Saturday, April 12, 2014

Chemical Contaminants and our Drinking Water

On January 10th, 2014 in Charleston, West Virginia, residents surrounding the Elk River were advised not to drink, bathe in, or cook with tap water.  A total of 5000 gallons of MCHM (4-methylcyclohexane methanol) was accidentally released, affecting 300,000 people.
A similar situation occurred on February 2nd 2014, with 82,000 tons of toxic coal ash spilled into the Dan River, near the border of North Carolina and Virginia.  Coal ash contains arsenic, mercury, lead, thallium, among other contaminants.  Like the West Virginia spill, state health officials warned people not to swim or eat fish from the river.

These examples illustrate a growing problem of contamination of United States water.  Typically, chemicals in the United States are introduced into the market without rigorous testing, unless they pose a serious health hazard to aquatic, terrestrial or human life.  This saves money and time on testing, but it may come at a price to human and environmental health.

The above figure represents data from 2004-2009 for tap water that American’s received with all chemicals found and unregulated chemicals, including those over health guidelines.  (, Environmental Working Group)
In 2009, only 91 contaminants were regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, yet more than 60,000 chemicals were used within the United States.  The number of chemicals in use has risen to 80,000 at the end of 2013, which most have unknown health risks.  William K. Reilly, the E.P.A. administrator under President George H. W. Bush said, “For years, people said that America has the cleanest drinking water in the world, which was true 20 years ago.  But people don’t realize how many new chemicals have emerged and how much more pollution has occurred. If they did, we would see very different attitudes.” 
There has been opposition to testing chemicals for their potentially hazardous effects.  Opponents say that drinking water that does not meet a federal health guideline will not necessarily make someone ill.  Many contaminants are hazardous only if consumed for years, and some researchers argue that even toxic chemicals, when consumed at extremely low doses over long periods, pose few risks.
Others argue that the cost of removing minute concentrations of chemicals from drinking water does not equal the benefits.
Some say testing chemicals is a waste of time, as chemicals not tested yet probably aren’t a serious threat. And since science is complicated, often based on extrapolations from animal studies, and sometimes hard to apply nationwide, it is not worth the effort.     
Not only do chemical spills compromise the quality of our drinking water, but droughts, floods and chronic pollution from personal care products and pharmaceuticals (PPCP) do as well.  Flooding from Hurricane Floyd in 1999 flushed hog waste into waterways which caused widespread fecal contamination.  A report found that 254,000 people in the Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley are at risk for nitrate contamination of their drinking water with the current drought in California.  PPCP’s like antibiotics, steroids, soaps, shampoos, and lotions are washed down the drain and sewage treatment plants are not equipped to remove them.
Industry and poor environmental regulations in China have also seriously affected the water quality.  Measured by the government’s standards, more than half of the country’s largest lakes and reservoirs were so contaminated in 2011 that they were unsuitable for human consumption.  Nearly three-fifths of all water supplies are “relatively bad” or worse.  Water quality degradation is the result of quick progress and the failure to keep up with the country’s quick industrialization. 
Hopefully in the future, development of chemical knowledge and more efficient technologies will help make water safer to use in the US and around the world.  Chemical contamination like the West Virginia spill demonstrates how quickly the trust that most people place in their drinking water can be destroyed.  Steve Fleischli, director and senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council Water Program in Los Angeles says, “We often don't think about where our water comes from… if your water source is not protected, people face a real risk”.

1 comment:

  1. Any ideas about what kinds of technical solutions are there for chronic, low-level, and unintentional pollutants such as the pharmaceutical in this summary of a research report in Aquatic Toxicology?