Unregulated drinking water chemicals

August 1, 2014

Tap water supplied by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) has been touted for decades as being some of the highest quality drinking water produced by any public utility in the country and required water quality reports by local communities regularly indicate drinking water that meets or exceeds federal standards. 

But it’s what isn’t contained in annual water reports released to the public that may raise concerns.

A national analysis of drinking water utilities across the country conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) tested water supplied to more than 250 million Americans in 45 states. While the report found that 92 percent of the public drinking water utilities surveyed are in compliance with federal drinking water standards, only 114 of the 316 contaminants identified in the analysis are required to be tested under federal law. That leaves more than 200 chemicals that aren’t subject to any kind of government regulations or safety standards in our drinking water.

“The nation’s tap water has been compromised by weak federal safeguards and pitiful protection of drinking water supplies,” said Jane Houlihan, senior vice president of research at the EWG. “In most U.S. households, pouring a glass of tap water means exposing families to hundreds of distinct chemicals and pollutants, many of them completely unregulated.”

Among the unregulated chemicals discovered over a five-year testing period were perchlorate, a toxic chemical that is used as a component to rocket fuel, which has been identified as a contaminant in tests conducted by the DWSD. Other contaminants identified in the national analysis included the industrial solvent acetone; metolachlor, which is used in weed killers; freon, which is used as a refrigerant; and radon, a highly radioactive gas. Other contaminants, such as chromium-6, which has been categorized by the EPA as a likely carcinogen, isn’t specifically required to be tested, but is grouped together with the less toxic chromium-3 under total chromium standards.

The EWG report further states that the EPA and congress force water utilities to spend more than $4 billion a year to treat contaminated water, while a fraction of that is spent cleaning and protecting rivers and reservoirs.

“Utilities do the best that they can treating a big problem with limited resources,” Houlihan said. “We must do better. It’s not uncommon for people to drink tap water laced with 20 or 30 chemical contaminants. This water may be legal, but it raises serious health concerns. People expect better water than that, and they deserve it.”

The EWG analysis revealed 97 agricultural pollutants, including pesticides and chemicals from fertilizer and/or manure-laden runoff; 205 industrial chemicals linked to factory discharges and consumer products; 86 contaminants that originate in polluted runoff and wastewater treatment plants; and 42 byproducts of water treatment processes or pollutants that leach from pipes in storage tanks.

In Oakland County, the majority of residents receive drinking water from the DWSD system, while others not hooked into Detroit’s expansive system are served by local municipal or individual wells. For Oakland County residents hooked directly into the DWSD system, water comes from two main sources. Residents living north of 14 Mile Road receive their water pulled from the utility’s Lake Huron Water Treatment Plant, while those south of 14 Mile receive water from the DWSD’s Springwells treatment plant, along the Detroit River. Other communities, such as Waterford and White Lake townships, receive water from underground wells throughout the township.

Additionally, many southern Oakland County communities purchase water from the Southeastern Oakland County Water Authority (SOCWA) at three locations. SOCWA provides DWSD water through its member distribution systems to residents in Berkley, Beverly Hills, Bingham Farms, Birmingham, Bloomfield Township, Bloomfield Hills, Clawson, Huntington Woods, Lathrup Village, Pleasant Ridge, Royal Oak, Southfield and Southfield Township.

“We test our water at least once a week at 50 different locations,” said Jeff McKeen, general manager of SOCWA. “Detroit (Water and Sewerage) tests continuously at points of production.” 

Communities in the SOCWA system may receive water at times from the Detroit River or lower Lake Huron. Each source is given a susceptibility rating from “very low” to “very high” to determine the susceptibility of potential contaminants. The susceptibility of the Detroit River source water intakes were determined to be highly susceptible to potential contamination, while the Lake Huron source water intake is categorized as having moderately low susceptibility to potential contaminant sources. 

Patrick Williford, principal analytical chemist for the DWSD water quality laboratory, said the department takes hundreds of water samples each day during its water processing in order to maintain quality and develop best treatment practices. He said the department also monitors many secondary and unregulated contaminants that can enter the system.

“We do process control testing, which means we are monitoring the quality of drinking water going through the system during processing to help us develop the best treatment.” 

The water treatment process begins with disinfecting the source water with chlorine to kill harmful micro-organisms that can cause illness. Next, a chemical called alum is mixed with the water to remove the fine particles that make the water cloudy or turbid. Alum causes the particles to clump together and settle to the bottom. Fluoride is also added to protect teeth from cavities and decay. 

The water then flows through fine sand filters, called beds. These filters remove more particles and certain micro-organisms that are resistant to chloride. Finally, a small amount of phosphoric acid and chlorine are added to the treated water just before it leaves the plant. The phosphoric acid helps control the lead that may dissolve in water from household plumbing systems. The chlorine keeps the water disinfected as it travels through water mains to reach customers.

