HOW SAFE IS YOUR DRINKING WATER?
These were some of the questions that were discussed at the March 14, 2001 NOHA lecture, given by Dorothy Fisher Atwood, RG, a hydrogeologist and environmental consultant from Portland, Oregon. She acknowledged special assistance from NOHA NEWS Co-editor Andrew Fisher for detailed research on local conditions here.
In the Chicago area most of us are blessed with an abundant source of water — Lake Michigan. In many parts of the world drinking water must come from groundwater, which can be exceedingly scarce. Along with a dramatic illustration and explanation of the water cycle, Ms. Atwood gave us an interesting table:
As we see, water can remain in Lake Michigan for thousands of years. Are we caring for it?
Chlorinating is used to kill bacteria and viruses. However, chlorine is a double-edged sword. It reacts with organic compounds in the water, producing disinfection byproducts: Trihalomethanes are the most common and result in increased cancer risk, especially bladder and colon; plus a possible link to still births.
Ms. Atwood gave detailed information about contamination levels in local water systems and spelled out government regulations for tap water. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act (governed by the EPA) there are Maximum Contaminant Level Goals (MCLGs), which are based on health effects and are not enforceable. Then, there are the Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs). Eighty standards have been set. They are enforceable and are based on health, technology, and economic feasibility—not just on human health. There are no standards for many contaminants. All the testing is done for single contaminants, whereas we are always exposed to mixtures. Only public water systems are tested. Personal wells are exempt.
Annual sales of bottled water have tripled in 10 years. The cost to the consumer is 250 to 10,000 times that of tap water. Twenty-five percent of bottled water is actually just tap water. However, sometimes the water is obtained from a deep spring and the supplier may be vigilant about protecting the source from seepage coming from the recharge area of the spring.
Bottled water regulations are weaker than city tap water regulations:
BOTTLED vs. TAP WATER RULES
Sales within states are not covered by FDA rules and the FDA lags in its obligation to apply the EPA standards to bottled water. Also discussed was the problem of leaching contaminants from bottled water containers—especially phthalates (endocrine disrupters) from plastic.
With all these problems we may feel hesitant to drink water. However, water, which we drink plain or which is contained in juicy fruits and vegetables that we consume, is essential for our health. One recommendation is that you drink your weight in pounds divided by two in ounces every day: for a 150 pound person that would be 75 ounces—about two and a third quarts per day.
Sources of water are not systematically protected and there are many constituents in drinking water. Acute health concerns are fairly well addressed in our country. Chronic concerns are challenging; new ones are emerging; and the identified ones are not fully understood.
Be an advocate for source protection. For example, NOHA has long advocated eating food that is not directly contaminated with pesticides. Work with others, for example, Beyond Pesticides/NCAMP and the Lake Michigan InterLeague Group of the League of Women Voters on eliminating pesticide use everywhere. Question all uses of persistent toxic chemicals.
Advocate the precautionary principle, which uses an indication of harm versus proof of harm as the trigger for action, particularly if delay may cause irreparable damage. The policy should be that toxics will never be used if there is any other way to accomplish the necessary task. Principle of Reverse Onus: Prove safety before introducing a product into the grand human experiment. Safety versus harm should have to be demonstrated. This action shifts the burden of proof off the public and onto the producer.
Educate yourself and others. Call your water provider and ask for the latest "Consumer Confidence Report." (required by law) If you have’nt just arrived, ask about past quality issues, for example, lead pipes that may have been replaced but ask when. Ask about prevention and emerging issues. Surf the web for up-to-date information.
Millichap, J. Gordon, MD, Is Our Water Safe to Drink? A Guide to Drinking Water Hazards and Health Risks, PNB Publishers, P. O. Box 11391, Chicago, Illinois 60611, 1995.
Booker, Susan B., "NTP [National Toxicology Program] Taps Disinfection By-Products for Study,"Environmental Health Perspectives, 108(2):A64-6, February 2000.
Potera, Carol, "Drugged Drinking Water,"Environmental Health Perspectives, 108(10):A446, October 2000.
Morales, Knashawn H., et al, "Risk of Internal Cancers from Arsenic in Drinking Water," Environmental Health Perspectives, 108(7):655, July 2000.
Abraham, Hilary, The Tap Gap: Pesticides in Oregon’s Drinking Water, published by the Oregon Pesticide Education Network (OPEN), which includes The Oregon Environmental Council, 520 SW 6th Avenue, Suite 940, Portland, OR 97204, July 2000.
NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) 2000, "Bottled Water: Pure Drink or Pure Hype?" See www.nrdc.org/water/drinking/nbw.asp.
Porter, K., et al, "Pesticide Health Effects in Drinking Water," Natural Resources Cornell Cooperative Extension 1998. See pmep.cce.cornell.edu/facts-slides-self/facts/pes-heef-grw85.html.
U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water Programs. National Primary Drinking Water Regulations. See www.epa.gov/safewater/mcl.htm.
Sampat, Payal, Deep Trouble: The Hidden Threat of Groundwater Pollution, WORLDWATCH PAPER 154, December 2000
McGinn, Anne Platt, Why Poison Ourselves? A Precautionary Approach to Synthetic Chemicals, WORLDWATCH PAPER 153, November 2000
LINKS and RESOURCES
www.ewg.org Environmental Working Group
Provides the public with locally relevant information on public health
issues including drinking water.
water.usgs.gov A comprehensive guide
to America's water resources from the U.S. Geological Survey.
Quality Homepage: A comprehensive list of more than 1,000 web sites related
to all aspects of water quality from the National Agriculture Library.
New York Times section features articles on availability of water for an expanding human population, and more.
www.watershed.org The Watershed Management Council: Information from a non-profit educational organization on the art and science of watershed management.
NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) 2000, "Bottled Water: Pure Drink or Pure Hype?"
U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water Programs. National Primary Drinking Water Regulations. EPA Safe Drinking Water Hotline: 1-800-426-4791.
In Chicago, whose water treatment plant also serves many suburbs, you can call 312-744-7001. See www.cityofchicago.org/water
City of Evanston Web Site: "www.cityofevanston.org" Go to "Departments," "Public Works," "Water& Sewer"
NSF International, in Ann Arbor, Mich., tests and certifies products __such as bottled water, water filters, and water treatment units: __877-867-3435 or on the Web at www.nsf.org
For more on this topic, including what to look for in bottled water __or in a filter: www.cspinet.org/nah/water_
Article from NOHA NEWS, Vol. XXVI, No. 3, Summer 2001, pages 1-3.