Recognize the risks to drinking water


— As environmental issues continue to garner more attention across the globe, certain concerns that represent the public’s collective unease continue to emerge. Contamination of drinking water has long been a hot-button issue, and one that was once again being brought to the forefront in 2015.

In 1993, the town of Hinkley, Calif., became national news when legal clerk Erin Brockovich investigated the apparent cluster of health illnesses in the community. She found there was a link between those illnesses and the local water supply and its high levels of hexavalent chromium – a carcinogen – which had purportedly been leaching into the water from a natural gas transmission compressor station since 1952. Contaminated water from cooling towers was stored between uses in unlined ponds, which allowed it to seep into surrounding groundwater.

Contaminated drinking water is not exclusive to California. Water contamination can occur anywhere in the world. Recently, the subject has come into the limelight again, this time in Flint, Mich. Residents of Flint had been noticing strange health symptoms, including hair loss, rashes, abdominal pains, and even stunted growth. Upon further examination, it was discovered that residents of Flint were slowly being poisoned by lead, which may have been initiated when the city’s water supply was switched from Detroit’s water system over to the Flint River in 2014. The maximum concentration of lead allowed by law is 15 parts per billion (ppb). Tap water measured from Flint was nearly 400 ppb. According to the World Health Organization, the neurological and behavioral effects of exposure to excessive levels of lead are believed to be irreversible.

Based on the news coming out of Flint, many people have expressed concern about what is hiding in their own water supplies. Nearly 286 million Americans get their tap water from a community water system, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while others rely on well water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that the United States has one of the safest public drinking water supplies in the world. Worldwide, things have begun to look up as well. In 2015, 91 percent of the world’s population had access to improved drinking water, says the WHO. That doesn’t mean individuals shouldn’t remain cautious. Contaminated water can transmit diseases such as diarrhea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio. It also may be hiding potentially cancer-causing substances – both natural and manmade.

Those who want to be proactive in protecting their communities from contaminated water can follow these tips.

· Get drinking water tested. Find a reputable local laboratory that specializes in testing drinking water. Start by calling the water authorities where you live or in surrounding towns, which may have a list of local, independents labs. The EPA may be able to help as well. Contact their safe drinking water hotline at 800-426-4791. You also can buy a testing kit from home improvement retailers to conduct routine tests yourself.

· Install a water filter. Water filters may be connected to the main water source in a home or attached to faucets. These devices can help filter out any other impurities that may be affecting the taste or quality of drinking water.

· Watch groundwater contamination. Be cautious about what you release into the soil in and around your home, especially if you rely on well water. County health departments may test for nitrates and bacteria, but you may require more in-depth testing from an outside service if you suspect a problem.

· Get connected with municipal alerts. Water-main breaks and other instances may require the shutting off and flushing of municipal water systems, which may introduce contaminants. Always follow suggested water-boil and cleaning guidelines issued in your area.

By heeding these tips, residents can protect themselves against contaminated drinking water.