In addition to a controlled and monitored treatment process, the water is tested for a variety of substances before treatment, during various stages of treatment, and throughout the distribution system. Hundreds of samples are tested each week in certified laboratories by highly qualified and trained staff.

Despite the efforts, the DWSD said some contaminants found in the source water may still remain in the water when it reaches a customer’s tap.

Data included in the EWG obtained by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) includes the presence of bromochloroacetic acid, an unregulated contaminant created as a byproduct during the water treatment disinfectant process. The chemical, as well as seven additional regulated chemicals typically produced during the water treatment or delivery process, were found in the water in the Birmingham system, as well as other communities receiving water from the DWSD, which besides Birmingham include Bloomfield Township, Bloomfield Hills, Commerce Township and Walled Lake.

Additional contaminants that may be present in source water include microbial contaminants, such as viruses and bacteria, which may come from sewage treatment plants, septic systems, agricultural livestock operations and wildlife; inorganic contaminants, such as salts and metals, which can be naturally-occurring or result from urban storm water runoff, industrial or domestic wastewater discharges, oil and gas production, mining or farming; pesticides and herbicides, which may come from a variety of sources, such as agriculture, urban storm water runoff, and residential uses; and organic chemical contaminants, including synthetic and volatile organics, which are by-products of industrial processes and petroleum production, and can also come from gas stations, urban storm water runoff and septic systems.

“A big problem comes from failing septic systems,” said Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash. “Coliform and other things that make you sick can get into the surface water and people who live close to septic systems have issues because of high water tables. When there’s a failure, it happens quick.”

Drinking water, including bottled water, may reasonably be expected to contain at least small amounts of some contaminants, according to the DWSD, and often does.

Local governments receiving water from the DWSD system, as well as water systems relying on wells to supply drinking water to the community, are required to issue annual drinking water quality reports, sometimes dubbed “Consumer Confidence Reports.” The reports provide a basic snapshot of a community’s water quality. However, not all the contaminants that may be present in a particular community’s drinking water are regulated by the EPA.

For instance, Waterford Township, which receives its water from 19 wells in 11 different locations in the township, lists seven unregulated contaminants that were tested in 2013. Of the seven contaminants, three were sampled at detectable levels, including molybdenum, strontium and chromium. 

Molybdenum is an essential nutrient in human diets, and is found in small amounts of leafy vegetables, grains, sunflower seeds and other foods. The typical U.S. diet provides about 100 micrograms per day, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, which uses a health advisory level for molybdenum of 90 micrograms per liter (ug/L). Waterford Township’s water has a molybdenum presence of about 6.95 ug/L, according to the township’s 2013 water quality report. 

The report also showed strontium levels at 359.9 ug/L, with the EPA’s recommended limit of 4000 ug/L for drinking water. Strontium is a naturally occurring element that may be found in rocks, soil, dust, coal and oil. Naturally occurring strontium isn’t radioactive, but may be harmful to children, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Chromium levels of .05 ug/L were recorded in Waterford Township’s drinking water, according to the report, with no levels of chromium-6 in the drinking water. The EPA recommends a maximum contaminant level of total chromium in drinking water to be at 100 parts per billion, or about 100 ug/L. 

Chromium is an odorless and tasteless element found in rocks, plants, soils, humans and other animals. The most common forms of chromium are chromium-3 and chromium-6. Chromium-3 is an essential dietary element, but chromium-6 is often produced by industrial processes and is classified as a likely carcinogenic for humans, according to the EPA.

“Chromium and other things were (present),” Williford said about testing conducted by the DWSD in 2011. “There are some claims out there by groups about chromium, and we have done some monitoring on them. They are all within regulatory limits.”

Williford said total chromium levels at the DWSD rank it as a “non-detected” contaminant, which means that combined levels of all chromium variations are below the method reporting limit (MRL), which is also below the EPA’s maximum contamination level (MCL) of total chromium, which is .1 mg/L, or 100 parts per billion, or ppb. However, chromium-6 was found at the DWSD’s Water Works Park plant tap on May 16, 2011 at .13 ppb and at .09 ppb on December 6, 2011. The MRL or the minimum level of contaminant able to be detected by lab equipment, for the 2011 analyses was .02 ppb, he said.

Currently, the EPA doesn’t have an MCL requirement on chromium-6, and testing isn’t required to determine what percentage of total chromium is chromium-6.

Julia Ortiz, spokeswoman for the EPA’s Drinking Water Division, said that in 1991, the EPA established an enforceable drinking water standard of 100 ppb for total chromium, which includes all variations of chromium, including chromium-6.

