Monday, March 5, 2012

A LOTT of Concerns About Drinking Water Quality

Above: Pharmaceuticals, above, are Compounds of Emerging Concern (CECs) in our drinking water.

A LOTT of Concerns About Drinking Water Quality

By Janine Unsoeld

About 150 state and local government officials, staff, scientists and members of the public participated in a scientific symposium at LOTT Clean Water Alliance last week to discuss pharmaceuticals, personal care products and other contaminants - compounds - entering the environment through reclaimed water and the discharge of treated water into Budd Inlet.

Sponsored by LOTT and the Washington State Department of Health, the event was just the beginning to educate the community about the issue as LOTT, a regional organization comprised of the cities of Lacey, Olympia, Tumwater and Thurston County, starts a four year study on groundwater aquifer management.

Lacking surface water options, Thurston County uses groundwater for its drinking water. After wastewater treatment, the water is discharged into Budd Inlet. In recognition of our region's limited water resources, LOTT is exploring the idea of increasing the recharge of our groundwater with reclaimed or highly treated water.

Currently, the downtown Budd Inlet plant reclaims about one million gallons per day that is used for irrigation purposes. Newer treatment plants on Martin Way and Hawks Prairie produce reclaimed water, some of which is already returned to our aquifers.

Using reclaimed water to recharge our drinking water sources is part of a national trend. Scientists at the LOTT symposium gave two case examples of systems in Arizona and Southern California that already feature direct potable water reuse - a pipe to pipe system.

At issue is the presence of compounds of emerging concern (CECs) in the environment, the potential impact to public health and the environment, and what happens to CECs during wastewater treatment and when reclaimed water is infiltrated to groundwater.

Five nationally and internationally recognized scientists discussed the margins of exposure, the transport of CECs during managed aquifer recharge, and regulatory issues and efforts focused on water reuse. Each presented charts and graphs showing their research and work in the engineering, toxicology, and water quality fields.

"Emerging does not mean that these chemicals are new - it’s just that modern chemistry and technology can detect them at lower and lower levels," said Robert Bastian, senior environmental scientist with the Office of Wastewater Management at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington D.C.

This detection, however, has raised concerns about potential effects to human health and ecosystems, along with concerns about the adequacy and accuracy of studies.

The levels of biodegradability and persistence of chemicals, many of which are commonplace in most people’s everyday use, was compelling information.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has concluded that these compounds are not much of a problem and the organization is not going to produce guidelines, said Joseph Costruvo, Ph.D., who is a member of the WHO Drinking Water Guidelines development committee and was director of the Criteria and Standards Division of the U.S. EPA’s Office of Drinking Water. The Environmental Protection Agency is thinking of producing guidelines, he said.

The scientists repeatedly described that the margin of exposure through drinking water as minimal, and, using the example of drugs, compared the exposure to the therapeutic dose actually prescribed by doctors and ingested directly. These drugs, both prescribed and illicit, also include caffeine, antibiotics, veterinary medicines and vitamins. Personal care products also include a variety of chemicals.

Several drugs that many people have in their medicine cabinets, such as gemfibrozil, carbamazepine, and primidone are troublemakers for wastewater treatment plants and are considered “persistent,” meaning they are not biodegradable.

Another persistent compound, triclosan, is a common ingredient in name brand toothpastes such as Total and Colgate. Other troublemakers are sucralose, sugar substitutes better known by name brand products such as Sweet N Low, Splenda, and Equal. They are made to not be absorbed by the body and are thus excreted as waste into our water supply systems.

Some CECs, however, are not drugs, and are not biodegradable, such as flame retardants. Some of the chemicals discussed also included known endrocrine disrupting compounds, called EDCs. Some chemical sources are natural, and are included in food and dietary supplements.

Local Reactions

After the program, local public officials and agency staff expressed a great deal of interest and concern about the issue and what they were learning.

Tom Oliva, Tumwater city councilmember and Tumwater’s representative to LOTT since the recent passing of Tumwater City Councilmember Ed Stanley, wondered what the appropriate process was for what the region wants.

"Do you want to spend this much money or that much money? There’s a rush to want to treat to zero contamination – what the scientists here said is that kind of water doesn’t exist in the first place. I want to drink clean water, but how dirty is it? Technology is going to change within our generation. The scientists here aren’t overwhelmed by local political baggage, so let’s make an informed decision, not a hasty one.”

Oliva said Tumwater has a big stake in the issue of reclaimed water, as it will begin use 600,000 gallons of it starting next year to irrigate the Tumwater Valley golf course.

“I learned a lot – the science involved, the chemicals, methods and standards for exposure. It’s a pretty complicated subject,” added Oliva.

Above: Personal care products are compounds of concern for wastewater treatment plants.

