to cause bone disease (pain and tenderness of bones) and the mottling of children's teeth. Some argue that since they can now be found in dental products that there is no longer a need for its subjective injection into public drinking water. It is also important to note that there have been few long term studies of the effects of Fluoride accumulation in human bodies. These additions of chemicals into our drinking water should raise some concern regarding the possible environmental health effects that we face as a nation.

There still remain a plethora of possible drinking water contaminates which have yet been discussed. Discharge from petroleum refineries, underground storage tanks, pulp mills, steel factories, coal plants, sewage and waste treatments, chemical plants, landfills, wood preservatives and various cleaning solutions all pose a substantial risk to water quality. Those who reside in rural communities as well face dangers from the run-off of fertilizers, leaching of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides that are used in the agricultural industry. Radio-nuclides such as Alpha particles, Beta particles, Photon Emitters, Radium 226/228, and Uranium erode from natural deposits and may eventually lead to cancers in those who consume water with maximum contaminant levels. At risk as well are individual water treatment facilities from intentional contamination of terrorist attack. Although security improvements have been made to remote facilities, they remain prominently unguarded and susceptible to the addition of harmful agents.

In conclusion, consumers of public and private water sources should make certain the quality of drinking water that they ingest. All-inclusive testing by individuals, Federal, State and Local authorities should be instituted to protect the overall health of the communities. Continuing efforts should be made to ensure that congressional standards are being enforced and practiced by water authorities. This includes comprehensive efforts to test for unregulated and un-enforced contaminates as well as oversight of industries that possibly lead to drinking water contamination. Reasonable and effective resources should be allocated to ensure the safety of our water supplies from intentional contamination. There should as well be instituted a prominent public notification procedure wherefore, if contamination occurs all those who are dependant upon a public water systems will be advised. Quality drinking water is vitally important to each of us and should be given a higher priority in environmental risk assessments. I encourage those who are concerned regarding the quality of water that they consume to contact or visit their local water authority to become better acquainted with the standards and practices that they incorporate.
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