The Curse of Contaminated Water

Is there a ‘hidden, unspoken’ problem associated with the quality of the drinking water in the U.S.? When water quality in third world countries is discussed, no one is surprised to hear that the problem faced in their drinking water always surrounds bacterial, parasitic, and viral contaminations. Here in the United States, we assume and/or are told by the pundits, that our main concern deals with heavy metals or chemical contaminants, ie: lead, copper, nitrates. While never diminishing the concerns we have with regards to these issues, microbial contaminants are by far the greater threat, and you may find the following information alarming.

There are three basic categories of pathogen that can be found in water. The first is protozoa which is the largest organism of the three categories, ranging in size from 1-16 microns. Protozoa include the well-known Giardia Lamblia, and the not-so-well-known Cryptosporidium Parvum, which have been detected in 90% of U.S. surface water. These protozoa are more resistant to disinfection by chlorine or iodine than either bacteria or virus, but can be effectively filtered. The second category is bacteria, which are considered intermediate sized organisms, ranging from .2 to about 10 microns. Bacteria include such commonly-known organisms as Typhus, Campylobacteria, E. coli, Vibrio cholera, and Salmonella. The third category is viruses, which are truly tiny in size between .02 and .085 microns. Commonly known viruses include Rotavirus, Polio, Norwalk, and Hepatitis A.

As per a recent report, it has been determined that healthy people can be infected with minute exposure to Cryptosporidium, a small parasitic organism. In light of this report, the Natural Resources Defense Council asserts that at least 45 million people are at risk of this diarrhea causing pathogen in what may appear as clean drinking water. Just how many people can really become infected from their drinking water is impossible to estimate. The systems who responded represent only a small percentage of Americans; thus, the NRDC says the figure of 45 million may be extremely conservative at best.

Cryptosporidium can remain viable for months in sewage, runoff from feedlots, or groundwater until it finds a new host. This protozoa is neither killed by chlorine nor removed by standard filters. Like the very young, the elderly are at greatly increased risk from waterborne pathogens such as E.coli or Cryptosporidium parvum. Officials are concerned with the seriousness of this problem, and it has been recently said by Mr. L.D. McMullen, CEO of the Des Moines, Iowa, public water system and chairman of the National Drinking Water Advisory Council that he envisions a future in which utilities would deliver bottled water door to door, like milk. Others said physicians could write prescriptions for bottled water!

Cryptosporidium is a very real and serious threat to the quality of our water. According to University of Florida researcher Joan Rose, the minimum infectious dose is low, JUST ONE SINGLE OOCYST! Recent data has indicated that pregnant women, as well as children and the immunocompromised, may be more susceptible. Finally, NO EFFECTIVE TREATMENT has been found. In one test, after soaking cryptosporidium oocysts in straight household bleach for 24 hours, it was still able to infect mice. We may all recall the 1993 outbreak of cryptosporidia which swept through water-treatment filters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. An estimated 400,000 people became sick with varying degrees of illness including diarrhea, abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, and fever. Almost one hundred persons died associated with this outbreak.

We do have a problem with chemical contamination in our drinking water; however, infectious or suspected infectious etiology far outweighs chemicals in water contamination. These infections have names: Giardia Lamblia, Shigella sonnei, Escherichia coli (E. coli), Cryptosporidium, Fecal Coliforms. We must remain guarded and protect our family as best as we can. The AquaRain Gravity Water Filter System removes waterborne pathogens including cysts and bacteria. These filter elements offer the tightest effective ceramic filtration, providing removal of pathogenic bacteria and cysts far exceeding EPA purifier requirements…all without having to boil your water, use potentially dangerous chemicals, or rely on man-made energy.

The Hidden Threat of MTBE

There’s a pending crisis in America, one that could affect every man, woman and child. It strikes at the very nerve of our everyday lives-our drinking water. It’s a crisis so potentially serious that even the top federal agency over the environment is perplexed as to how to handle it.

