September 19, 2009

Things in your water that make you go “Hmmm”

updated  3-5-10
Do we need stronger federal and state oversight over water pollution violations? “You betcha” or “Maybe”? Is greater safety synonymous with more stringent regulation?

The New York Times just uncovered some shocking figures. The EPA has allowed more than a half million water pollution violations nationally over the last five years, with less than 3 percent of the cases of the polluters being fined. The Times now provides an interactive website that allows readers to review the unpunished water pollution violations in their states.

In Virginia, EPA and the state allowed 20 violations at the Galax, Va., wastewater treatment plant with no penalties, although Virginia did impose some penalties for violations at other plants.

I’m not trying to scare you into a case of “chemophobia,” but just become aware of the chemicals that are in our water, food, air, and a bunch of consumer products. I loved those insulated tumblers, but they contain BPA (now in all of us) and I’ve stopped using them. The mere presence of a chemical in your drinking water or food does not necessarily constitute a public health hazard, but is it unsettling news.

Remember too that the overwhelming majority of cancers likely result from sources outside EPA control. That is why the World Health Organization suggested in its 2003 World Cancer Report that cancer-prevention efforts should focus on three factors: tobacco use, diet, and infections. But one of those factors, diet, brings us back to the multitude of chemicals used to bring us our food—from the soil, the fertilizer, the irrigation water, the genetically modified seeds, the processing, and packaging, and the plastic plate you might serve it on!

Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), also known as "C8," is probably in your kitchen and perhaps in YOU. It’s a man-made chemical that has been used since the 1950s in the manufacturing of some non-stick Teflon products. It provides fire resistance, and oil, grease, and water repellency to clothing and carpets.

The EPA has been investigating PFOA because it is found at very low levels in the blood of the general U.S. population where it remains for a very long time. EPA found small traces of it in drinking water they have tested, but report that “Based on its current understanding, EPA believes these levels are not of concern and residents may rely upon public water systems.” Hmmm.

In 2005, DuPont was fined over $16 million by EPA for multiple failures to report substantial risk to human health or the environment from PFOA, and for withholding blood sampling information on families living near a DuPont facility in West Virginia. Hmmm again.

DuPont and other manufacturers have agreed to phase out the use of PFOA by 2015, all the while claiming that products coated in Teflon are safe. Some consumer watchdogs disagree. You may have heard about pet birds dying after Teflon pans reached too high a temperature. Hmmm.

FYI: Carbon filters remove PFOA from drinking water.

Perchlorate, an ingredient used to manufacture rocket fuel, fireworks, explosives, and safety flares, showed up in recently tested drinking water in 35 — at levels that could be harmful to human health. It’s been linked to thyroid problems in pregnant women, newborns and young children across the nation. High detections are extensive in Arizona, California, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia, where munitions have been stored and tested. The EPA is re-evaluating whether to regulate this chemical under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Hmmm.

FYI: Reverse osmosis removes perchlorate from drinking water.

Atrazine, a herbicide generously used by corn and soy farmers (80 million pounds of it in the U.S. alone), was not in my weedkiller vocabulary until recently. Then the Natural Resources Defense Council recently shared this shocking bit of info. Approximately 75 percent of stream water and about 40 percent of all groundwater samples from 150 watersheds in agricultural areas tested in a U.S. Geological Survey study contained atrazine. It was found to exceed federal safety limits in drinking water in four states (Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Kansas). Not really surprising—since Congress has been encouraging more corn acreage for ethanol as an alternative fuel. More subsidies; more corn; more atrazine. And ultimately more processed food with sugar from corn on every shelf of your grocery stores.

Based on the recommendations of its scientific advisory panels in 2000 and 2003, the EPA has listed atrazine as “not likely” to be a carcinogen but does officially consider it to be a potential hormone disruptor – a risk factor explored by researchers testing animals. Atrazine has been the subject of intensive debate among scientists about its effects on the reproductive systems of frogs and other vertebrate animals. In some studies, male frogs that were exposed to high levels of atrazine have been documented to grow eggs.

The European Union banned atrazine in 2004 because of its persistent presence in groundwater. The biggest danger is not in the small amounts sometimes found—but in the peaks at higher concentrations. A little every day, especially for Midwesterners, is not as threatening as a larger amount monthly. The mantra is “Only the dose makes the poison.” Testing can easily miss a spike in the presence of any chemical.

