‘Don’t drink water’ advice was prudent

originally posted on June 12, 2016


When the general manager of West Morgan-East Lawrence Water and Sewer Authority said this month his customers should not drink or cook with the water, he was immediately attacked from all sides. Officials at a news conference denounced Don Sims’ recommendation, calling it irresponsible grandstanding. He was inciting panic, they said. Even Gov. Robert Bentley weighed in.

Had Sims come up with the suggestion on his own, he would deserve the criticism.

Sims’ recommendation the authority’s customers not drink the water, however, followed a May 19 health advisory by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The advisory explained that numerous studies show health risks for people who drink water on a long-term basis that is contaminated with more than 70 parts per trillion of two chemicals, PFOA and PFOS. It instructed water authorities that exceed these levels — and West Morgan-East Lawrence does — to advise their customers of the risks and explain what actions are being taken to reduce the contamination.

The notice, the EPA instructed, should “identify options that consumers may consider to reduce risk, such as seeking an alternative drinking water source.”

The EPA also outlined the health risks studies have determined are associated with the chemicals, and they’re alarming.

“These studies,” the EPA advisory explained, “indicate that exposure to PFOA and PFOS over certain levels may result in adverse health effects, including developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy or to breastfed infants (e.g., low birth weight, accelerated puberty, skeletal variations), cancer (e.g., testicular, kidney), liver effects (e.g., tissue damage), immune effects (e.g., antibody production and immunity), thyroid effects and other effects (e.g., cholesterol changes).”

In truth, this was not new information. The same studies are the reason a fish advisory has been in effect for years in much of Wheeler Reservoir. PFOS levels are so high in largemouth bass, the Alabama Department of Public Health has explained, that they should be eaten sparingly or not at all.

The complaint by some officials apparently was that EPA did not explicitly recommend against drinking the water, but Sims did.

It’s an odd complaint.

The EPA issued a health advisory. It set out the risks in exhaustive detail. It instructed authorities to notify customers of the risk, and that they may want to consider alternative water sources. For anyone whose head is not deep in the sand, that’s a recommendation against long-term consumption to water with excess levels of PFOA and PFOS.

But not many people read EPA health advisories. They do, as it turns out, listen to Sims. And for officials who want uninformed but happy constituents, that was a problem.

So did Sims create panic, as he was accused of doing?

There was no looting. There were no riots; not even any protests. The only actions that resulted from his announcement were sensible ones: People bought bottled water. Volunteers donated bottled water. Environmental officials redoubled their efforts to reduce the contamination levels of the tap water.

If officials believe the EPA was wrong to issue the advisory, if they believe the studies upon which the EPA relied were flawed, then they should attack the EPA. Blaming Sims for communicating the EPA’s findings to the customers who rely on him for safe water was unfair.

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