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Issues USA: Water Impairment

Plastics Contamination

by Brigitte Keen

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Plastics in the U.S. are produced using petroleum such as, liquid petroleum gases, natural gas liquids, and natural gas. Each year the U.S. alone uses approximately 191 million barrels of petroleum to manufacture plastics.

Plastics are an everyday convenience that allows us to transport food and liquid safely. But how safe are plastics? The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has worked on a four-year long study to answer this important question. Through conducting an investigation on 103 bottled water brands, the NRDC found that the bottled water industry did not offer an accurate depiction of the contents in their water.

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets forth guidelines and standards for public tap water. The same standards are what the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) set for water bottles sold in the U.S. Because the bottled water industry claims to be monitored by and uphold the standards of the FDA, they claim that their product does not contain any chemicals. However, according to the NRDC study, 25% of water bottle brands contained harmful chemicals. Not only that, but in some cases the levels of chemicals violated federal standards. Among the volatile organic chemicals that were found, was the carcinogen, arsenic.

The production, delivery, use, and disposal of plastics have the potential to cause harm to humans and the environment. In order to get plastic water bottles on the shelves at retail stores, millions of barrels of oil are required. After production and delivery, it is unknown to what degree one may risk their health by consuming contents from a plastic bottle. Additionally, over half of the water bottles that are sold in the U.S. ever get recycled, and much of that waste is unaccounted for.

Scientists estimate that 10 percent of plastics end up in the ocean. Although, this is difficult to gage for certain because of the different types of plastics that vary in how they react to water. For instance, the amount of polyethylene terephthalatecontamination (PET) is difficult to measure because PET tends to sink.

In an attempt to alleviate the amount of waste that is produced and harm that is done to the environment, many public facilities have begun to eliminate the sale and distribution of bottled water. Instead, individuals are encouraged to opt for tap water.

U.S. Regulations on Drinking Water

by Piper Wilson

Public water systems in the United States must demonstrate that their drinking water meets specific health standards by periodically monitoring for the presence of contaminants. They do so by conducting many tests which are then tested by laboratories ensuring that the safety levels are under federal law.

These federal standards for drinking water are called Maximum Contaminant Levels, MCL’s. They have been established under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Under this law there are also MDLs which are Method Detection Levels and EDLs which are Estimated Detection Levels. These numbers are calculated based upon analysis of replicate samples of water. The MDL is defined, according to the EPA, as ‘the minimum concentration of a substance that can be identified, measured, and reported with 99& confidence that the analyte concentration is greater than zero.” State requirements vary on whether they require the MDL’s to appear on reports.

When a monitoring requirement for a contaminant is established, EPA approves at least one analytical method by specifying it in the regulation. Considering each analytical method for use in monitoring, EPA evaluates the overall sensitivity of the techniques used. These methods must be approved when used for testing water samples in order to meet federal monitoring requirements or to demonstrate compliance with drinking water regulations. Laboratories that examine these samples must be certified by EPA or the State. The EPA carries out a program to ensure that laboratories are certified and qualified to conduct analyses on drinking water samples.

These certified laboratories analyze public water systems’ water samples and provide the government with information on the quality of their water. Source water samples are then tested for contamination in order to determine the overall water qualities that influence the treatment process. Finished water samples are then analyzed to verify the water meets health-based standards and are periodically check for contaminants that are not required in drinking water.

The scheduling of monitoring differs based on the type of contaminant, where the source of water is used to produce drinking water, and the population that is served by the public water system. Regulation outlines are made with requirements that systems must follow.

In general, a method is made in order to do routine analysis of samples, measures the drinking water contamination in a specific concentration range, and provides data with the necessary accuracy and precision to meet water monitoring objectives.

United States drinking water methods must be approved by EPA before they can be used to analyze samples in order to meet federal monitoring requirements.

U.S. Recreational Waters

by Piper Wilson

The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, has designed a Recreational Water Criteria program designed to protect swimmers from illnesses due to exposure to pathogens in recreational waters.

Since EPA issued its quality criteria over 20 years ago, there have been major scientific advances, particularly in the areas of molecular biology, virology and analytical chemistry. EPA believes these scientific advances need to be considered for the development of new criteria for pathogens and pathogen indicators. The EPA has conducted a significant amount of research including developing methods for measuring microbiological organisms in water and conducting epidemiologic studies to provide the scientific foundation for new criteria.

EPA’s review of available research and science has raised a sequence of significant questions that need to be answered in order for EPA to move forward. In order to address these questions, EPA has stakeholders representing the general public, public interest groups, State and local government, industry, and municipal wastewater treatment professionals. These stakeholders, based on their feedback and recommendations from the scientific community, have created a Critical Path Science Plan for Development of New or Revised Recreational Water Quality Criteria (CPSP or SciencePlan). According to the EPA and its stakeholders, ‘the purpose of the CPSP is to articulate the essential research and science that EPA willconduct between 2007 and the end of 2010 to establish the scientific foundation for new orrevised recreational water quality criteria to protect swimming in waters designated by a Statefor that use.’

