How Safe Is Your Drinking Water?
by Ryan Phillips, originally posted on May 27, 2016
Water is the essence of life, yet for millions of Americans, their personal safety faces possible danger when that necessary amenity becomes contaminated.
The city of Corpus Christi, Texas, is the latest to come under such fears, following a water supply scare that prompted state officials to issue a boil water advisory for more than 300,000 residents of the city.
The advisory was lifted on Wednesday, May 25, but many around the country still have concerns about the safety of their own drinking water.
Corpus Christi spokesperson Kim Womack said the tourism town’s restaurant scene took an economic hit, but no water-related illnesses had been reported at the time the advisory expired.
“The thankful part is there was no E. coli or bacteria,” she said in an interview. “Many people kept drinking the water despite our recommendations.”
While traces of E. coli in drinking water are not wholly uncommon – especially in rural areas – it gives many Americans pause when reaching to turn on their faucets, especially in the wake of the lead-tainted water crisis in Flint, Michigan, which garnered national attention.
Womack said in Corpus Christi, issues with the water supply were noticed when heat, along with the current age and way the system is built, caused nitrification within the system’s pipes. This led to the city seeing low chlorine residuals and instituting precautionary measures to protect against possible E. coli or other bacterial compromises in the absence of cleaning agents in the water.
E. coli comes in many strains, the majority of which are harmless and reside in the intestinal tract of humans and – in most cases – farm animals.
In terms of harm to humans, the most common and dangerous strain is E. coli O157:H7.
Texas is a state once dominated by cattle ranching, which is still prevalent today. Corpus Christi’s Monthly Mineral Analysis for April 2016 reported that no traces of the E. coli or other coliform bacteria were found.
However, in its preliminary report for May, the city specifically mentioned that two locations were found to have some coliform traces, while a third location was deemed “unsuitable.”
Womack said the filing was part of the city’s normal testing, and the final results showed no traces of coliform.
“When a sample is unsuitable, usually that means something happened in the collection process, like it was raining,” she said. “We have 24 hours to clear that and retest. That is a specific example of a dead-end line, where we would open it, test and notice something is going on.”
In an effort to stabilize the water supply, the city encouraged its citizens to boil their water, while local officials increased hydrant flushing to clean out the system.
While the number of those impacted in Corpus Christi may be dwarfed by the large number of people around the country ingesting lead-tainted water similar to those in Flint, the problems associated with the nation’s drinking water infrastructure remain without a firm solution.
Getting the Lead – and Other Contaminants – Out
While lead in the drinking water may be in the front of the national consciousness following the crisis in Flint, it is indicative of a much wider problem across the U.S. as the nation’s aging infrastructure stands in need of major repairs.
The Water Quality Association – a trade organization that primarily tests water treatment equipment – acknowledges this fact, saying in its most recent yearly report that “Drinking water can reasonably be expected to contain at least small amounts of some contaminants. As long as those contaminants are at levels no higher than EPA standards, the water is considered safe to drink for healthy people.”
Lead levels that exceed federal standards currently affect 6 million people across the country. Even the American Society of Civil Engineers viewed the nation’s infrastructure as problematic, giving the country a “D” grade for the quality of its drinking water.
Joel Beauvais, the Associate Administrator for EPA’s Office of Policy, said over 300 million Americans depend on 152,000 public drinking water systems and collectively drink more than one billion glasses of tap water each day. He said despite the areas that have seen drinking water issues, the country has come a long way since before Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974.
Beauvais said prior to the act of Congress, more than 40 percent of our nation’s drinking water systems failed to meet even the most basic health standards.
Washington D.C. could provide localized insight into the severity of the country’s drinking water problems. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that approximately 23,000 homes in the D.C. metro area have lead-based water service pipes.
Failing or aged pipes could also be at fault for the small-scale contamination in Corpus Christi, but as of now, that has yet to be confirmed.
“I think many cities are dealing with infrastructure issues and we are not unlike other cities,” Womack said. “We are looking to see if we can go back in and retrofit the system to where only one part of the city can be put on an order instead of the whole city.”
But when examining the potential sources of contamination around the country, the EPA reported that waste can enter the water supply through different ways, including sewage overflows, sewage systems that are not working properly, polluted storm water runoff, and agricultural runoff.
Additionally, water wells may be more vulnerable to such contamination after flooding, particularly if the wells are shallow, have been dug or bored, or have been submerged by floodwater for long periods of time.
There are a wide range of options those at home can use to ensure water quality, from simply consulting local water quality reports to boiling water and using filtration systems.
Beauvais said the EPA has established standards for more than 90 contaminants, and data shows that more than 90 percent of the nation’s water systems consistently meet those standards.
As new technology boosts detection capabilities, Beauvais said the EPA is now detecting new contaminants in the water supply from industrial chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and other sources that can pose risks to public health.
“And science now shows that climate change – especially the extreme weather and drought impacts it brings – are placing added stress on water resources and creating uncertainty in many regions of the country,” Beauvais said.
Moving forward, the EPA predicts that approximately $384 billion in improvements will be needed through 2030 to maintain and upgrade the country’s water infrastructure.
“We owe it to our kids today and to future generations to take steps now and develop future actions to ensure that all Americans have affordable access to high-quality water when and where they need it,” he said.