Friday, November 19, 2010
Troubled waters: LWV forum looks at water safety and supply
Many people worry about their drinking water: how safe is it and is the supply threatened? These issues were explored at the League of Women Voters’ forum entitled “Protecting our Taps,” held on Friday, November 5, at the Alcott School in Concord.
Contaminants in drinking water
Valerie Lane, president of ValiantLane LLC, an environmental and management consulting firm, spoke about contaminants in drinking water, as well as the questionable quality of bottled waters. Lane described two types of water contaminants. First there are the known contaminants. “These are the ones we have investigated, such as oils, solvents, PCBs, metals, fertilizers and pesticides. We know their distribution and we know their behavior.” They are being cleaned up using different technologies on sites around the world.
The second type includes compounds such as hormones, narcotics, plasticizers and personal care products. “One of our biggest issues is estrogen in our drinking water and our waste water. Another is narcotics and antibiotics. There are radioactive tracers from medical testing.” BPAs, Teflon, flame retardants and compounds from sunscreen and shampoo are also showing up in water.
“We are trying to understand what their impact is on human health and ecology,” Lane said. The EPA has found that conventional water treatment systems are 90% effective in removing pharmaceuticals. Some estrogen compounds and other drugs were not removed at all. “It’s an indication that our waste water treatment facilities are not removing all compounds that could cause potential harm.”
Lane spoke about an experiment in a lake in Ontario, Canada, where estrogen, like that found in birth control pills, was added to the water to the level found in treated waste water. After seven weeks, there was early feminization of male fat-head minnow fish species. After nine months, male fish were deformed and they were starting to form female genitalia. After 18 months, the fish population collapsed, fish could not reproduce. In two years, there were no young fish.
In terms of human health, she said that a study showed men living in rural and semi-agricultural areas have 60% of the sperm count of males living in urban areas. The data suggests that this problem comes from compounds in fertilizers that mimic estrogen.
Quality of bottled water
Lane also talked about the quality of bottled water. With data in hand, she showed the crowd that Concord’s tap water is excellent. She compared it to Aquafina, water that is bottled in Ayer, which she said has almost twice the manganese level than the standard in EPA regulations and Old Kerry, which is bottled in Haverhill, which she said exceeds EPA regulations in turbidity and manganese levels. Turbidity is a measure of particulates or cloudiness in the water.
Testing of wells
Lane recommended, “Baseline testing [of private wells] and testing annually thereafter.” She suggested going to www.mass.gov/dep/water/drinking/privatew.htm for guidelines on what should be tested and acceptable levels of contaminants. She also recommends testing for the emerging contaminants such as hormones and pharmaceuticals.
Reached after the forum, Carlisle Board of Health Agent Linda Fantasia said that the state Department of Public Health is studying water contaminants, but doesn’t have all the data yet. She said private wells are not regulated.
Lane recommended several actions:
• Adopt a program from the European Union called REACH which places greater responsibility on industry to manage risks.
• Reduce consumption of bottled water.
• Recycle plastic bottles for all liquids.
• Pass the bottle bill in Massachusetts.
• Éxpand the unused prescription drop-off program.
Water scarcity and excessive use
Ruth Caplan, from the Sierra Club and the Alliance for Democracy’s Defending Water for Life Campaign, discussed more global issues. She touched on the lack of clean water for many poor populations around the globe, the large amount of water used to make products, unsustainable irrigation, the breakdown of agreements about water between countries, and corporations buying up water rights and selling water for profit.
Caplan explained that irrigation for agriculture and coolant for power plants are the greatest consumers. Coal mining and hydraulic fracturing of gas from shale are other large water-consuming processes. She suggested that people learn how much water it takes to produce many household items, such as pet food and jeans.
Dangers of privatization
“Global water scarcity is really a corporate profit center,” said Caplan. “Global water corporations are positioning themselves to profit from the looming scarcity by gaining control of water and profiting from the scarcity.” Companies like Nestle, Pepsi and Coca-Cola are commoditizing water, selling it at whatever price the market will bear. She warned against privatization of water by corporations which take over water treatment facilities and sewer plants or control the transportation of water . Caplan highly recommended that towns put bylaws in place to limit corporate control of the water within a town’s borders.
After three speakers, the audience broke out into small discussion groups. Each of these met and came up with further action items.
The Bottled Water Action Group came up with two action items:
• Educate the public about water quality and convince students and townspeople they can drink from the tap.
• Provide reusable water bottles and put a catchy slogan on them to promote use of tap water, instead of bottled water.
The Personal and Household Action group action items include:
• Ask homeowners of older homes to check for lead pipes and explore the possibility of using gray water from showers to fill toilets.
• Educate people on what products are environmentally good to use at home. They recommend the website: www.goodguide.com.
The Watershed Protection group recommended learning more and getting involved in watershed issues.
The Carlisle Water Action group suggested:
• Pass new bylaws limiting pesticide use in landscaping.
• Promote use of gray-water systems.
• Increase awareness of what substances should not be put down the drain.
• Ask the Board of Health to require comprehensive testing of well water upon the sale of a house. When reached after the meeting, BOH Agent Fantasia said the BOH already requires such a test. “It is meant as a disclosure,” said Fantasia. She said most lenders require water testing for homes without public water systems. The information is public.
The Concord Water Action group hopes to maximize use and reuse of water and go after grants for Concord for a mobile refilling station. They will work on getting drinking fountains into the new design for Concord-Carlisle High School and make new water treatment plants more energy efficient. ∆
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