On Thursday, January 23rd, the Trump Administration finalized the removal of the “Waters of the United States” regulations set in place during the Obama Administration. The removal of the 2015 rules was highly backed by the coal and farm sectors, that can now dump pollutants such as pesticides and fertilizers directly into waterways. Trump’s new water rule, the “Navigable Water Protection Rule,” will still protect larger bodies of water, including the Chesapeake Bay and the Mississippi River, but will reduce the protection of smaller water systems that could still sweep pollutants into those larger systems. Read More.
Not too long ago, a local leader in a community in Nevada asked if I could review a set of water testing data. The sample was taken from a water storage tank that provides drinking water to the town where she lives. The town had painted the inside of the storage tank, but now the water has a strong chemical odor and four volatile chemicals were found in the water sample.
The concentration of all four chemicals in the water was below the federal drinking water standards and as far as the town was concerned, the conversation was over. The water was safe to drink. But is it really? What’s the basis for saying this?
Federal drinking water standards are based on exposure to a single substance in isolation of any other risks and reflect only a limited exposure, typically one day, from a single route of exposure, ingestion. But this is not how people are typically exposed which is to multiple chemicals at the same time. The federal standards do not address the cumulative risks posed by exposure to multiple chemicals over time. Further, these standards fail to address potential synergistic effects which are adverse health effects that are greater than would be predicted or expected based on exposure to individual chemicals alone or in combination.
Consequently, estimating risks posed by exposure to multiple chemicals in drinking water using federal drinking water standards underestimates the true risks people face drinking and using this water on a regular basis. Scientifically, we do not know how much these other factors add to the risks a person faces when drinking water with multiple contaminants. Even though each of the four chemicals in this example were found at concentrations below the federal drinking water standards, this does not mean that there is no risk when consuming or using this water. It does mean that science cannot inform this question.
Yet you hear all time when tests results are interpreted by government agencies that there is no cause for alarm. The standards are used like the proverbial line in the sand. On the one side, people are safe, and on the other, there’s endless debate over what the numbers mean. In truth, it’s not that simple.
In this case, each of the four chemicals found in the water affect the central nervous system and the liver. This means that these organ systems are all targeted simultaneously by each of these four substances. The health impact on the central nervous system (CNS) and the liver resulting from exposure to all four of these substances at the same time is difficult to judge because there is little or no information on exposure to multiple chemicals simultaneously. In addition to these targeted effects on the nervous system and the liver, these chemicals pose other specific health risks whether its skin irritation, the ability of the body to fight infection, or damage to the kidney or the heart. In many cases, some chemicals are considered carcinogens, that is, exposure increases the risk of developing cancer. The EPA’s health goal for exposure to all suspect carcinogens in drinking water is “zero” indicating that any exposure to this substance increases the risk of developing cancer over time. But EPA adjusts the health goal to reflect the realities of setting a drinking water standard at a concentration of “zero.”
In addition, because all these substances are volatile, they will evaporate into the air when a person takes a shower. One study compared the risk posed by taking a 15-minute shower versus normal consumption of drinking water and found that the risk of taking a 15-minute shower was greater than drinking the water (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0048969785903493?via%3Dihub). This risk is not included the federal drinking water standard.
While the concentration of these substances in the water may be below the federal drinking water standards, there is significant uncertainty about the cumulative risks posed by simultaneous exposure to these four volatile chemicals in drinking water, especially over time.
This is just one example of how difficult it is to interpret the results of water testing. This situation is quite common, whether it’s contaminants in drinking water, chemicals in ambient air or contaminants in soil. Interpreting air and soil testing is even more difficult because there are no federal standards that define what levels are acceptable and what are not. Instead, EPA uses guideline values that are not enforceable and subject to political whims.
CHEJ can you interpret the results of any testing results you’re concerned about. Contact us if you have test results you need help interpreting.
A unique collaboration between university and community led to an important study evaluating the human health risks posed by airborne polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) coming from sediment in the New Bedford Harbor in Massachusetts. Researchers from Boston University found that the harbor, the home of one of the largest PCBs Superfund sites in the country, is the primary source of PCBs in the air around the harbor. They described the harbor as the “largest reported continuous source of airborne PCBs from natural waters in North America.”
The study found that PCB levels in the ambient air were highest closest to the harbor and that changes in thyroid levels are more likely to occur among people who live near the harbor compared to residents who live further away. These researchers focused on the non-cancer risks posed by exposure to PCBs rather than the cancer risks which EPA used to drive its decisions on the cleanup of the harbor which has been ongoing since the 1990s. So far, more than 425,000 cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediment has been removed from the harbor as of December 2017 according to the EPA. Much of this waste has been placed in a constructed landfill in the harbor. The local group, Hands Across the River, has been fighting to stop the agency from doing this for years.
In response to requests from residents to monitor the ambient outdoor air for PCBs in places where they live, researchers from Boston University partnered with the Toxic Action Center, the University of Iowa and local residents to identify locations and design a monitoring program to meet community needs. In contrast, EPA selected monitoring locations for convenience or where concentrations were expected to be the highest.
The researchers modeled the data they collected and for the first time were able to estimate residential exposures and health risks for residents living around the harbor. They chose the thyroid as a target of PCB toxicity based on strong evidence in human and animal studies in the scientific literature. They compared thyroid changes in residents and PCB levels in the ambient air near and distant from the harbor and were able to show potential health risks associated with proximity to the PCB contaminated Superfund site in the New Bedford Harbor.
