Study Finds Threats to Tap Water Quality
Americans who think their tap water is pure might need to think again. A recent study conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) of the drinking water systems of 19 U.S. cities found that pollution and deteriorating, out-of-date plumbing are sometimes delivering drinking water that might pose health risks to some residents.
Many cities around the country are still relying on pre-World War I-era water delivery systems and treatment technology. Aging pipes can break, leach contaminants into the water they carry and breed bacteria -- all potential causes of illness. Old-fashioned water treatment generally fails to remove today's contaminants like pesticides, industrial chemicals and arsenic.
The study, entitled What's on Tap?, issued grades for each studied city in three areas: water quality and compliance, right-to-know reports, and source water protection. Each of the cities was graded on a scale of "failing" to "excellent."
Of the 19 cities studied, Chicago was the only city to receive an "excellent" grade in the water quality and compliance area, also receiving a "good" score for right-to-know reports and a "fair" grade for source water protection. Baltimore; Denver; Detroit; Manchester, N.H.; and New Orleans received "good" scores in the water quality and compliance area. Several cities received a grade of "poor" in this area, including Albuquerque, N.M.; Boston; Fresno, Calif.; Phoenix; and San Francisco.
Fifteen of the cities studied scored "good" or "fair" grades in the right-to-know reports area. Fresno, Calif., and Boston were rated as "poor" and Phoenix was given a "failing" grade in this area. According to the report, nearly all the cities in the study failed to report on health effects of most contaminants found in their water. Reports from Newark, N.J.; New Orleans; and Phoenix included incorrect or misleading data -- or omitted it entirely.
Seattle was the only city given an "excellent" grade in the area of source water protection. Ten of the cities received "good" or "fair" grades in this area, with Los Angeles and San Diego receiving a "poor" grade for import. Other cities receiving "poor" scores for source water protection were Albuquerque, N.M.; Atlanta; Detroit; Houston; New Orleans; Philadelphia; and Phoenix.
NRDC's study found that relatively few cities are in outright violation of national standards for contamination of drinking water, but researchers cited weak standards rather than low levels of contaminants for these results. Many cities failed to meet EPA's "level of concern" for various contaminants that are not yet regulated.
Researchers raised additional concerns about the frequency of periodic spikes in many cities' contaminant levels, which they said indicates that old plumbing and water treatment facilities may be inadequate to handle contaminate spills or even the basic daily contaminant loads produced by the nation's heavily industrialized, densely populated cities.
According to the researchers, this study shows that the tap water in some cities might pose health risks to vulnerable consumers. People who have serious immune system problems, pregnant women, parents of infants, those with chronic illnesses and the elderly should be advised to consult with their health care providers about the safety of tap water, said the researchers.
All of the study's results can be viewed at www.nrdc.org/water/drinking/uscities.asp.
Coastal Waters Suffer from Over Enrichment
Despite 30 years of progress in reducing pollution from ocean dumping, waste treatment facilities and toxics such as DDT, America's coastal waters remain in peril. A report by the Pew Oceans Commission found that polluted runoff from farms and cities went largely unabated or actually increased over the past 30 years, sometimes even canceling out gains made in controlling direct sources of pollution. Scientists from the University of Maryland and University of Rhode Island cited increases in plant nutrients as one of the larger pollution risks for estuaries, coral reefs, seagrass beds and other coastal ecosystems.
"We've done a good job tackling many of the obvious causes of ocean pollution -- ocean dumping, discharges from industrial facilities and toxic pollutants," said Leon Panetta, chair of the Pew Oceans Commission. "Now we need to get serious about the less obvious sources of pollution that flow from our cities, farms and ships if we want to protect our coastal waters and the communities that they support."
The report, Marine Pollution in the United States: Significant Accomplishments, Future Challenges, found that many of the nation's coastal environments exhibit symptoms of over enrichment, including algal blooms, loss of seagrasses and coral reefs and serious oxygen depletion. Consequently, coastal regions are seeing a reduced production of valuable fisheries, threats to biodiversity and ecosystems that are less resilient to natural and human influences.
"The hard-to-control sources of nutrients flowing into our coastal waters grew dramatically in the last half of the 20th century due to increases in chemical fertilizers, animal agriculture and emissions of fossil fuels," said Boesch, a professor from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science who led the review of U.S. marine pollution for the Pew Oceans Commission. "We have only recently removed nutrients from treated waste; and new emission standards, if fully implemented, could reduce atmospheric deposits of nitrogen by 40 percent." He said reduction of agricultural nutrient sources also is possible through improved practices and watershed restoration.
