In Part One of our two-part series, we look at how your local water supplier makes sure the water that flows from your household tap meets federal regulations for purity. This entails filtering and chemical treatments followed by testing to ensure dozens of contaminants – identified by EPA as causing adverse health effects – fall below the levels that the government has determined are harmful. In Part Two of our series, we will examine potentially harmful chemicals that may linger in our water despite treatment – and what the EPA is doing to address them.
Municipal Water Testing: Understanding The Process
Lapped by the waves of Lake St. Clair, the Grosse Pointes are situated along the largest system of freshwater bodies on the planet: the mighty Great Lakes. Holding roughly one-fifth of the world’s surface fresh water and nine-tenths of the U.S. supply, these lakes were the awesome discovery of French explorers, who filled their journals with descriptions of their vast and pristine beauty. One can only image their pleasure at cupping their hands to draw and drink water from these natural wonders.
Imagine drinking water straight from the lakes today. Population surges and the Industrial Revolution, which brought factories en masse to major Great Lakes hubs such as Detroit, Chicago, and Cleveland, irrevocably marred the purity of this water, introducing ecological problems from urban runoff and sprawl to sewage disposal to toxic industrial releases. And while public and government attention to the health of the Great Lakes has increased over the past four decades (due in large part to media scrutiny, such as the famous 1969 Time Magazine article describing the rivers of major U.S. cities as “convenient, free sewers”), these once-flawless waters must now undergo substantial treatment and testing before they can reach our tap.
Your annual report – what it tells you
The purpose of this article is to let you know how your municipality ensures the health of the water you drink. The latest water quality reports for the five Grosse Pointes– released in 2010 and evaluating 2009 drinking water – show compliance with all testing and water quality standards set by the EPA through the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). You might stop reading here – but don’t, because there’s compelling evidence that mere compliance with SDWA does not guarantee safe water or sustainable environmental and municipal health. There are two reasons for this: First, SDWA does not require testing for all contaminants of concern to many scientists and public interest groups, and second, treating municipal water sources – no matter how thoroughly – does not address the reasons they’ve become polluted in the first place.
In a few months (by July 1), municipalities will release 2011 water quality reports with information on the water you drank throughout 2010. These annual reports – which were mandated by Congress in 1996 – will be mailed to your home, posted on the cities’ Web sites (see below for Grosse Pointe links), or both, and it’s important that you review them. While it’s true that you would already know about any serious problems in water quality that occurred last year – through media reports and city alerts asking you to boil tap water or use bottled water pending remediation – it’s a good civic exercise to monitor the health of your water.
Where does our water come from? The supplier for Grosse Pointe Park, Grosse Pointe Woods and Grosse Pointe Shores is the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, which provides drinking water to some 4.2 million people and pulls its water from the Detroit River. Grosse Pointe Farms provides its own water as well as that of Grosse Pointe City, using Lake St. Clair as its source. Source assessments performed on Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River have found them both “highly” susceptible to contamination, making treatment and testing all the more imperative. During this process, water is settled and filtered, disinfected, and treated with chemicals that control lead, copper and other contaminants. It is then tested to make sure that treatment was effective.
EPA breaks water testing guidelines down into National Primary Drinking Water Regulations, which are legally enforceable standards that apply to public water systems, and National Secondary Drinking Water Regulations, which are non-enforceable guidelines – recommended but not required – regulating contaminants that may cause cosmetic effects (such as skin or tooth discoloration) or aesthetic effects (such as taste, odor, or color). A comprehensive list of contaminants in the primary and secondary regulations is available here, but the contaminants in the primary regulations can be characterized generally as microbial contaminants (viruses and bacteria), inorganic contaminants (salts and metals), pesticides and herbicides, organic chemical contaminants (byproducts of industrial processes) and radioactive contaminants (resulting from oil and gas production and mining activities).
The list of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals for which suppliers must test under federal law is fairly substantial, including alachlor, atrazine, carbofuran, chlordane, chlorobenzene, 2,4-D, dalapon, DBCP, dinoseb, diquat, endothall, endrin, glyphosate, heptachlor (and heptachlor epoxide, which results from its breakdown), hexachlorobenzene, lindane, methoxychlor, oxamyl, picloram, simazine, toxaphene, and silvex. EPA’s contaminant list provides information on how these contaminants typically enter the environment as well as their principle health effects.
Riddled with acronyms, your annual water quality report can seem confusing, but with a little help it’s not hard to understand. First, most will list only those contaminants that were detected (versus the entire list of those for which testing was performed) and the amount detected in parts per million (ppm) or parts per billion (ppb). If the contaminant was detected several times in varying amounts, the report will give the range of amounts detected. The report will also tell you the typical source of the contaminant detected (barium comes from metal refinery discharges, for example, and haloacetic acids are the byproduct of disinfecting water).
To put that amount of each contaminant detected in perspective, your report will give you the following information:
Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL): the highest level of the contaminant that is allowed in drinking water.
Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG): the level of the contaminant in drinking water below which there is no known or expected risk to health. The MCL is set as close to this as treatment technology allows.
Maximum Residual Disinfectant Level (MRDL): The highest level of the disinfectant allowed in drinking water.
Maximum Residual Disinfectant Level Goal (MRDLG): The level of the drinking water disinfectant below which there is no known or expected health risk.
Action Level (AL): the level concentration of a contaminant that triggers treatment or other requirements.
The report will also give you a measure of turbidity, or the cloudiness of your drinking water, which is an indicator of the effectiveness of the filtration system used by your city’s water supplier. Finally, it will tell you with a simple “yes” or “no” whether the level of contaminant detected was high enough that a water quality violation occurred.
An excellent guide to understanding water quality reports was published in July by Food & Water Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest group that works to secure the safety, accessibility and sustainability of food and water. “The Take Back the Tap Guide to Safe Tap Water” shows how to read a water quality report and then select a home filtration system based on the contaminants of concern in your community. According to the report, roughly 90% of local water systems meet EPA regulations. When they do occur, violations are usually the result of pollution, inadequate water treatment, or deteriorating infrastructure, it says.
Prevention: less costly, fewer risks
According to Emily Wurth, director of the water policy team at Food & Water Watch, water suppliers that would like to perform tests above and beyond what is required often can’t afford to. Moreover, any additional requirements imposed by the government will likely constitute unfunded mandates. Federal lawmakers, she notes, are steadily decreasing contributions to the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, which was established by Congress in 1996 to make money available to drinking water systems for infrastructure improvements. (The program emphasizes funding for small and disadvantaged communities and programs that encourage pollution prevention as a tool for ensuring safe drinking water.) According to Food & Water Watch, the Obama administration’s proposed 2012 budget cuts $550 million in federal funding for wastewater infrastructure over current levels and $397 million in federal funding for drinking water infrastructure over current levels. This continues a worrisome trend, the group says, noting that federal funding for wastewater treatment has dropped 52% since 1991 and dropped 42% for drinking water infrastructure since 1997.
“Utilities are struggling to come up with money to meet the standards,” Wurth said, adding that Food & Water Watch advocates the creation of a dedicated funding source, such as a trust fund, so that water and sewage facilities can count on the money they need to maintain water quality.
But in addition to lobbying elected leaders for increased funding and tighter regulatory controls, says Wurth, consumers need to petition the government to “effectively regulate industry and the pollution of water supplies.” And not only to keep the environment clean and reduce the costs associated with treatment, she said, but because treatment can pose its own dangers. Just as the radiation used to kill cancer cells can itself cause cancer, the disinfectants used to clean water result in byproducts that are themselves dangerous to human health (and are thus included in water testing requirements). “It’s a tough situation,” Wurth said, adding that the water industry is looking at ozonation, ultraviolet radiation, and other alternatives to the common disinfectants such as chlorine and chloramines. Considerable research on these is still needed, however.
All of these factors make the smartest course of public and private action obvious. “We need to protect our source water,” says Wurth. “The more we can do that, the less we have to clean it up.”
Click on the name of a city to access the 2009 water quality reports for Grosse Pointe City, Grosse Pointe Farms, Grosse Pointe Shores, and Grosse Pointe Woods. Grosse Pointe Park did not post its 2009 water quality report online but says it plans to do so for the 2010 report. A hard copy of the report can be requested by phoning the administrative offices at (313) 822-5020.
A few other recommendations for protecting our source water and keeping your families and pets safe:
- Do not flush unused medications down the toilet or dump them in a household drain. See if your doctor or local pharmacy will reclaim them, or contact your city about a collection program.
- Avoid buying and using antibacterial products (active ingredient: triclosan). Studies show thorough washing with hot water and soap is just as effective.
- Avoid using chemicals or pesticides in your home and yard. Remember: all water that flows into the street from your property goes directly back into the Great Lakes System untreated.
- Direct water away from impermeable surfaces and onto permeable surfaces, such as flower beds and lawns, where it will be filtered by the soil before rejoining underground water aquifers.
- Because they recycle their water, commercial car washes are the best option environmentally, but if you do wash your car yourself, bring it onto your lawn.
- Shovel snow onto flower beds, which will provide the added benefit of keeping your hibernating plants from drying out.
- Vinyl garden hoses, which are designed to stay flexible, give off chemicals that can pass into water as it travels through them — chemicals you, your family, and your pets will ingest if you drink from the hose or fill pet dishes with it. Buy hoses made with “food grade” plastic that won’t contaminate your water. If your local hardware shop or garden supply center doesn’t carry them – speak up and let them know there’s a demand.
- Green or blue-green stains on faucet fixtures are caused by tiny amounts of copper that dissolve in your home’s copper plumbing system when the water sits unused overnight. Running your water throughout the day, as well as lowering your water temperature to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, can help prevent these.
Click Municipal Water Testing, Part One to download the pdf of this article.