On January 16th, 2000, CBS News’ 60 Minutes reported on the concerns over methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) contaminating the water in 49 states. Widely used as a gasoline oxygenate to reduce air pollutants, MTBE has seeped into drinking water wells from underground fuel tanks (as well as other sources). Surface waters have also become contaminated by fuel from recreational vehicles.

MTBE has become the oxygenate of choice in over 85 percent of the time, as ethanol is found in only 8 percent of all reformulated gasoline today. In the words of 60 Minutes’ correspondent Steve Kroft, “Even the government now says that we’re facing a national crisis if something isn’t done to stop MTBE from leaking into our drinking water.”

Through the fall of 1999, MTBE was used at the rate of about one gallon of pure MTBE forevery ten gallons of reformatted gasoline, or 10 percent of every tank. If we multiply the number of gallons of gas used in this country every day, by every person who fills their tank with gasoline, we may only begin to imagine the magnitude of this problem. As was reported, MTBE is highly water soluble and because of leaking underground petroleum storage tanks, has become a contaminant in 35 percent of the nation’s urban wells. Researchers estimate that thousands of community water wells located near leaky underground storage tanks are at risk of being contaminated by MTBE. The city of Santa Monica, California alone found 70 percent of its city wells contaminated, and has spent more than $3 million a year pumping in water from the Colorado River to replace those of the seven city wells it shut down due to MTBE contamination. According to the 60 Minutes interview with Santa Monica officials, a single cupful of MTBE in a 5 million gallon reservoir is sufficient to render the water undrinkableThe lawyer for the city of Santa Monica has said we are “just seeing the tip of the iceberg.”

Since Santa Monica closed its wells, the state of California has identified 10,000 MTBE contaminated groundwater sites. Forty-nine other states have found it in groundwater, with twenty-one of these states having to shut down at least one of their wells due to MTBE contamination. It has been found in at least sixty-five public water supplies in New Jersey, and in one hundred public water supplies in Long Island, New York, where it has leaked from over four hundred gasoline storage tanks.

In 1995, an Italian study on the effects of MTBE showed high doses of this chemical caused three cancer types in laboratory animals: lymphoma, leukemia, and testicular cancer. Further studies between 1992 and 1998 indicated how rats and mice which were fed and forced to breathe air containing MTBE developed significant increases in tumors of the testes and liver, lymphoma, leukemia, and kidney tubules, with some animals developing cancers in multiple places.

It’s imperative that every American take whatever precautions necessary to insure the safety and cleanliness of their drinking water. To fail to act now, in light of these new revelations about MTBE contamination, is fool-hardy. You will be happy to know that the solution to MTBE is already “built-in” to the AquaRain Gravity Water Filter System. Contained within the center of our ceramic elements is a mass of highly effective silvered granulated carbon made from coconut shells which has already demonstrated a superior performance in reducing pesticides, various chemicals, chlorine, halogens, tastes and odors. High quality carbon is a recommended method of removing MTBE. So the answer is a resounding YES! The AquaRain Gravity Water Filter will adsorb the contaminant MTBE!

The sickening sewer crisis

Aging systems across the country are causing nasty–and costly–problems

By David Whitman

ATLANTA–Brenda and Mike Martin were planning to ring in the new millennium in style–but it didn’t quite work out that way. The day before New Year’s Eve, the Martins, both real-estate agents, detected a foul odor in their elegant home in the city’s affluent Buckhead neighborhood. The sewer line on their street had become partially blocked with grease from nearby restaurants, and a peek down their basement steps confirmed the worst: Human feces, sanitary napkins, and toilet paper lay sopping on the floor. Brenda, president of the influential Peachtree Park Civic Association, couldn’t rouse the mayor or a cleanup crew as the holiday neared. So on New Year’s Eve, Mike–clad in hiking boots, plastic gardening gloves, and a mask–mopped the raw sewage toward the basement sump pump, threw down cat litter to clump the debris, and shoveled it into a wheelbarrow. That night, as the Martins and their two daughters huddled in front of their TV to watch the ball drop in Times Square, they could hear rats from the sewers burrowing inside the walls.

