Every year, in order to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1996, Colorado Springs Utilities provides its customers with an annual water quality report.
To a lay reader, the report is alarming, even terrifying.
As required by law, CSU lists every “contaminant” that is present in our drinking water.
It’s an a dismaying recital of apparently toxic substances, including (take a deep breath) beta/photon emitters, radium, uranium, copper, lead, barium, chromium, fluoride, nitrates, selenium, sodium, volatile organic compounds (including chlorine, haleoacetic acids and trihalomethanes, as well as bromodichloromethane, chlorodibromomethane and chloroform) and, finally, a single “regulated organic contaminant” hexachlorocyclopentadiene.
Doesn’t this mean that our water is a foul chemical stew, full of nasty carcinogens, not even fit for livestock?
Not exactly. CSU spokeswoman Janet Rummel said that “water supplies comply with all national drinking water standards.” Those standards, created by Environmental Protection Agency through years of experience, ensure that no contaminant in municipal water supplies is present at a level that would endanger public health.
CSU’s water not only complies with those standards, but exceeds them in every category.
Let’s start with the scariest stuff, the alphabet soup of organic compounds, with names that make sense only to those of us who, in college, went boldly where few students dared venture — to classes in organic chemistry.
Chlorine is a water additive used to control microbes in raw water, while the next five are classified as “by-products of drinking water disinfection.” They are present in minute quantities, varying between 2.7 and 22 parts per billion, and are believed to present no risk to public health at this level.
Absent chlorination and disinfection, the city’s water supply would be at serious risk of microbial contamination.
Only the final substance on the list, hexachlorocyclopentadiene, is of exogenous origin.
Its origin: discharge from chemical factories.
The EPA describes it as “an oily, yellow-green organic liquid with a pungent odor. Its greatest use is as a raw material in manufacturing other chemicals, including pesticides, flame retardants, resins, dyes, pharmaceuticals, plastics, etc. HEX has no end uses of its own.”
So how did it get into our water?
It didn’t — at least, not in any meaningful sense.
Thanks to the extraordinary precision and sensitivity of the multiple technologies used to detect contaminants, it was found to be intermittently present at a level of one part in 10 billion. That’s equivalent to one penny in $10 million, or to one minute in 20,000 years.
It’s also well below the “maximum contaminant level” allowed by EPA, which, at 50 parts per billion, is 500 times the amount measured.
HEX, says the EPA, “ is not a persistent environmental contaminant. If released to soil, it is likely to adhere to soil where it will be degraded by microbes. In water it evaporates quickly and is attacked by sunlight and other reactive chemicals.”
The other non-organic contaminants present in our drinking water are, like the organic chemicals, only on the list because of sophisticated means of detection. The presence of lead, copper and other metals is principally attributed to “erosion of natural deposits,” meaning that they have been dissolved from the rocks over which our pure Rocky Mountain spring/stream water flows.
But regardless of the level of contaminant, shouldn’t we drink bottled water instead? Doesn’t it make sense to avoid all those chemicals and drink absolutely pure water?
Alas, there is no such thing — or if there is, you can’t buy it in plastic bottles.
In a report released last year, the Environmental Working Group reported the results of extensive testing of 10 popular brands of bottled water.
Although such water, at an average cost of $3.79 per gallon, is about 1,600 times as expensive as water from CSU, comprehensive testing by EWG found that bottled water “purchased from grocery stores and other retailers in nine states and the District of Columbia, contained 38 chemical pollutants altogether, with an average of 8 contaminants in each brand …. Four brands were also contaminated with bacteria.”
Chemical analysis revealed that, rather than coming from pure springs far from civilization, undefiled by man or beast, most bottled water comes from … municipal water systems.
The samples of Wal-Mart’s “Sam’s Choice” bottled water were found to have originated from municipal systems in Las Vegas, Oakland and Mountain View, Calif. Testing revealed the presence of trihalomethanes and bromodichlormethane in concentrations similar to those in water from CSU.
Municipal water users are provided with EPA mandated test results annually. The EPA does not regulate the bottled water industry, which does its own testing and does not release the results. That’s not surprising, since contaminants for the 10 brands tested included “not only disinfection byproducts, but also common urban wastewater pollutants like caffeine and pharmaceuticals (Tylenol); heavy metals and minerals, including arsenic and radioactive isotopes; fertilizer residue (nitrate and ammonia); and a broad range of other, tentatively identified industrial chemicals used as solvents, plasticizers, viscosity decreasing agents, and propellants.”
The International Bottled Water Association took strong exception to the EWG’s findings. A lengthy statement from Tom Lauria, the IWBA’s vice president for communications, claimed that bottled water from municipal sources goes through further purification before bottling.
He said that bottled water companies “treat and purify the water, employing processes such as reverse osmosis and distillation before it is bottled and delivered to consumers as a packaged food product.”
Noting that IWBA did not question the results obtained by its scientists, EWG dropped the hammer directly on Lauria.
“Tom Lauria was formerly the top spin doctor for the tobacco industry. We detect Mr. Lauria’s fingerprints on IBWA’s rebuttal to EWG’s scientific testing. In our view, he has had extensive experience distorting the facts and misleading consumers in an attempt to hide the truth about the industry that pays his salary.”
So given that water is essential to life, what’s the best choice (if it’s not Sam’s)?
The EWG recommends that consumers avoid bottled water, and use a carbon filter at the tap to remove any contaminants that might still be present in a municipal system. Moreover, the group notes, doing so is good for the environment.
Each year, the bottled water industry produces 36 billion plastic bottles. Less than a fifth are recycled — the rest end up in landfills.
Water bottle production, according to a 2007 resolution passed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, uses 1.5 million barrels of oil annually, enough energy to heat 250,000 homes. n CSBJ