The report found that previous and current legal and institutional approaches to controlling coastal pollution have been only modestly successful. But citing a multi-state effort to control pollution in the Chesapeake Bay as an example, the authors conclude that watershed approaches to managing pollution are beginning to have an effect. Seagrass beds in Tampa Bay also are slowly recovering after improved sewage treatment greatly reduced nitrogen inputs.
The report calls for solutions that combine both voluntary and regulatory approaches to pollution abatement.
"We simply do not have all the answers today," Panetta said. "Despite the best efforts at federal, state and local levels, the oceans face a greater array of problems than ever before. Our challenge is to find those answers."
The Pew Oceans Commission is conducting a national dialogue on the policies needed to restore and protect living marine resources in U.S. waters. The commission includes leaders from ocean research, fishing, conservation, industry and government.
Water Treatment May Reduce Risk of Legionnaires' Disease
The decision to change Pinellas County, Florida's municipal water treatment from a chlorine to a monochloramine system may have significantly reduced its risk from Legionnaires' disease, according to researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
"The bacteria responsible for Legionnaires' disease, legionellae, cause the disease when a susceptible person inhales aerosolized water contaminated with the bacteria. Sources of such water include showers, faucets, cooling towers and whirlpool spas. In buildings, legionellae grow in the biofilm or slime, which develops within the plumbing systems of buildings. Currently, there are not community interventions that have been shown to reduce the risk of Legionnaires' disease," said Barry Fields of the CDC, one of the researchers.
Fields and his colleagues looked at the effect of the decision of the Florida county to change from chlorine to monochloramine to treat its water supply. While chlorine was in use, 20 percent of the buildings tested for legionellae bacteria were positive. One month after the county converted its treatment to monochloramine, the proportion of positive sites fell to only six percent of buildings tested.
"These findings suggest that the use of monochloramine can drastically reduce legionellae in drinking water supplies and possibly prevent outbreaks of the disease," Fields said.
Legionnaires' disease is a severe form of legionellosis, an infection, including pneumonia, caused by the bacterium Legionella. The disease acquired its name in 1976 when an outbreak of pneumonia occurred among people attending a convention of the American Legion in Philadelphia.
An estimated 8,000 to 18,000 people get Legionnaires' disease in the United States each year. Symptoms include fever, chills and a cough. Some patients experience muscle aches, headaches, fatigue, loss of appetite and diarrhea. Laboratory tests may show that these patients' kidneys are not functioning properly and chest x-rays often show pneumonia. Many tests may be required to distinguish Legionnaires' disease from other types of pneumonia.
Previous studies by the CDC have shown that municipalities that use monochloramine to treat their water supply were much less likely to have outbreaks of Legionnaires' disease; but the Pinellas County study provides additional evidence that monochloramine may be the first community-based intervention strategy for control of the disease. Fields said additional studies are needed to confirm these findings and to ensure that the use of monochloramine for water treatment does not cause other unanticipated problems.
Mercury in Md. Rainfall Highest in Recent Report
Maryland has higher levels of mercury in its rainfall than any of 11 other states surveyed, according to a report by the National Wildlife Federation.
The report says that Maryland waterways had average mercury levels of 22 parts per trillion in measurements taken at monitoring stations at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore, Frostburg State University and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science at Solomons.
The Maryland levels were more than twice those found in the two states with the next highest levels, Pennsylvania and Florida. Florida waterways had average mercury levels of 5.7 parts per trillion and Pennsylvania's contained 12.2.
The report blamed excessive mercury levels on coal-fired generating plants and municipal and medical waste incinerators. It recommended the use of mercury-free products and enforcing Clean Air Act provisions that require pollution controls at power plants.
Exposure to mercury, even in small doses, can cause severe neurological disorders.
However, Felice Stadler, project director of the federation's Clean the Air campaign, cautioned that comparing states may be misleading because Maryland shut down its monitoring stations in 1998, noting budget constraints, while other states kept them open and recorded data through 2001.
Maryland may also have recorded high mercury levels because the monitoring stations were located directly downwind from the power plants and waste generators that are the source of the mercury, Stadler added.
Dan Riedinger, a spokesman for the Edison Institute, a group that represents the power industry, said that federal studies estimate that 40 percent of the mercury that lands in the United States is from smokestacks outside its borders. Still, he said the industry has agreed to reduce mercury emissions as new regulations are developed.
In 2001, the Maryland Department of the Environment issued an advisory recommending limits on consumption of fish caught in Maryland's rivers and lakes after tests found they were frequently contaminated with mercury and other toxic chemicals.
This report provides one of the first conclusive findings that mercury found in fish is from rain, said Kim Coble, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2003 issue of Environmental Protection.