Tests not Taste:  The Key to Checking Drinking Water Safety    

pexels-photo-87383There’s a frequently asked question on the EPA’s Web site that would, at first glance, seem almost silly. “Can I tell if my drinking water is okay by just looking at it, tasting it, or smelling it?”

The answer, of course, is no. It goes on to say, “None of the chemicals or microbes that can make you sick can be seen, tasted, or smelled.”

Fair enough. That leaves water testing. And just who is checking drinking water for safety? The short answer is your water system. Private wells are another story. The EPA doesn’t regulate them, and many states and towns don’t require sampling, though the EPA recommends owners test their own water.

Otherwise, most systems use private certified laboratories to analyze drinking water. A few systems operate their own state-certified labs and test themselves. Results from the labs are sent to the water systems and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.

Gary Bailey, former president of the Alabama Water and Pollution Control Association and water supply superintendent of Huntsville Utilities, says water systems send 90 to 95 percent of samples to outside labs; the only in-house testing is bacteriological. One reason? Cost. “It gets more and more expensive,” Bailey says. The equipment and certifications change rapidly, so updates can be costly. Instead, many systems opt to outsource those analyses. “When I started, almost everything was parts per million. That was 28 years ago,” Bailey says. “Now it’s parts per trillion. It is so sensitive.” So equipment today requires a higher level of precision than before for accurate results, he says.

Bailey’s organization, AWPCA, trains water and wastewater operators around the state. Depending on what they’re looking for, water is tested at different intervals — sometimes hourly, sometimes daily, sometimes quarterly. Chlorine and turbidity, for instance, might be checked hourly. Lead or copper might be under a quarterly or monthly schedule, he says.

“There are lists of things that are routinely tested for,” says Richard Clapp, environmental health professor at Boston University School of Public Health. That list has grown over the last 30 years. ADEM, too, says the number of contaminants tested for now is significantly greater than in the last few decades. ADEM adds a new contaminant to the list when the EPA requires it, ADEM spokeswoman Lynn Battle says in an email. The EPA outlines those contaminants, along with testing intervals, in the Safe Drinking Water Act.

As of now, there are 86 health-based primary contaminants – chemical, bacteriological, and radiological — that EPA requires tests for and sets enforceable standards for, according to ADEM.   In addition, the EPA, in accord with the Safe Drinking Water Act, requires water systems to test for certain unregulated contaminants (no more than 30) and non-health based contaminants (15) for which quality standards are just guidelines.

New contaminants are added to the testing list regularly, as more is known about these contaminants and the health risks associated with them.

“Thirty years ago it was a much bigger mess, and there were a lot of chemicals flying under the radar,” Clapp says. PFOA and PFOS, for instance, aren’t new chemicals. Clapp says they’ve been around about half a century; it’s just that no one knew how harmful they are until the last 15 years or so.

“In general, I think drinking water regulations have led to improved water quality over the past four decades,” Clapp says. “But we are still learning about some previously unrecognized contaminants … and have to remain vigilant.”

PFOA and PFOS in Alabama

The EPA this spring released a health advisory noting safe levels of PFOA and PFOS, assuming long-term exposure. But the federal agency had known for years that there’s been concern. Last August, the EPA’s sampling program found PFOA in 103 water supplies serving almost 7 million people, according to the Environmental Working Group.

Why so long, then, to firm up guidelines? “You’re trying to get a full picture,” Bailey says. Levels of some chemicals change throughout the year. Water, not surprisingly, dilutes, and so with more volume comes an increasing difficulty in detecting chemicals that often show up in very small amounts.

For these two chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, there are only a handful of labs in the country that are equipped to test samples, Clapp says. And as the overall list of contaminants has grown, it’s caused backlogs at some of those labs. How much is going undetected is unknowable, Clapp says, “but undoubtedly things are being missed.”

Many states complain that their environmental health department budgets have been cut. Alabama is among them.

The Drinking Water branch of ADEM’s budget is about $2.3 million, and while Battle says the budget in 2010 was about the same, the department had 25 full time employees, compared to 21 today. The program has “reduced its staff over the last decade, partially due to the transfer of certain duties to other areas (e.g. Operator Certification) and partially by cutting costs (e.g. using electronic tracking),” Battle wrote in an email.

She adds that while ADEM doesn’t typically conduct tests on a water system’s behalf, a water authority may use ADEM’s lab to conduct specific tests instead of using another certified lab. Private well owners might check with their local health department, which often tests for free, or find a certified lab (https://www.epa.gov/dwlabcert/contact-information-certification-programs-and-certified-laboratories-drinking-water).

Public Water Information    

Bottom line, Clapp says, is with resources stretched thinner, the state and federal government still check our water, and for more substances than they did in the past.

“But citizen vigilance is the only thing that keeps it moving in the right direction,” he says.

Alabama’s 700 water systems are required to provide each year by July 1 an Annual Consumer Confidence Report to their customers.  The 2016 reports were recently published.  They provide information on contaminants that are detected in the drinking water, sources of drinking water and assessments of that water, and treatment processes.

An Alabama customer may contact the water system that supplies him for that system’s CCR report.  These reports also are filed with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM.)

CCR reports from the Birmingham Water Works Board can be found here: https://www.bwwb.org/waterquality