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Government and Politics


Cleaning drinking water is expensive, but still may not be enough
Some contaminants with unknown effects are making their way into tap water
Story by KAREN SHAEFER


 
Getting water from the source to the tap is a long and expensive process, but some say it can still be improved.
Courtesy of Tom Sulcer
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In The Region:
Unless you have a private well, wherever you live in Northeast Ohio, you are probably using tap water to wash dishes, bathe, even make your morning coffee. Most U.S. public drinking water is safe, but keeping up that high standard is becoming a lot more expensive.
LISTEN: SCHAEFER ON DRINKING WATER

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There was a time when typhoid outbreaks, like those that killed thousands in Haiti after the hurricane, were also killing residents in Cleveland. In 1903, nearly 500 people died from unsafe drinking water. The last case was in 1935.

"Chlorine has been one of the biggest and most major advances in human health in the history of mankind, I would argue," Cleveland Water Commissioner Alex Margevichus says.

Margevichus is standing in a corridor at the Baldwin Water Treatment Plant on Cleveland’s east side. It is one of the city’s oldest water treatment facilities, built in 1925. He says Cleveland started adding disinfectants early on.

"We added chlorine in 1912, because we were having cholera and typhoid outbreaks," Margevichus says. "And chlorine was the first thing that we did to make sure we had better water."

From lake to tap
Since then, public water treatment has come a long way. Once a year, Cleveland opens one of its water treatment plants to the public. Baldwin plant manager Frank Woyma, who has worked for the city water department since 1991, says for many visitors, it is an eye-opening experience.

"Most people are just amazed at what it takes to make drinking water," Woyma says.

The process starts with water from Lake Erie, pumped from one of four water cribs located several miles off-shore. The first treatment step is to siphon the water into huge underground settling tanks treated with alum, to sweep out larger sediments. Then it is sent through cleaning filters, made of crushed coal and sand, that remove the finer particles.

"At 55 million gallons of pumpage a day, it takes about 8 hours for a drop of water to get from one end to the other," Woyma says.

The final process is to add chemicals that disinfect the water, to be sure there is no lingering bacteria that could make people sick. It is a practice all water treatment plants follow. Even so, in 1993, an outbreak in Milwaukee of the bacteria cryptosporidium killed more than a hundred people. Alex Margevichus says it was a wake-up call to the industry.

"The US EPA came under a lot of criticism," Margevichus says.  "You’ve got all these rules and still something happened. People died. So the US EPA and the water industry and American Waterworks Associations said, can we do better."

New threats- and costs
The safety of tap water in Cleveland and many other Great Lakes cities now exceeds federal drinking water standards.  By law, those federal standards are updated every six years.  But there is a new class of contaminants under review.  Trace amounts of pesticides, prescription drugs and consumer products like shampoo and fragrances are showing up in water across the United States.

"Science suggests that aquatic species are being harmed," says Gabriel Eckstein, a law professor at Texas Weslyan University.

Some pesticides, even in tiny amounts, can disrupt growth hormones in amphibians and cause deformities. Eckstein says, so far, there is no scientific evidence of impacts to human health, but he says cities like Cleveland are not likely to adopt new technologies – like reverse osmosis – that could remove these worrisome chemicals from drinking water.

"They’re not thinking about it, because the technology, even though it is there, it’s expensive," Eckstein says. "It’s extremely expensive."

The US EPA is now studying the possible health risk of more than 200 trace contaminants. The results could inform future drinking water decisions. Even without regulatory changes, the cost for treating drinking water is going up, as chemical costs rise. And if you’re thinking bottled water may be a better alternative, Frank Woyma says, think again.

"It is our water they put in the bottle," Woyma says. "They may run it through a charcoal filter, but if you leave that bottle out in the sun, it’s going to grow bacteria in it."

Karen Schaefer's series on Northeast Ohio water quality - Drink, Fish, Swim – is supported by a grant from the Burning River Foundation.

Listener Comments:

Della, flushing cat litter - however biodegradable - may not be a good idea. Cat feces can contain contaminants that can infect humans, especially pregnant women. And while it's probably removed from drinking water by chlorination, it's probably not removed by sewage treatment, which means you're releasing toxins into Lake Erie. In fact, feral felines digging in your garden beds should be discouraged. Their feces can be deadly: http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/07/05/199041322/harmful-parasites-in-cat-poop-are-widespread


Posted by: Anonymous on August 21, 2013 7:08AM
Just FYI - Cryptosporidium is a protozoan, not a bacterium.


Posted by: Patrick Vowell (United States) on August 2, 2013 11:08AM
I use cat litter for five cats made of 100% corn kernels, called World's Best Cat Litter. I recently moved here from New York City and have been flushing cat feces, urine, and litter for many years. Recently someone asked me if it was a safe practice since what we flush may eventually become our tap water, after its progress through a water treatment plant. Would you please comment on this? Many thanks, DCS


Posted by: Della Clason Sperling (Canton, Ohio 44708) on August 2, 2013 7:08AM
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