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Water: treat it right.

Water: Treat it Right

How safe is our tap water? In 1988:

* More than 11 million people drank tap water that contained illegal levels of contaminants.

* One of every four public water systems that operated year-round violated federal drinking-water laws.

* Utilities in Arizona, New York, Oregon, Tennessee, and Texas failed to tell the public about any of the thousands of violations they committed.

Statistics like these help explain why we spent more than $2 billion last year on bottled water and home water-treatment units...whether we needed to or not.

You see, there's no guarantee that bottled is any safer than tap. And before you join the five million people who own or rent home treatment units, consider this: you can't fix your water until you know what's wrong with it. If you don't get the right unit for the job or don't maintain it properly, you could even make your water worse.

Everyone I talked to had a story.

Jeff Palsgaard, of California's Merced County Health Department, told me about a man on kidney dialysis who required a sodium-free diet. He spent more than $2,000 for a water softener, after being assured by the salesman that it wouldn't put more sodium into his water. "When we measured," says Palsgaard, "we found that the unit tripled his sodium."

Then there was the elderly couple on a fixed income who spent more than $1,000 for a unit to remove the pesticide DBCP. They either didn't understand, or couldn't afford, to maintain it properly. Eventually, the filter wore out and stopped removing the pesticide from their water.

Paul Ponturo, senior engineer at the Suffolk County (New York) health department, told me about a pregnant woman who was warned by her doctor that the nitrate in her well water could be dangerous to her baby. "She bought an activated-carbon unit, which is lousy at removing nitrates," said Ponturo. "Luckily, she had the presence of mind to contact us, and we helped her find a unit that would do the job."

Skirting Scams. "The scams are positively scary," says Ponturo.

Here are two of the most common ones:

* In-home tests. The salesperson comes to your home and puts a drop of some liquid into a glass of your tap water. A little white "stuff" appears at the bottom, which "proves" that your water is contaminated. Well, the "stuff" is just some minerals--many of which are good for you.

* "EPA-approved." Filters that use silver must be registered with the Environmental Protection Agency. (The metal inhibits bacteria, which makes it a "pesticide.") But registration doesn't mean approval. In fact, no federal agency approves water-treatment units.

There is only one way to tell whether dangerous contaminants are in your water: Examine the results of tests carried out by a reputable laboratory.

Once you've identified the contaminants you want to remove, make sure you match the water-treatment unit to the problem (see page 7).

"An awful lot of people are spending money to remove things from their water that aren't there," says George Stasko, a senior sanitary engineer with the state of New York.

Face the Water. More than 700 contaminants have been found in public drinking water. These include:

* Organic chemicals like pesticides and solvents. Exposure may cause cancer or harm the nervous system, liver, or kidney.

* Inorganic chemicals like the metals lead and mercury (which damage the nervous system), nitrates (which cause "blue baby" syndrome), and metals like iron and zinc, which most of us don't get enough of.

* Microbes like Giardia, viruses, and coliform bacteria.

* Radioactive contaminants like radon, which may cause cancer.

Unfortunately, the EPA has set legal limits, or "maximum contaminant levels" (MCLs), for only 30 of the 700+.

Still, these 30 include some particularly nasty chemicals, like the carcinogens arsenic and benzene. So it pays to take a look at the results of monitoring tests that your water utility is required to carry out. The EPA Safe Drinking Water Hotline (800-426-4791, 202-382-5533 in Alaska and Washington, D.C.) can tell you whom to contact.

This system isn't foolproof, though. The General Accounting Office--the investigative arm of Congress--recently found evidence that some (unnamed) utilities falsify test results.

Even so, looking at those results is the only way--short of spending hundreds of dollars to test your tap water--to tell if you need a home water-treatment unit. What you need to do is compare your utility's results with the legal limits (MCLs). You'll find the MCLs listed in the free booklet "Is Your Drinking Water Safe?" which is available from the EPA Hotline.

If your water exceeds any MCLs, or isn't being tested for all the required chemicals, your utility is probably breaking the law. Call your state water supply agency (get the number from the Hotline) to find out what's being done to correct the problem. If you need a treatment unit, your state health department should be able to help you select one.

So, armed with the EPA booklet, I called my local utility, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC), last September, and was sent a copy of its test results for 1989.