One study, published this year in the medical journal Acta Paediatrica, found that birth defect rates in the United States were highest for women who conceived during months when atrazine levels were spiking. The EPA plans to revisit its rules for atrazine in 2011. Hmmm.

FYI: James City Service Authority has a monitoring waiver for atrazine. Carbon filters remove atrazine from drinking water.

3-10 update from Chesapeake Daily: A new study by Dr. Tyrone B. Hayes of the University of California, Berkeley, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science states that the atrazine herbicide may also be causing sexual deformities in frogs that might be contributing to global declines in amphibian populations.

“Atrazine exposed males were both demasculated (chemically castrated) and completely feminized as adults,” the report says. “Ten percent of the exposed genetic males developed into functional females that copulated with unexposed males and produced viable eggs."

Male frogs also exposed to the weed killer also suffed from depressed testosterone levels, decreased breeding gland size, suppressed mating behavior and decreased fertility, the report says.

Because the herbicide is so prevalent in waterways, it evaporates into the air and falls down with the rain. More than a half million pounds of atrazine a year falls with the rain each year in the U.S., according to Dr. Hayes study.

The local impact? Researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey have detected atrazine in 100 percent of headwater streams in the Delmarva peninsula, and about half of the ground water used for public water supplies in this area, according to a 2007 federal report.


Lawn care chemicals leach into our water too. Canada has banned Weed 'n Feed, Roundup, Sevin and dozens of other products commonly sold in much of the U.S. Connecticut has taken the bold step of removing them from all school grounds in grades K-8. The EPA, by its own admission, states that approval of a lawn care product in no way guarantees product safety. Some local governments are passing local ordinances that ban applications of synthetic lawn chemicals.

What can YOU do? Most countertop and faucet water filters are activated carbon filters, which will get rid of bad tastes and odors as well as many impurities, including chlorine. Filters that are certified as meeting NSF/ANSI standard 53 treat water for health reasons as well. Standard 53-certified filters can substantially reduce many hazardous contaminants, including heavy metals such as copper, lead and mercury; disinfection byproducts; parasites such as Giardia and Cryptosporidium ; pesticides; radon; and volatile organic chemicals such as methyl-tert-butyl ether (MTBE), dichlorobenzene and trichloroethylene (TCE).

On NSF's website, you may search for filters that remove specific contaminants, such as the pesticide atrazine, by selecting the contaminant under "reduction claim" here.

Most people don't need expensive reverse osmosis filters. They are only necessary if you have unusual contaminants in your water, such as perchlorate, that can't be removed by a carbon filter.

Check your local water quality report to see which contaminants have been found in your water supply and buy a filter that's certified to remove them. If you have kids, are pregnant or are thinking about becoming pregnant, you should test your tap water for lead contamination. Lead enters drinking water from corroding pipes so levels can vary greatly from home to home. Read NRDC's guide to water filters.

Read your annual your local water quality report, JCSA's Waterline, and then learn about the possible contaminants in your water. Start by reading NRDC's factsheet on common contaminants.

10-2-09 update: EPA Director, Lisa Jackson, recently announced that the EPA would be much more pro-active in assessing chemicals and reforming the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). U.S. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ) commented, “America’s system for regulating toxic chemicals is broken. Far too little is known about the hundreds of chemicals that end up in our bodies and EPA has far too little authority to determine their safety. . . Americans deserve to know that products they rely on – from household cleaners to personal care products to building materials – are safe and will not harm their families.” “What a refreshing change,” said Dr. Arnold Schecter of the University of Texas School of Public Health, Dallas, who studies these persistent organic pollutants. He has found PBDEs [used as a flame retardant in some plastic and furniture foam] in 100 percent of American mothers’ breast milk tested, with some women carrying “orders of magnitude” more than women in Europe, where the compounds have been phased out since 2004. Schecter said stronger federal action on risks from persistent organic compounds was overdue. The system we have now assumes that chemicals are innocent until proven guilty,” said Jane Houlihan, senior vice president for research at the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C. “These reforms introduced today would flip that.”
According to the CDC website, "Although no definitive studies in the United States have been conducted to identify the sources of exposure, people appear to be exposed to the lower brominated congeners of PBDEs by eating food that contains these PBDEs. . . The main source of exposure to PBDEs may be through foods, particularly those with high fat content, such as fatty fish. Some lower brominated PBDEs have been detected in air samples, indicating that people can also be exposed by inhalation." Hmmm. Now I'm worried about breathing and drinking water.