It sounds like the makings of a camp horror flick. But the Martins’ tale is a real-life nightmare that happens more often than many Americans might imagine. Each year in the United States, sewers back up in basements an estimated 400,000 times, and municipal sanitary sewers overflow on 40,000 occasions, dumping potentially deadly pathogens into the nation’s streets, waterways, and beach areas. The 1972 Clean Water Act prompted cities to dramatically expand their wastewater-treatment facilities and reduce raw sewage discharges. But in recent decades, federal funding for sewer systems has dwindled, even as the demand for wastewater treatment has grown. Aging sewer systems are now faltering around the nation, endangering the health of hundreds of thousands of Americans and creating hefty repair bills for municipalities and consumers. In some small cities and towns, sewer overflow control projects, financed mostly with local dollars, are proving to be the most expensive public-works programs ever. Later this month, at President Clinton’s directive, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to propose new rules expanding cities’ obligations to eliminate all but the most unavoidable sanitary-sewer overflows.

See no evil . . . For decades, local officials and voters have tended to treat sewers as an “out of sight, out of mind” problem. Playwright Henrik Ibsen captured the politics of denial over a century ago in An Enemy of the People, the story of a doctor who warns that the town’s popular public baths are a health menace in need of wastewater treatment–only to be denounced by the mayor and local citizenry for embarrassing the town and for advocating higher sewer rates.

In a case of life imitating art, U.S. News has found that municipal sewers, with little public recognition, are overflowing or breaking down with disturbing regularity, releasing mega amounts of pollutants. In the past eight months, San Diego has had a raw sewage spill of 34 million gallons and small-town Fort Pierce, Fla., was hit with 8 million gallons. Even these huge overflows are dwarfed by the squalid slumgullions that combined sewer systems unleash during rainstorms. Some 150 million people rely on sewer systems that use separate pipelines for rainwater and sanitary-sewer waste. But an additional 42 million people in 900 communities depend on older, combined sewer systems, which commingle storm water and sewage into one pipe during rainstorms. A downpour last month prompted the Milwaukee sewer authority to discharge more than a billion gallons of raw sewage into area waterways and Lake Michigan. All told, the EPA projects that combined sewer overflows (or CSOs) discharge 1.2 trillion gallons of sewage and storm water a year–enough to keep Niagara Falls roaring for 18 days.

Urban sprawl. Apart from agricultural runoff, no pollution source sullies more miles of the nation’s rivers than municipal treatment plants. Sewer discharges routinely close thousands of acres of shellfish beds to harvesting, and, in city after city, overflows are common. Since President Clinton took office, his former hometown of Little Rock has suffered over 600 reported sanitary-sewer overflows, including cases where sewage coursed through city parks and golf courses. Nationwide, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group estimates that municipal sewage plants released 51 million pounds of toxic chemicals into public waters in 1997, the latest year for which statistics are available.

A draft report for the EPA obtained by U.S. News finds that more than a million Americans become ill each year just from sanitary-sewer overflows (SSOs). Raw sewage contains bacteria like E. coli, viruses, helminths (intestinal worms), and parasites. Most of those stricken suffer stomach cramps and diarrhea, but untreated sewage also spreads life-threatening ailments like cholera and infectious hepatitis. In 1998, a few miles from George W. Bush’s governor’s mansion in Austin, Texas, more than 1,400 residents of the Brushy Creek area became ill with gastroenteritis after 167,000 gallons of untreated sewage spilled into the creek. About 135 residents contracted cryptosporidiosis, the ailment that killed 54 Milwaukee residents after that city’s water supply was poisoned by the parasite in 1993. In 1998, water-borne pollution forced health authorities to close beaches or to put out advisories more than 7,000 times–with sewage spills accounting for as many as half of the shutdowns.

