2010 Water Quality Report   Leave a comment

Our annual Water Quality Report recently came in the mail. It’s a good document to get in the habit of reading. As an environmental professional, I always find these reports frustratingly skimpy on the data; but I’m guessing most people find them hard to read and would prefer to ignore them. Water agencies are required by law to collect a certain number of samples and analyze for a certain number of analytes. These reports are how they communicate that information to their customers. It’s how you can know that your water is safe, at least when it is in the distribution system. Lead or copper can get into the water in the pipes inside the building, but that’s not the responsibility of the water agency.

A short water quality report is a good thing. Water agencies only have to report detections, so the shorter the table, the fewer analytes were detected over the course of the year. Sometimes I think it would actually be good PR for a water agency to print in the background or in fine print in a corner somewhere the complete list of all analytes so that consumers can know what’s NOT in their water in addition to what MAY BE in the water. There are two major categories of analytes: those with primary Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) and those with secondary MCLs. Primary MCLs are health protective. Secondary MCLs are more aesthetic (i.e. taste, color, or odor). Some chemicals have both primary and secondary MCLs, in which case the primary MCL is naturally the most important one. For primary MCLs there is the MCL and the MCL Goal. The goal is the level below which there are no known health risks. Unfortunately it is not always possible to treat water down to the goal because of technological limitations and/or cost, so the MCL is set as the lowest level that is actually feasible while also being protective of health. Especially since I am trying to get pregnant I am very interested in comparing the detections to the MCL Goal, instead of just the MCL.

In our case it is somewhat comforting to know that the only regulated organic compound detected was dibromochloropropane (DBCP). This is on the one hand comforting to know since our water agency is situated right on top of an area with significant groundwater contamination from AeroJet. I have several coworkers who work with local water agencies to protect their well fields from these groundwater plumes. On the other hand, however, I am not pleased to see that there was at least one sample where DBCP was detected at a concentration several times above the MCL Goal. To be completely honest, it doesn’t worry me that much, though. I still have no plans to filter our water at home. Just because one sample (ok, I don’t know how many) over a two year period was above the MCL Goal and below the MCL doesn’t mean that I’m getting constant exposure to that chemical. And the MCL is still considered health protective. For all I know they may have turned off the well with that detection anyway. It may be contrary to my devotion to the precautionary principle to not want to filter my water now, but I’m looking at it from a cost/benefit side. A carbon filter for our drinking water wouldn’t provide protection from the exposure through skin and lungs in the shower. Right now the cost of a whole house filtration system is just not high on the wish list. I’d rather replace our 19-year-old sofa so that I’m no longer exposed to any fire retardants and other chemicals in the exposed foam.

On top of these regulated substances, there is unfortunately also the issue of unregulated contaminants and emerging contaminants, but that’s a whole different topic for another post someday.

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