EPA’s response to these findings in part was to say that “the measured levels of airborne PCBs have never exceeded EPA’s health-based criteria.” This of course misses the point that this study identified new health risks beyond what the agency had previously considered. EPA’s standard risk procedures do not capture all health risks. Their focus was on cancer risk. This study focused on non-cancer health risks.
It has long been suspected that PCBs in the sediment of rivers and waterways will evaporate to some degree and eventually become airborne, but industry and government have pushed back arguing that PCBs do not substantially volatilize and if they did, their impact would be insignificant. This study puts that argument to rest.
This study is a remarkable example of what scientists and researchers can do together to address community needs. Scientific information is a powerful tool when university expertise and resources are focused on responding to community concerns. In this collaboration, new risks were identified that EPA had not previously considered. More of these collaborations are needed.
A group of Democratic West Virginia lawmakers announced plans Monday to introduce legislation to regulate a group of toxic, man-made fluorinated chemicals. Del. Hansen said the bill, which is still being drafted, would require facilities that use or produce PFAS chemicals to disclose that information to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. Read more.
Eighth graders in Raleigh take on PFAS
A group a ten middle school students, from the Exploris School in downtown Raleigh, NC, have taken on the challenge to study the presence of PFAS in water and raise awareness in their community on the substance’s health impacts. The Exploris School and students are working in participation with the Design for Change program, a global nonprofit that encourages students to examine some the worlds most challenging social issues. The students are currently in the brainstorming phase of their project, where they will discuss potential solutions to decrease water testing time to more efficiently identify the presence of PFAS contaminated sources. Read More.
By: Sharon Franklin
New York Times Reporter, Erica L. Green recently reported on November 6, 2019 that Flint’s Children Suffer in Class After Years of Drinking the Lead-Poisoned Water. She reported that Angy Keelin’s son Averey, was exposed to lead, and had to repeat kindergarten, and Ms. Keelin now fears a Michigan law that calls for students to repeat third grade if they are more than one grade level behind in reading. She stated “I don’t want him to be continuously held back.” Ms. Keelin says that she wanted to stay in Flint Community Schools, where her blind son, was progressing in a program for visually impaired students, but then it ended abruptly and she was forced to follow the program 10 miles from her home to Genesee County.
Ms. Green reported, that now, five years after the Flint, Michigan Water Crisis the city’s lead crisis has migrated from its homes to its schools, where neurological and behavioral problems — real or feared — are threatening to overwhelm the education system.
Nearly, 30,000 of Flint Michigan school children have been exposed to a neurotoxin known to have detrimental effects on children’s developing brains and nervous systems. Katherine Burrell, Neurodevelopmental Center of Excellence Associate Director said the percentage of the city’s students who qualify for special education services has nearly doubled, to 28 percent, from 15 percent the year the lead crisis began, and the city’s screening center has received more than 1,300 referrals since December 2018.
For other Flint parents, there is consolation, because they have the opportunity to send their children to Educare a 36,000-square-foot early childhood center, which opened in December 2017. It is funded largely by private money in response to the Flint Water crisis. It serves 220 students ages 0 to 5 years with lead exposures. Educare is part of a national network that uses research into early childhood education, brain development and the achievement gap between rich and poor to shape its approach.
Today, Pediatrician, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha remains optimistic. She is the doctor who used science to prove Flint kids were exposed to lead in 2015, when she went public with her research. She says that because of the Flint Water crisis, the fallout has created a road map to assist other cities like Newark, New Jersey that are experiencing a similar crisis. Dr. Hanna-Attisha further stated “We’re leaning on the science of trauma and resilience,”… “because kids across this country are waking up to the same nightmare.” She went on to say that “toxicity” existed here long before the water crisis.
…Photo Credit: Brittany Greeson for The New York Times
The EPA announced that it will roll back regulations on coal-fired power plants and the disposal of residual toxic wastewater and coal ash. The deregulation will allow facilities to store coal ash in storage ponds longer putting them at greater risk for groundwater leakage and overflow from large storms. The loosening of the 2015 regulations set in place by the Obama administration has created concern for greater water contamination for communities in close proximity to coal plants. Read More.
Minden, WV is home to the Shaffer Equipment/Arbuckle Creek Area Superfund Site for nearly 30 years. This past Wednesday, October 23rd, community members met with agency officials from the EPA, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to discuss future plans for the remediation of the site. Plans include further soil and water sampling and excavation and cap repair. The site was placed on the National Priorities List (NPL) in May of 2019 that will help to provide more funds for the sampling and removal of contaminants in and around the river. Read More.
In September, the EPA revoked two rules involved with the protection of clean water and air that could have serious effects on how states neighboring the Chesapeake Bay can regulate for pollution. The Trump administration has set out to rollback regulations that inhibit economic growth, as said to have been done by the 2015 Clean Water Rule that protected any “navigable” water system. The rollbacks wont affect states like Maryland that enforce greater pollution regulations than the federal government, however, the state will have a harder time limiting pollution from neighboring states that follow the federal rollback. Now the EPA is considering rolling back even further regulations connected with the Clean Water Act that allow states to block the construction interstate projects, such as pipelines, that threaten water quality. Read More.
The EPA has revealed new rules for drinking water quality testing and water line repair actions for the presence of lead. The updated regulations are the first significant changes since the establishment of the lead and copper standards in 1991. The new rules will require water testing in all homes with lead service lines and the production of a public inventory listing all lead water systems. Additional rules include federal action towards replacing sections of contaminated pipes. Some environmental advocates claim that although the updated regulations are a start, they do not hit at the root cause of the lead contamination: replacing the 6 million lead service lines spread across the country. Read More.