Sewer stoppages and pipeline collapses are rising at a rate of 3 percent a year, according to a survey by the Civil Engineering Research Foundation. And a 1999 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers indicates that the nation’s 500,000-plus miles of sewer lines are 33 years old on average. The Water Infrastructure Network, an umbrella coalition of water and public-works associations, estimates that municipal governments (read: ratepayers) will have to cough up an extra $12 billion a year for capital improvements in the next two decades to replace aging pipes and to meet EPA guidelines. (Read their report.) In tiny Marlette, Mich., the cost per household to fix the sewers may exceed $12,000, and in Lynchburg, Va., and Wheeling, W.Va., residents could eventually be tapped for more than $15,000 per household.

In the meantime, city dwellers with sewage backups have been forced to dig into their own wallets. The Martins spent $4,000 in 1997 to replace a 50-foot house pipe connecting to the city sewer line, but the backups continued. Last October, they spotted their first sewer rat–a Norway rat the size of a small cat–when it scampered across the buffed oak floor of the breakfast room. Ten traps placed that evening in the basement yielded 10 more rats the following morning.

Another resident, chiropractor Henry Jacobs, had to close his holistic health education center after incurring nearly $25,000 in damages from 600 gallons of raw sewage that poured into the facility after grease from a nearby restaurant blocked his sewer line in January 1999. When Jacobs first discovered the mess, he nearly retched: A gurgling geyser was surging out of the toilet, leaving excrement on the walls.

Playing catch-up. After decades of neglect, Atlanta officials expect to spend more than $1 billion to upgrade the aging sewer system. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, cave-ins in antiquated sewer lines killed bystanders in a parking lot there, and one collapse even claimed a hook-and-ladder firetruck. While Atlanta’s raw sewage discharges are declining, the overflows have been so bad that many manhole covers have popped, at times creating fecal fountains. The state environmental agency has issued stiff penalties, fining the city more than $23 million since November 1992 for delays in building treatment facilities and for a series of sewer overflows.

In 1970, prior to the passage of the Clean Water Act, roughly 40 percent of people served by municipal wastewater systems did not receive any sewage treatment, and Manhattan’s West Side sent 300 million gallons of raw sewage a day into the Hudson River. The 1972 Clean Water Act helped double the number of people served by municipal sewer systems–from 85 million in 1972 to 173 million in 1996–at the same time that it cut pollution from sewage by 40 percent.

Still, with each new spate of sewer reforms, relieved taxpayers and city officials have tended to declare victory prematurely. More than 40 years ago, Aldous Huxley wrote an essay heralding the efficacy of Los Angeles’s Hyperion sewage-treatment plant. Just before the onset of World War II, Huxley and Thomas Mann took a stroll on a deserted California beach near the future plant, and, as the two famous novelists chatted about Shakespeare, Huxley noticed that “as far as the eye could reach . . . the sand was covered with small whitish objects, like dead caterpillars.” The caterpillars turned out to be condoms–10 million of them by Huxley’s estimate–which had come in with the tide after being discharged from a Los Angeles sewage outfall. When Huxley returned 15 years later, he found the new treatment plant had eliminated the “unspeakable jetsam” and sunbathers splashed in the surf. The problem of “keeping a great city clean without polluting a river or fouling the beaches . . . has been triumphantly solved,” Huxley declared. Not quite.

Canada E.Coli Death Toll May Rise to 18

TORONTO (Reuters) – The death toll from an outbreak of deadly E. coli bacteria that swept through a small Ontario town last month may be raised to 18, Canadian health officials said on Tuesday.

Health officials said they were investigating four more deaths that could be linked to the E. coli outbreak in Walkerton, Ontario, a farming community of 5,000 about 200 kilometres (125 miles) northwest of Toronto.

Ontario’s chief coroner said four more deaths had been reported to the provincial police, raising the total number of possible E. coli-related deaths in the Walkerton area to 18.

Police added the deaths of an elderly man and woman as well as a 25-year-old man in Walkerton to their investigation. The death of an elderly man in nearby Hanover is also being looked into.

Health authorities have confirmed that at least seven people died from water contaminated by E. coli bacteria during the epidemic, which began in late May and affected about 2,000 people in and around Walkerton.

