Michigan had an arsenic groundwater scare; children in Queens, New York, were hospitalized after drinking contaminated water at their school; Boston experienced a widespread boil alert that affected more than two million people; and residents in Caledonia, Wisconsin, went without access to public water for over a year due to a groundwater contamination caused by molybdenum, a dissolved metal that occurs naturally in the Earth’s crust and is one of the byproducts of coal ash. These are just a few of the incidents of drinking water contamination that occurred in 2010.
A more in-depth analysis of the drinking water situation in the U.S. shows that environmental researchers estimate that more than 500 boil alerts occurred in the United States this year. In addition to contamination threats, the Natural Resources Defense Council named 14 states as most at risk by for having a stressed water supply: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas.
But there’s more: Poor quality tap water is responsible for a significant amount of acute gastrointestinal illness per year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that diseases spread by water—Legionnaires’, cryptosporidiosis, and giardiasis—cost the U.S. healthcare system as much as $539 million a year in hospital expenses. The significant number of people affected by Legionnaires’ has prompted U.S environmental laboratories to develop multiple initiatives to educate environmental professionals and the general public about Legionella, the organism that causes Legionnaires’ disease. According to the CDC, “Each year, between 8,000 and 18,000 people are hospitalized with Legionnaires’ disease in the U.S. However, many infections are not diagnosed or reported, so this number may be higher.”
While facts such as those cited above are nothing new for U.S. public water systems, they should be a critical concern for the American public and the food manufacturing industry, one of the biggest consumers of water. To this end, the Drinking Water Research Foundation (DWRF) has created a website that answers questions about drinking water. Based on expert presentations delivered as part of “Your Drinking Water: Challenges and Solutions for the 21st Century,” a symposium held at Yale University in April 2009, (www.seas.yale.edu/watersymposium/), the website’s mission is to educate the public about the importance of access to safe drinking water. Additionally, a YouTube video channel features the symposium’s presentations (www.you- tube.com/user/DWRFvid).
Drinking Water Symposium
The purpose of the symposium was to bring together individuals who are leaders in their fields to discuss the latest data and information available concerning drinking water issues and to make that information available to the public to allow them to make more informed decisions. The conference was conducted by Stephen Edberg, PhD, professor emeritus in the department of laboratory medicine at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn.; Menachem Elimelech, PhD, professor and chair of the chemical engineering department and director of the program in environmental engineering at Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science; and John Sinnott, MD, professor and associate dean for international affairs and director of the division of infectious diseases and infectious disease fellowship program at the University of South Florida College of Medicine in Tampa.
The symposium’s goal, like that of the website, was to inform policy makers, the general public, and industry about issues such as wastewater management and water distribution systems, infrastructure repair, water reuse, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) regulation of bottled water.
Drinking water issues are, and will continue to be, of the utmost importance for the food industry, public health officials, medical practitioners, patients with special needs, and more. The facts given below are just a sample of the information visitors will find on the Yale University Drinking Water Symposium website.
Safe Drinking Water Act Facts
In 1974, Congress passed the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Safe Drinking Water Act, which was the first step toward a national enforceable standard developed by the EPA. The law was amended in 1986 and 1996 and requires various actions to safeguard drinking water and its sources: rivers, lakes, reservoirs, springs, and groundwater wells. Despite these advances, threats to water utilities still exist.
In 2006, the EPA developed a national estimate of waterborne disease to address, in part, the 1996 Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments. EPA researchers reported an estimated 16.4 million cases of acute gastrointestinal illness per year (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18020305).
Recently, the EPA issued a Clean Water and Drinking Water Infrastructure Sustainability Policy, with the goal of increasing the sustainability of water and wastewater infrastructure in the United States. “Communities across the country are facing challenges in making costly upgrades and repairs to their aging water infrastructure, which include sewer systems and treatment facilities,” the EPA stated in the policy. “Making this infrastructure last longer while increasing its cost-effectiveness is essential to protecting human health and the environment, and maintaining safe drinking water and clean water bodies. The new policy is part of EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson’s priority to protect America’s waters.”
The physical condition of the nation’s 16,000 wastewater treatment systems is poor, due to a lack of investment in plant, equipment, and other capital improvements. Symposium speakers J. Alan Roberson, PE, an engineer, and Mark W. LeChevallier, PhD, both with the American Water Works Association, a water utility operating in 32 states, noted that focusing on wastewater management and water distribution systems is important because many of these systems are the actual source for drinking water contamination.
Notably, these aging wastewater management systems discharge 850 billion gallons of untreated sewage into U.S. surface waters each year. Also noteworthy is the fact that sanitary sewer overflows caused by blocked or broken pipes result in the release of as much as 10 billion gallons of raw sewage annually.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the nation must invest $390 billion over the next 20 years to replace existing systems and build new ones to meet the increasing demands of chemical and microbial contaminants entering distribution systems. As part of the EPA’s effort to promote an increased supply of safe drinking water, the agency has established the Drinking Water Distribution Systems Corrosion Research Program. The program has helped the EPA to develop an enhanced understanding of the corrosion of distribution systems and its related reactions so that clean, fresh drinking water can be delivered to the public consistently.
