Magazine article USA TODAY

Muddying the Waters

Magazine article USA TODAY

Muddying the Waters

Article excerpt

WATER IS CRUCIAL for human life; in 2010, the United Nations added Article 31 to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights--the right to water. Recognizing clean water standards are integral in maintaining and improving health and living standards. Water supplies need to be safe and reliable.

There are countless waterborne disease cases every year that contribute to mounting hospitalization costs in the U.S. Pollutants can appear in the water supply from man-made occurrences, such as pipe breaks, or by natural events, like algae blooms. In 2014, the water supply for more than 400,000 people in Toledo, Ohio, was declared unsafe because of the presence of microcystins, a toxin released by algae blooms in Lake Erie.

System infrastructure weakens over time, creating vulnerabilities and requiring continued monitoring, maintenance, and, eventually, replacement. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) evaluated the nation's drinking water infrastructure in 2013 and gave it a grade of "D." Failures in drinking water infrastructure can be detrimental in more ways than one, the ASCE report explains: "Broken water mains can damage roadways and structures and hinder fire-control efforts. Unscheduled repair work to address emergency pipe failures can also disrupt transportation and commerce."

The ASCE estimates there are 240,000 water main breaks per year in the U.S. Systems left to degrade create a vulnerability to contamination leading to human health risks.

While people work on updating the country's infrastructure, communities in need of safe drinking water should have an alternative besides bottled water. Scientists have demonstrated that filters can remove lead and other contaminants of concern with proper maintenance and can be an immediate solution to provide safe water to residents while the water system is being repaired.

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) is a Federal law to protect public drinking water supplies. Provisions under the Act require the Environmental Protection Agency to establish standards for drinking water quality and technical and financial programs to ensure drinking water safety. The Act has seen multiple amendments over the years, as scientists keep expanding what we know about contaminants in water.

There are two limits set by the EPA for contaminants the agency chooses to regulate under SDWA; the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) and the Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG).

The EPA uses three criteria when deciding to regulate a contaminant: the contaminant may have an adverse effect on the health of persons; the contaminant is known to occur or there is a high chance that the contaminant will occur in public water systems often enough and at levels of public health concern; and, in the sole judgment of the Administrator, regulation of the contaminant presents a meaningful opportunity for health risk reductions for persons served by public water systems.

MCLG is not enforceable; rather, it is a public health goal. This level only examines public health and does not take any other factors into consideration. 1116 enforceable MCL is the allowable limit of the contaminant in drinking water. MCL is set as close to the MCLG as possible from a cost point of view. If a dependable method to measure the contaminant at the limit the EPA wants to set is hindered by economical and technical limitations, then the EPA will develop a treatment technique in place of MCL. These regulations help create water quality parameters and are being evaluated constantly. Contaminants that do become regulated are tracked for occurrence to further our understanding and to perfect treatment.

There is no safe amount of lead exposure. Some potential health effects caused by lead include damage to the brain, kidneys, bone marrow, nervous system, and red blood cells. It also can cause reduced intelligence, impaired hearing, and decreased growth in children. …

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