E. coli (Escherichia coli) is a common bacterium usually found in the intestines of humans and animals. Some strains–like the often lethal 0157 variety that hit Walkerton–can cause dangerous, even life-threatening, infections.

Officials do not yet know exactly how the deadly bug got into Walkerton’s water system but suspect heavy rains may have washed infected manure into the farming community’s wells.

Clean air, dirty water

A gasoline additive turns out to be dangerous

By Laura Tangley

It’s a classic case of good intentions gone awry. When Congress amended the Clean Air Act a decade ago, the lawmakers’ goal was to banish lung-destroying smog from the nation’s cities. But now it turns out that the chemical known as MTBE, which was subsequently added to gasoline to make the fuel burn cleaner, has actually contaminated wells that supply drinking water to tens of millions of Americans from coast to coast.

MTBE, or methyl tertiary-butyl ether, reduces toxic auto emissions by boosting the amount of oxygen in gasoline. Now present in about a third of the nation’s gas, the additive has been very effective in helping formerly smoggy cities clean up their act. But a new study, scheduled for publication next month in Environmental Science & Technology, has found that as many as 9,000 community wells in 31 states are threatened by MTBE contamination, primarily because they are located near leaking underground tanks that store gasoline. John Zogorski of the U.S. Geological Survey, one of the study’s authors, calls his team’s results “generally representative of the entire nation.”

Long-lived problem. A handful of states, including California, Maine, and New Jersey, already have plans to stop or at least reduce the use of MTBE, which has been found to cause cancer in laboratory animals. Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made a commitment to begin phasing out the additive nationwide. Specifically, EPA administrator Carol Browner has asked Congress to further amend the Clean Air Act to discourage the use of MTBE in gasoline. In addition, the agency will try to restrict the chemical under authority provided by the Toxic Substances Control Act. But both of these strategies could take years to make a dent in the MTBE content of gas. Meanwhile, scientists worry that the additive’s most likely alternative, ethanol derived from corn, has not been adequately tested for safety.

Even if MTBE were banned tomorrow, it would very likely remain a concern for many years. Because the compound degrades slowly and moves easily over long distances, Zogorski believes that past MTBE leaks and spills will threaten water-supply wells until at least the year 2010.

Other scientists have taken the offensive. At this week’s meeting of the American Chemical Society in San Francisco, dozens of researchers will present papers at a four-day symposium devoted entirely to MTBE–including novel strategies for getting the poison out of drinking water. One study suggests that simply adding oxygen to contaminated groundwater encourages native bacteria to degrade the pollutant.

Investigation of E. coli outbreak continues

WALKERTON, ONTARIO — Canadian police and health officials are still investigating how wells in this town 90 miles west of Toronto were infected with E. coli, which has sickened hundreds and killed at least five people. Police also are investigating whether local officials broke laws by failing to report water problems immediately.

Meanwhile, Ontario’s environmental minister, Dan Newman, announced new regulations that would require all of the province’s municipalities to use accredited water-testing labs and to inform the government when hiring a new, private testing firm, according to The Associated Press.

Water plants also would be reviewed and certified every three years, and the ministry would clarify procedures requiring laboratories to notify health officials, city officials and the environment ministry of irregularities.

As of Sunday, the number of people getting sick from the bacteria found in the water supply has decreased. However, officials said several of the hospitalized patients may still die.

E. coli, spread through human and animal feces, may have entered Walkerton’s wells in flooding that followed a storm May 12. City officials said that a chlorinating system on one of the town’s two main wells was malfunctioning for weeks before residents started getting sick.

A provincial water agency took control of the local water utility last week after it was disclosed that the utility knew as early as May 18 about the contamination. A boil-water order was issued for Walkerton May 21 after residents reported illnesses.

One class action lawsuit already has been filed, accusing local officials of failing to promptly notify Walkerton residents of the contamination.

Two nearby communities, Wingham and Freelton, also have found E. coli contamination in water supplies. In Wingham, the contamination was found in a school, which has since been shut down. Freelton was placed under a boil-water order after traces of the bacteria was found in its water.