A program applied by the EPA, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has implemented in order to study recreational waters is the National Epidemiological and Environmental Assessment of Recreation (NEEAR) Water. The key goal in this study is to establish a health-based relationship between indicators of fecal contamination and swimming-associated illness as measured by a variety of methods.

Another program monitoring recreational waters is The Environmental Monitoring for Public Access and Community Tracking (EMPACT) Beaches Project. This was particularly designed to recognize the characteristics of a beach environment that have a considerable impact on microbial water quality monitoring results.

The United States’ Water Quality Methods (WQS) is a method of expressing the desired condition of a water body. Such standards consist of three main elements. The first is searching for one or more designated ‘uses’ of each of the State’s waters, such as recreation or propagation of fish. The second element is based on the criteria expressed as the pollutant concentration levels representing a quality of water that supports a designated use. The last element is an anti‐degradation policy in order to protect existing uses and high quality waters. The WQS purpose is to establish the water quality goals for a specific water body, as well as serving the regulatory basis for the establishment of water quality‐ based treatment controls and strategies. States also use WQS in their beach monitoring and notification programs while examining pathogens or pathogen indicators in order to protect the recreational use of waters.

There are several human health risks obtaining to contaminants in recreational waters. EPA’s current research is based on E. coli and enterococci as indicators of, specifically, fecal contamination. Human fecal contamination poses the highest risk, however there are other sources of fecal contamination which are less studied. These further sources include poorly‐ treated or untreated human fecal waste, and non‐human sources of fecal contamination, such as from agricultural animals and wildlife in the watershed. In addition, storm water runoff in urban areas may signify a source of human and animal fecal material. Animal sources in an urban setting may include domesticated and other animals, such as geese. Symptoms of these human health risks that may arise are gastrointestinal illness, diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, upper respiratory illness, rashes, eye ailments, and earaches.

The EPA will conduct at least one epidemiologic study in order to characterize the relationship at a freshwater beach that has been impacted by agricultural animal sources of fecal contamination for comparison to the relationship obtained at beaches impacted by human fecal contamination.

With studies and research being continued, the Environmental Protection Agency plays a vital role in protecting America’s recreational waters.


Water Pollution: Boil Water Warnings in the U.S.

By Shannyn Snyder

As consumers struggle with changing their bottled water consumption habits in an effort to become more environmentally friendly, numerous U.S. residents nationwide faced bacterial pollutant episodes from local water sources in just under a one-week period.

Residents of Palm Springs, Florida are dealing with their second water contamination scare in two years. Last year, well water users were told to temporarily rely on bottled water while a chemical, perchlorate, was removed from their waters. This year, it’s the bacteria E. coli, leaving the small mobile home community of mostly retirees quite concerned.

In addition, the town of Buchanan, Virginia is currently on a boil-water mandate as the local water authorities wrestle with what can be done with the persistent appearance of both E. coli and fecal coliform bacteria. Although the town’s wells are contaminated, residents are bearing the expense. Not only do they need to boil water for household use or buy supplies of bottled water, but they also must continue to pay their water bills. The well water, which is sterilized using only chlorine and does not go through a filtration plant may be polluted for the foreseeable future. Mayor Tom Middlecamp warns that the problem could persist for more than a year.

A more temporary concern is for Yampa, Colorado residents who are also being advised about the quality of their water, which is thought to have been tainted by bacteria following a water main break. Local officials warned residents that using their water could adversely affect their health by causing possible nausea or diarrhea and schools were closed for two days.

These short-lived pollutant issues are often routine, and Monroe Central schools in Indiana were also on the latest list of contaminated water concerns. Administrators were told that their water may contain coliform bacteria, and children were warned not to use drinking fountains or bathroom faucets. The county instead provided the school children with bottled water and hand sanitizer. Additionally, a water main break in Marion, Ohio caused their officials to recommend a boil-water advisory, also prompting area schools to request bottled water to be provided until the warning was over.

Other boil water advisories were lifted, such as in both Vader and Enchanted Valley, Washington, as well as Chalfont, Pennsylvania, and there was a “pre-notice” for Georgia and Florida to boil water in case of storms.

How worrisome are boil water warnings? According to Dr. James Symons in Plain Talk about Drinking Water, boil water orders were part of a 1996 U.S. regulation that required local utilities to issue the order if coliform or other bacteria were found in water.

The warning or order

could be a matter of safety routine or part of a serious public health warning to the community. Warnings are not the same as orders, and municipalities may merely suggest that residents boil water as a precaution during a water main break or a storm. However, an order is a more serious matter, typically arising, as in Palm Springs, because there is a very high level of found contaminant or as in the case of Buchanan, the non-point source of the pollutant has not been yet been found.

If you are issued a boil water warning

or are recommended by your local water authority to use bottled water until an advisory is lifted,

there are some tips to help you

. Be sure to become familiar with your local water authority’s website, so that you can access information should you ever need to for your own water warnings. Following instructions from using bottled water to brush teeth and throwing out ice cubes could mean the difference between a small inconvenience and a serious illness.

2009. For the latest reports on Boil Water Advisories, please see our Facebook Forum.

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