“This standard was established on the best available science at the time, which indicated that some people who use water containing chromium in excess of the drinking water standard over many years could experience allergic dermatitis (skin reactions),” Ortiz said.

However, the EPA in 2011 said recent studies indicate the potential for greater human health risks from chromium-6 than what was previously thought. Based on newer public health information, the EPA that year issued new recommendations to water systems to encourage enhanced drinking water monitoring for chromium-6. Currently, Ortiz said, the EPA is in the process of assessing chromium-6 regulations. The EPA’s findings are expected to be available for public comment in 2015.

Meanwhile, California this year became the only state to place regulations into effect regarding chromium-6 levels in drinking water. Effective July 1, California’s maximum contaminant level for chromium-6 is at .010 mg/L or 10.011423 ppb.

Chromium-6 is produced by industrial processes and manufacturing activities, including discharges from steel and pulp mills, among others. At many locations, chromium compounds have been released into the environment through leakage, poor storage or improper disposal practices. Chromium compounds are very persistent in water as sediments, according to the EPA.

According to the EWG, various conditions can cause chromium-3 to turn into chromium-6, and vice versa. The widely used tap water disinfectant chlorine, for instance, can cause this to happen. Highly acidic conditions may also cause changes.

“For years, scientists assumed that all hexavalent chromium was converted into trivalent by the stomach’s acidic environment, rendering it harmless,” Rebecca Sutton said in the report on chromium-6 in drinking water she wrote for the EWG. “It’s now clear, however, that some of this toxic chemical can pass through the stomach unchanged and penetrate tissues and organs throughout the body. Studies in both animals and people show that exposure to hexavalent chromium via drinking water leads to elevated chromium in tissues, particularly in the gastrointestinal tract, blood, liver, kidneys and spleen, and increased toxicity.”

Sutton also said that some individuals, particularly children and pregnant women, may be particularly susceptible to the carcinogenic effects of chromium-6. People with less acidic stomachs, she said, appear to have limited ability to convert hexavalent chromium to trivalent chromium, exposing them to higher levels of the toxic form and putting them at greater risk.

Contamination of tap water with chromium-6, or hexavalent chromium, was the basis of the 2000 movie, “Erin Brockovich,” which told the story of chromium in the cancer-stricken town of Hinkley, California. Residents there won a $33 million settlement from Pacific Gas and Electric. A 2005 Wall Street Journal investigation of the chromium contamination in Kettleman City, California, revealed the gas company had hired consultants to publish a fraudulent analysis of cancer mortality and chromium in a attempt to disprove the link between illnesses and the element.

Sutton’s EWG report on chromium-6 looked at the contaminant’s presence in 31 of 35 cities tested in the country, including Ann Arbor, Michigan. While those 31 cities serve more than 26 million people, California is the only state that currently requires testing of chromium-6 in drinking water.

“The total number of Americans drinking tap water contaminated with this compound is likely far higher than is indicated by EWG’s tests,” Sutton said. “At least 74 million people in nearly 7,000 communities drink tap water polluted with total chromium, which includes hexavalent and other forms of metal, according to EWG’s 2009 analysis of water utility tests from 48,000 communities in 42 states.”

The EWG’s paper urges the EPA to move faster in establishing a legal limit for hexavalent chromium in tap water and require all water utilities to test for it.

Ortiz said the EPA regularly re-evaluates drinking water standards and, based on new science on chromium-6, had begun a rigorous and comprehensive review of its health effects in 2008. In September 2010, the EPA released a draft of that scientific assessment for public comment.

In February 2012, the EPA began a new schedule to assess the effects of chromium, which is still underway. Once it is completed, Ortiz said the EPA will review its conclusions and consider all the relevant information to determine if new drinking water standards for chromium-6 are warranted, or if any other revision to the current total chromium standard is needed.

While the annual reports typically contain a table of contaminants that are detected in a community’s water, there may not be legal requirements for a water utility to bring the contaminant below recommended levels.

Richard Benzie, community drinking water department director for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said the EPA has a process where they develop a candidate list of possible dangerous contaminants for future regulatory action. “It’s a multi-year process of toxicological studies, where they are researching animal and/or human studies on their exposures. It can take 10 to 15 years from the time it pops up to recognize its dangers and its presence,” he said.

The Safe Drinking Water Act requires the EPA to review each National Primary Drinking Water Regulation at least once every six years and revise them, if appropriate. The primary standards are legally enforceable standards that apply to public water systems, and aim to limit levels of contamination. Secondary standards also exist as non-enforceable guidelines regulating contaminants that may cause cosmetic or aesthetic effects, for which water systems are not required to comply. Unregulated contaminants aren’t subject to any proposed national primary drinking water regulations, but are known or anticipated to occur in public water systems. 