However, neither case apparently is linked to the Walkerton contamination.

Trucks carrying bottled water moved through Walkerton Sunday, with volunteers carrying the donated cases to doorsteps in some areas.

Copyright 2000 National Trade Publications, Inc. 

Death Came in the Water

E. coli breaks out at a N.Y. county fair

BY AMANDA SPAKE

At first, the illness was a mystery. The Washington County Fair in Greenwich, N.Y., was great fun, but two days later, the Aldrich girls had become feverish, irritable, and lethargic. Their doctor sent them to a local hospital and Kaylea, 2, seemed to improve. But 3-year-old Rachel grew sicker. On Friday, September 3, she was rushed to the pediatric intensive care unit at Albany Medical Center Hospital, where she and her sister were found to be infected with the deadly E. coli 0157:H7 bacterium from drinking water at the fair.

At Albany, Wayne and Lori Aldrich watched helplessly as Rachel’s heart stopped, cutting off oxygen to her brain. Her kidneys failed and she was not able to breathe on her own. Late Saturday afternoon, September 4, on the day she was to celebrate her fourth birthday, Rachel died in her parents’ arms.

Now, the Aldriches sit by Kaylea’s bedside as she remains in serious condition, on kidney dialysis like 10 other children who went to the fair. They are among over 600 people thought to be infected with the bacterium. If confirmed, this would be one of the largest E. coli 0157:H7 outbreaks on record. The great risk now, according to the New York State Department of Health, is further person-to-person spread of the organism.

How did a supposedly safe drinking-water system become the source of a major outbreak? The health department’s theory is that a torrential rainstorm in late August washed manure-laden water from cattle exhibits into loose soil around an auxiliary well at the fairgrounds. This contaminated surface water mixed with the well’s usual source, a ground-water aquifer, which had fallen low because of this summer’s drought. Unlike other wells supplying the fair, the auxiliary well was not chlorinated. Once the well was in use, contaminated water was pumped to food and drink vendors. Two vendors, one of whom has developed symptoms of infection, may have taken water to another New York fair.

But the Greenwich fiasco points up a greater problem: Treatment and monitoring of drinking water cannot be taken for granted. Kristine Smith, spokesperson for the New York Department of Health, says that since the fairgrounds’ water system was considered private, only limited treatment and testing was mandated by the state, and the system was not subject to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

But J. Charles Fox, assistant administrator for the Office of Water at the EPA, is not so sure. “This seems to be what we call a transient noncommunity water system,” says Fox: It is a system that serves the public on an intermittent basis. Smith says the EPA is wrong because the system “does not operate for 60 days a year”–though, as the Washington County Fair office confirms, it serves thousands of people at different events throughout the year.

Higher standards. Upcoming EPA rules will probably require disinfection of ground-water systems like this one, Fox says. And the EPA has been tightening standards for all water systems since renewal of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1996.

But states don’t always enforce testing requirements, and water-systems managers don’t always report violations to the state or the federal government. A recent draft of an EPA audit of 1,800 public water systems and 27 state programs shows monitoring of water quality and reporting of violations are, in Fox’s words, “exceptionally weak.” While many of the infractions identified in the audit are inconsequential, about one third involve failure to report excessive coliform bacteria, such as E. coli, or failure to treat water for bacterial contaminates. Fox says that “there is nothing in this that should make people feel less confident about their water.” Yet EPA studies show that the U.S. drinking water system “suffers from long-term neglect and serious deterioration.” The cost for fixing the problem is an estimated $12.1 billion–just to meet existing EPA standards, not the more stringent upcoming regulations.

Within the next month, everyone on a water system with more than 25 customers should receive in the mail his first “Consumer Confidence Report.” The reports are now required by law to inform consumers about microbial and chemical contaminants and any violations of EPA regulations by the water supplier–at least those that have been reported. But as the outbreak at the Washington County Fairgrounds shows, it is not what we know about our water that may be most significant, but what we don’t know!

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