When I compared them to the numbers in the booklet, I saw that each of the 30 contaminants was below its MCL. But a few things troubled me.

Unleaded, Please. According to the WSSC's results, in 1989 the average lead level in my water was 0.007 milligrams per liter (mg/l). That's well below the MCL of 0.050 mg/l, but an asterisk in the EPA booklet was unsettling. "Agency considering substantially lower number," it said.

That lower number is 0.005 mg/l. My water had more lead than that in 1989. WSSC chemist Brad Fisher assured me that the lead has already been reduced to about 0.002 mg/l.

But utilities measure lead at the treatment plant. On the way to the tap, lead from pipes, fixtures, or solder could leach into the water. If your house has lead pipes, or is less than five years old and has copper pipes, test your water for lead.

That doesn't apply to me, so I would test only if I were pregnant or had young children at home. Even so, since hot water is likely to contain higher levels of lead, I let the water run until it's good and cold before I drink or cook with it. (Also, always use cold water for making baby formula. For more information, ask the EPA Hotline for the free booklet "Lead and Your Drinking Water.")

Talk About THMs. According to the WSSC, I drink "surface" water, which means it comes from a river or lake. That also means my water is much more likely to contain trihalomethanes (THMs) than is "ground" water, which is pumped from underground sources.

THMs are organic chemicals that include the suspected carcinogen chloroform. They form when chlorine (which is added to water to kill bacteria) reacts with decaying leaves and other organic matter. The MCL for "total THMs" is 100 micrograms per liter ([microgram]/l or mcg/l), but many scientists think that's too high. In 1989, the THMs in my water averaged 58.9 mcg/l.

If I thought I'd be drinking that many THMs for the next 20 years, I'd buy an activated-carbon filter tomorrow. But the EPA plans to lower the MCL in 1992. I can wait until then.

VOCs Populi. Your utility is required to monitor for more than just the 30 contaminants that have legally established limits (MCLs). The WSSC tests for another three dozen or so, including chemicals with names like 1,2-dibromo-3-chloro-propane and trans-1,2-dichloroethylene.

These are the "unregulated" volatile organic chemicals (VOCs). "Volatile" means they vaporize easily, which makes them a problem not just in drinking water. Some VOCs can enter your body through water vapor you breathe when you shower. The EPA requires utilities to test for unregulated VOCs, but it has never established MCLs for them. In other words, it has no authority to force water systems to keep them down.

Even so, make sure your utility tests for unregulated VOCs. You can get a list of them from the EPA Hotline. If the utility's tests detect any, call the Hotline and ask what the number means. Even though there are no MCLs, the EPA does have levels for most VOCs above which it becomes concerned.

My utility detected only two unregulated VOCs in 1989, both at extremely low concentrations. If a dozen or more had turned up--no matter how low their levels--I'd probably purchase an activated-carbon unit.

This is a Test. If your utility serves fewer than 3,300 people, it's a "small" system according to the EPA. That means it currently only has to test for 22 of the 30 regulated contaminants, and that it's more likely to have violations. In that case, or if you have your own well or don't trust your utility's results, you should consider testing.

Water testing is serious business. If you wouldn't go to an unlicensed doctor, don't go to an uncertified lab. The EPA Hotline can help you find an approved lab in your state.

If you live near an industrial plant, you can find out which chemicals it uses--and might be discharging into lakes and rivers--by calling the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory Office at (202) 382-3531.

I'll Drink to That. Home water-treatment units are too important not to be regulated. The federal government should certify all units, prohibit misleading home tests and other scare tactics, and require manufacturers to provide clear information on what their models can and cannot do.

Of course, buying a unit wouldn't be necessary if the EPA and your state did a better job of keeping contaminants out of your water, if they set standards for more contaminants, and if they enforced those standards that are already in place.

But don't hold your breath. Write your utility and tell it to follow the example of Cincinnati, which is the first city in the nation to use an activated-carbon system that is designed to reduce THMs, solvents, and other organic chemicals.

"It costs the average family only six cents more per day," says Richard Miller, director of the Cincinnati Water Works Department.

"We met the standards [even before the new system]," he explains. "But is that good enough if you want a product you're proud of and that your customers deserve?"

It's not.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Center for Science in the Public Interest
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on water treatments
Author:Lefferts, Lisa
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Date:Nov 1, 1990
Words:1734
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