Ortiz said the six-year review of primary standards is to identify those regulations for “for which current health effects assessments, changes in technology, and/or other factors provide a health or technical basis to support a regulatory revision that will maintain or strengthen public health protection.”

Put another way, federal law doesn’t require tap water to be safe for long-term consumption; the long-term risks of cancer and other health threats are balanced against the feasibility of purification, according to the EWG’s report. As a result, there are hundreds of contaminants for which there are no legal limits at all, so any amount is legal.

Among the contaminants found in water tested by the DWSD were detectable levels of the radioactive material radium 226 and radium 228. Williford said the levels were found in a 2014 test conducted at the southwest plant and Lake Huron treatment plant, but the combined levels of radium were still below half of the MCL standards. 

Radium is naturally occurring in some organic, deep bedrock aquifers. When consumed in water, a small portion of radium may be absorbed by the digestive tract and distributed throughout the body. The rest is passed unchanged from the body, with some being excreted in waste. Exposure to high levels of radium for extended periods may cause depression of the immune system, anemia, cataracts and fractured teeth, as well as increased incidence of bone, liver and breast cancer.

Williford said 2014 tests at the DWSD also showed detectable levels of total xylenes, which include various volatile organic compounds. Xylenes are released into the atmosphere as emissions from industrial sources, auto exhaust and volatilization from their use as solvents. Williford said the level was “well below” the EPA’s MCL, but slightly above the detection limit at the Springwells plant.

The two contaminants are included on a list of provided to Downtown Publications of regulated and not-regulated contaminants that required monitoring but were not detected at all five water plants between 2008 and 2014. The list includes various synthetic organic chemicals, VOCs, radioactive contaminants, inorganic contaminants, flame retardants, explosives and other contaminants.

Mary Lynn Semegen, water quality manager for the DWSD, said the most recent study of unregulated contaminants the department conducted was in 2007, when the EPA asked the department to do some water samples of contaminants at the southwest water treatment plant in Detroit for raw river water and for treated water. Examining 85 different chemical compounds, she said only two were found in the treated water, and those were in levels so small that they pose no threat to human health.

One of the chemicals found was perchlorate, which the EPA is in the process of determining if it requires regulating, and at what levels.

Benzie said perchlorate is being fast tracked by the EPA. 

“It’s been found in a lot of the water near military bases and airports,” he said. “It’s also common in some food and in beer. It’s not easy to remove from water in treatment because it’s voluble. It can be dangerous to the fetus of a pregnant woman and to the development of the thyroid. It’s a difficult decision. When they make a decision to go regulate something, they have two years to determine the regulations.”

In addition to perchlorate, Semegen said the DWSD’s testing found Bisphenol A (BPA) in the system, a chemical in certain plastics which has been shown to have hormone-like properties.

“BPA is now so ubiquitous in the environment, so it’s not surprising (it was detected). But once it went through treatment, it was reduced tenfold,” she said, noting it received no special treatment for removal.

For emerging contaminants, the EPA has placed them in the unregulated contaminant program, which is in its third round of testing. She said the EPA checks them every five years and takes different contaminants and chemicals and sets national standards. The EPA samples those quarterly, nationwide, three months apart from water systems, or twice yearly from groundwater, and then determine if its worth monitoring or if their presence is ubiquitous.

BPA was first investigated in 2008, and again in 2010, as the FDA identified it as a possible hazard to fetuses, infants and young children. It was removed from baby bottles, sippy cups and reusable water bottles, but it remains pervasive in the water supply. 

Beginning in 2014, the DWSD is getting ready to do some sampling under the unregulated contaminants monitoring rule on endocrine disrupters, or hormones, in the water. That monitoring will continue for a year in order to see if there are chemicals present that the EPA may want to regulate in the future. The EPA uses the unregulated contaminants monitoring rule program to collect data on chemicals and contaminants that are suspected of being present in drinking water but do not yet have health-based standards set under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Semegen said BPA was found in the water system at 233 parts per trillion untreated; but at 27 parts per trillion treated.

“That’s extremely low levels,” she said. “It’s detected in nanograms per liter or parts per trillion. Figure it as one drop in a trillion other drops.”

However, those tiny drops may be adding up to create a toxic mix of contaminants that should be considered by the EPA, according to some environmentalists. 

“The framework under which the EPA sets drinking water standards is outdated,” said Sutton. “For example, the agency is not required to set maximum legal limits for contaminants at levels that protect the health of children or to consider the heightened vulnerability of the fetus and newborns.

“In addition, the EPA sets maximum legal limits for contaminants as if people are exposed to just one at a time. That’s not the reality – research shows that people carry hundreds of chemicals in their bodies at any given time. A growing number of studies also show that the risks add up when people are exposed to multiple chemicals that can act in tandem or cause harm, and that total risk can be greater than the sum of the parts.”

 

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