Timothy Keim: We must act to protect our water resources

Guest columnist : The Herald-Sun
May 11, 2008

While there is no doubt that modern water sanitation practices have nearly eliminated cholera, typhoid, dysentery and other waterborne diseases, it is equally without doubt that a significant number of the chemical by-products of these practices are highly toxic, carcinogenic and known to cause mutations of mammalian genes. The best-known local examples are trihalomethanes, which are caused by mixing the disinfectant, chlorine, with organic compounds that occur naturally in the Haw River, the source for Pittsboro's drinking water. 

Trihalomethanes are found in Pittsboro's water supply at almost two and a half times the federally recommended maximum concentration, 08 parts per billion. For the past year, the Pittsboro THM water level has been .197ppb. Because of Pittsboro's persistent non-compliance with water quality standards, the town is facing not only a $30,000 fine from the state, but a big decision on how to decontaminate its water. 

According to Pittsboro Town Manager Bill Terry, the town is planning to begin water treatment with the commonly used process of chloramination. Chloramination is the combination of ammonia and chlorine. But by so doing we may well be exchanging one class of toxic chemicals for another. 

Chloramination, if not precisely administered, can cause lead to leach out of plumbing and contaminate our water supply. Infants and small children are at risk of brain damage. A Duke University study showed the increase of lead in the blood streams of children both in Wayne County, NC, and Goldsboro after chloramination was begun. 

Other known by-products of chloramination include unregulated nitrosodimethylamines and iodinated acids. NDMA is found to be carcinogenic in several animal species, and the iodinated acids are proven to mutate mammal genes. And that's just the tiniest tip of the iceberg. The potential interactions among the hundreds of disinfectant by-products in the complex mixture of drinking water to which we are exposed is an almost totally uncharted area of future scientific investigation. 

Prof. Michael Plewa of the University of Illinois at Champagne recently told me that science has identified about 50 percent of the by-products caused during chlorination. Of the by-products caused by chloramination, we might have identified 20 percent. So who's going to do the detective work to investigate this over-abundance of unregulated chemicals in our water? 

Because these compounds are unregulated, water treatment facilities don't have to test for them. The answer to the question of "what's in our water": we don't know. 

Funds for basic research of this plethora of chemicals have been cut by the federal government for years. The Environmental Protection Agency is now much less able to inform policy makers about how to safeguard water quality. Additionally, lawyers and lobbyists make our laws, not scientists. Policy makers are flying blind as they address these issues, and our government has tied the hands of the scientific community whose research is vital to the health of our nation. 

Because of the excessive amounts of THMs in Pittsboro water, chloramination may not solve the problem for which it's being used. UNC Prof. Philip Singer, in consultation with Pittsboro, wrote that if THMs continue to exceed regulatory levels, "... ammonia addition will not solve the problem." 

And we've not even begun to discuss the condition of our water sources: our rivers and lakes. Professor Singer has concluded that "the Haw River must have a high bromide concentration due to upstream discharges. I am afraid there is no simple solution to solve your THM problems. There is simply too much TOC (total organic carbon in the form of plant material) and bromide in your source water." 

And, as Singer reminded me, the Haw is not a protected river. Elaine Chiosso of the Haw River Assembly says, "Current under-funding of the EPA by the Bush Administration has come to the point that it's like there is no EPA on the job to enforce the Clean Water Act." Chiosso likens Jordan Lake to "the state's biggest storm water pond and wastewater lagoon. Ten big municipal and county wastewater treatment plants and 55 smaller facilities discharge their treated effluent into creeks that flow to Jordan Lake." 

With the deterioration of our water sources so goes the quality of our drinking water. 

Prof. Singer does offer Pittsboro a solution, "Other options for addressing the problem tend to be more expensive, e.g., membrane filtration, granular activated carbon absorption or anion exchange treatment. While these options are indeed more expensive, they are probably better long-term options than the quick-fix combined chlorine option." 

We have allowed our rivers and lakes to become so polluted that water treatment at a municipal levels now requires such intensive chemical addition that our collective health is threatened by hundreds of unknown disinfection by-products. 

Over a decade of discussion about Jordan Lake and its tributaries has resulted in more than 30 meetings, yet Jordan Lake and the Haw River continue to suffer increasing impairment. Chiosso sites the facts that cities upstream of Jordan Lake have challenged repeated scientific evidence that their discharges pollute our drinking water to the point of impairment. 

As the Triangle and Triad continue to grow, as we face the predicted prospect of drier weather due to climate change, business as usual concerning our precious, indispensable and limited water supply must evolve into an uncompromising commitment to restoring the pristine, god-given nature of water. 

The North Carolina Environmental Management Commission will meet yet for another attempt in May to enact rules to alleviate the impairment of Jordan Lake. Chiosso fears another failure of regional will and the passing of the buck to the 2009 state Legislature. This is where we, as citizens, can make the difference. 

The world is run by those who show up. Animation of the body politic by direct citizen intervention is as essential to the process as voting. Leaving the future of our precious resources to those who have refused to act is not what we deserve or want. 

Timothy Keim is a resident of Pittsboro.