Water is Safe to Drink? Scaring People about water

A recent article on the front page of the SunSentinel – covering most of the front page – was entitled “Getting the drop on Water Safety.”  The article notes that residents can now search a database to find out what is in their water.  The group that created the database is Environmental Working Groups a non-profit organization.  The website is www.ewg.org/tapwater.  They say the goal of the project is not to “freak people out over contaminants,” nor is it to “beat up on local water utilities.”  So far so good, and better than the filter guys who offer to test your water for free and then tell you about the scary chlorine and calcium in your water (you need both).

But these seemingly benign statements are followed up with their goal to “let people know what steps they can take to protect themselves.”  Ok that sounds scary.  Then they noted that there is scary stuff in our water like hexavalent chromium, chlorate and radium 226.  Now that sounds bad.  They followed up in the article by saying that “while water may meet federal drinking water standards …. that doesn’t mean it is safe.”  Whoa!!!  That is scary!  What to do?

Statements like this scare people for little reason.  It oversimplifies the water industry information and ignores a lot of effort, study, science etc. that goes into creating drinking water standards.  It also ignores years of efforts by people who understand risk and response.  Setting a standard involves figuring out exposure, risk, dose response and a host of other measures.  It takes time and study, and it is not done by public perception.  For example, we have been regulating lead and chromium since the 1940s because we knew they were a problem.  Once in a while we alter a standard when we learn more.    Better detection allows us to find constituents at ever smaller levels, but that does not mean they negatively impact us at those levels.  In fact, we want some amounts of certain constituents in our water like calcium, magnesium, chlorine and fluoride.  It also ignores real effort to find problems like Flint before they happen.  In theory regulatory agencies, when they are adequately funded, perform this task.

The website also ignores prior waterborne disease experience. Flint &Walkerton were cascading issues that did not manifest as problems until they were in the headlines because prior to the errors made, there were no issues.  In Milwaukee, a little known, little studied protozoa called cryptosporidium was the issue.  We found out about after the fact.  Who knew?  We did not even test for it and there was no real reason to because we had never seen an outbreak before.   The group also points to trihalomethanes, throwing Pembroke Pines in front of the proverbial bus again.  But this is also misleading. In 1974 trihalomethanes (chloroform, bromodichloromethane, dibromochloromethane, and bromoform) were discovered to be formed during the disinfection step of drinking water if free chlorine was the disinfectant (USEPA, 1979). Potential health effects from ingestion of TTHMs in water include liver, kidney and central nervous system problems, as well as an increased risk of cancer based on tests in rats.  All four trihalomethanes, when administered via food or drugs through a tube leading down the throat to the stomach, are carcinogenic.  Ok we don’t do that in most people.  But there is more to this that creates a potentially misleading perception.

While researcher found that chloroform was carcinogenic in mice when administered by via feeding tube, it was not carcinogenic and did not promote liver cancer when administered in the drinking water (Jorgenson, et al., 1985; Klaunig et al., 1986; Pereira et al., 1985). Furthermore, cell proliferation was enhanced by chloroform administered by feeding tube but not in drinking water (Larson et al., 1994; Pereira, 1994; Pereira and Grothaus, 1997). Read that again.  That is 6 different studies that said Thms in DRINKING WATER DID NOT PROMOTE CANCER in mice.  Yet the perceived hazard to the consumer’s health led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to amend the National Interim Primary Drinking Water Regulations to include a maximum contaminant level of 0.10 mg/L for total trihalomethanes.  Hence, sometimes we regulate on perception vs science because we simply are not sure.  And there is a big tendency among risk analysts to be conservative (i.e. set the value lower or suggest carcinogenic potential) when public health is involved.

That leads to one of the real goals of the group – not education by the group says that one of their goals is stricter drinking water standards. They appear to be setting the stage to sue the federal government for failure to comply with the requirement of the Safe Drinking Water Act because they have not conducted the 6 year UCMR reviews.  This ignores the prior UCMR work – a lot of chemicals did not show up very often, and if they did, not at levels that people were concerned about.

Ultimately the article provides no guidance to customers about what to do – only to scare them under the auspices of “informing” them.  Information without context is not useful – it is propaganda.  Just listen to the discourse at the federal level.

Articles such as these are a boon for point-of-use treatment system suppliers, which have a purpose (private wells, irrigation systems, certain small systems with challenges).  Treating potable water is not one of them.  Carbon filters remove chlorine which is there to keep your pipes clean and keep bacteria out of your water.  Failure to change a carbon filter is worse – lots of stuff grows on those filters.  RO systems are not the answer either – they create water that is too clean – it attacks your pipes. You want lead or copper in your water, an RO POU system is a great way to get it.  And you have a concentrated solution to dispose of – no your sewer or septic tank is not the right place, nor is the back yard.  Ion exchange means you have to discharge salty water somewhere.  And your sewer department, back yard or septic tank does not want salt water either.  This is why water plants treat water.  It is why we have chlorinated since 1914.  It is why the greatest health achievement in the 20th century were penicillin and disinfecting drinking water.  Do problems occur?  Yes? Is one sample indicative of a problem?  No. Do water utilities provide safe water to their customers?  Yes.  There are 54,000 community systems and lack of regular, ongoing health incidents would indicate yes, they provide safe water to their customers. Hence why articles like these have another purpose.  They are not informing.  They are propaganda trying to change people’s behavior by scaring them.  And that is just not right. And it encourages distrust, something we desperately need to avoid in our communities.

My thoughts next time – on camera…




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