The EPA’s drinking water studies are based on the multi-barrier concept that consists of selecting the best available water source and protecting it from contamination, as well as preventing water quality deterioration in distribution systems. In addition to the corrosion research program, the EPA has also established the Environmental Technology Verification Program, which develops testing protocols and verifies the performance of innovative technologies that have the potential to improve the protection of the public’s drinking water. More information on these programs and others can be found on the EPA’s website.
To quantify the impact of distribution systems on drinking water quality and to begin to diagnose potential issues, Michele Prévost, PhD, a specialist in water treatment and distribution, suggested field investigations of low and negative pressure to monitor the water quality in the system, investigate the relationship between positive coliform samples and distribution system operations, document specific contamination sources and events, and monitor actual intrusion at the worst potential sites. Dr. Prévost is a professor in the department of civil, geological, and mining engineering at Polytechnique Montréal in Québec.
During her presentation, Dr. Prévost, along with Joseph G. Jacangelo, PhD, of MWH, a large environmental engineering firm, highlighted the fact that our country must not only monitor the distribution of drinking water to ensure its safety, but must also be sure that we explore options for water sustainability. Water conservation, repair of infrastructure, and improved catchment and distribution systems will lead to improved use of the water we have, said Dr. Jacangelo, who is also associate professor-adjunct in the department of environmental health sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.
Today, the EPA, which remains aware of the efforts needed to improve the nation’s water infrastructure, has noted that this infrastructure is a priority research area for the organization’s Office of Research and Development “in support of the Agency’s mission to protect public health and safeguard the environment.” In an announcement made in the summer of 2009, the EPA said that the U.S has an “aging system [of water infrastructure pipelines] that poses significant health and safety risks, is prone to leaks and failures, consumes excessive energy, results in wasteful losses of water due to leaks and flushing of pipelines, and is increasingly more difficult to maintain. Also, there is a critical need to better predict infrastructure failures, understand their consequences, and enable more effective prevention and response strategies.”
Poor quality tap water is responsible for a significant amount of acute gastrointestinal illness per year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that diseases spread by water—Legionnaires’, cryptosporidiosis, and giardiasis—cost the U.S. healthcare system as much as $539 million a year in hospital expenses.
Today, water sustainability and environmental impacts on water supplies are pertinent issues. Besides the integrity of water systems, another of the prominent themes of the symposium presentations, and a very important aspect of water availability, was water reuse. Dr. Elimelech described the reuse of wastewater as reclamation for direct potable water reuse. He explained that this is accomplished using an osmotically driven membrane process involving multiple barrier treatment, desalination through reverse osmosis, and forward osmosis. “New water” can also come from the desalination of brackish and sea waters.
A study this year from SBI Energy, a division of MarketResearch.com, predicted that the market for water recycling and reuse technologies would reach $57 billion in 2015, a growth rate of 16%. This significant increase will be driven by the depletion of water resources, the public’s awareness of water conservation products, government incentives, and decreased implementation costs.
Applications for water reuse go beyond drinking water. During the Yale symposium, Joe Harrison, PE, formerly of the Water Quality Association, highlighted the many applications for water reuse, including agricultural irrigation, landscape irrigation, industrial uses, impoundments, groundwater recharge, and indirect potable reuse. Overall, water reuse contributes greatly to water sustainability and the public’s drinking water supply.
EPA and FDA Water Regulations
The public’s drinking water supply is not just regulated by the EPA. Another source of drinking water—bottled water—falls under the FDA’s regulations. Joe Levitt, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition from 1998 through 2003, is now an attorney with Hogan and Hartson in Washington, D.C. At the symposium, he gave an informative presentation that dispelled many myths and public misunderstandings about the safety of bottled water and how it is regulated.
For example, Levitt pointed out that the FDA comprehensively regulates bottled water as a packaged food product, just like thousands of other packaged food and beverage products. Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which dates back to 1906 (originally the Food and Drugs Act), the FDA requires bottled water to adhere to the agency’s extensive food safety, labeling, and inspection requirements. The FDA also has regulations specific to bottled water for standards of identity, standards of quality, and good manufacturing practices.
In fact, Levitt said, by law, FDA standards of quality for bottled water must be at least as stringent and protective of public health as standards set by the EPA for public water systems. Thus, standards set by the FDA help ensure that bottled water is a continuously safe and reliable source of drinking water for the public whenever it is needed or desired. During the boil alerts mentioned above, which occur with significant frequency in our country, as well as during disasters like floods or droughts, bottled water is in high demand and can often be a lifesaver.
Water is a precious resource for which there is no substitute. Thus, safe drinking water holds great value, and, to maintain its safety, the public needs to stay educated and aware. Our government regulations work to produce and protect our safe drinking water supply, but more must be done. An informed consumer can help drive policies that meet the needs of the American people and ensure a safe drinking water supply.