Diana Yu, MD, health officer for Thurston and Mason counties, also expressed concern and passion about the information she heard.

“What they (the scientists) did for me was put things into perspective…if we want to rid the world of CECs, we need to stop using those products. People and industries need to stop relying so much on chemicals and medications, from fertilizers to weed control to contraceptives, antibiotics and pain killers - do we really need all that? What goes into our bodies, comes out the other end and has to be disposed of,” said Yu.

"A lot of what they said made sense...The biggest issue will be about the "unknown." How will it affect us? What about our children's future? The air we breathe is laden with chemicals. The foods we eat may also be exposed to chemicals. In the past, potability of water was based on it being free of pathogens. We still use that as a surrogate measure. As technology gets better, we will find more and more things in the water, not because they were not there before but because our technology has improved so much we can quantify small amounts," Yu continued.

About drinking reclaimed water, Yu said, "I do not think I am quite ready to drink out of the pipe directly, although it seems like some of the experts have done so. I have to do some more thinking about the information I received. The bottom line is how can I weigh the perceived risks to health without being paralyzed by fear. We do need water to live. In our lifetime, how much of the minute amounts of whatever we encounter in the water will actually affect our health?"

How much does Thurston County want to spend?

LOTT operates two Class A reclaimed water facilities that filters out a majority of CECs. The Thurston County Planning Commission wrote into their draft critical areas ordinance many protective measures, including an advanced treatment plant using technologies such as reverse osmosis or nanofiltration, prior to groundwater recharge. When asked about this, the scientists at the symposium said that this is not necessary, in their opinion, and that water can be overtreated.

"Pure water is not good for you. Fish cannot live in pure water. Overpurifying anything is not good, as it robs you of essential minerals," said Shane Synder of the University of Arizona.

"Is it worth it? No, not in my opinion," said Robert Bastian of the U.S. EPA. Describing the examples of two very advanced treatment facilities in San Diego and Los Angeles, he added, "Now we know why California is bankrupt - they like to spend money....There are several barriers to take compounds out, and overall, technologies work very well and meet all drinking water standards," he added.

The quantities of these compounds in water were described by the scientists as being very small. For example, CECs in treated wastewater are measured in parts per trillion. One part per trillion is one drop in 16 Olympic swimming pools, said Shane Synder, Ph.D. of the University of Arizona. CECs in drinking water are present in even smaller amounts, sometimes not even detectable by today's instruments.

"We can do anything to water. What’s your goal? It must be determined case by case and is site specific. All do a pretty good job to easily meet drinking water standards – it’s all doable, it just depends on how much you want to pay,” said Jorg Drewes, Ph.D., professor of Environmental Science and Engineering at at the Colorado School of Mines.

Drewes gave case examples - Orange County, California is spending $450 million, supported by the community through a bond measure, to build a full range treatment plant. Orange County is facing a shortage of water and found this option was cheaper than shipping water from the Colorado River.

Audience member Maria Victoria Peeler, an engineer who works for the state Department of Ecology, is responsible for developing policy for some persistent bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT) chemicals, primarily mercury. As co-chair of the international mercury reduction initiative for state regulators, she has been working at the international level for five years.

Commenting after the program Peeler expressed some disappointment with the program, saying, "PBTs is one of the biggest problems we have in the state. What I didn’t hear about, and of concern to me, is nanotechnology, the science of manipulating matter at the atomic and molecular level. There has been a spark of activity in the last 10 years within the business and industrial community to produce products created by nanotechnology and process waste at a municipal level, products like batteries, mascara, lipstick, and other consumer products. Pharmaceuticals are no doubt a big issue. We can detect them, track, and control them, but that’s not the case with engineered nanoparticals,” said Peeler.

Another attendee, Jim Casebolt, president and operator of the Pattison Water Company in Lacey which services about 1,600 homes since 1964, expressed concern with LOTT’s plans. LOTT has acquired property within the area where he gets his water from several wells and is concerned about chemicals and pollutants in reclaimed water.

"Listening to the people who presented, they sounded pretty good, but they are representing the reclaimed water industry. I’m pretty sure you could round up a group of other scientists who could present a great deal of concerns," said Casebolt.

What's Next?

After the program, LOTT’s executive director Mike Strub was asked about the scope of LOTT’s groundwater recharge study. He said the scope of the study has not yet been determined, "but we want to add to the science, take advantage of science around the nation so that it’s safe and meets the intent of beneficial use. There are different conditions within the whole watershed: rural, urban/industrial, and urban. We want to take a global approach to our watershed – this study will inform those lofty goals. The first several months (of the study) will be very active, and include community input. This is good timing to start talking about some of the topics and we welcome comments."

What You Can Do For Starters:

Properly dispose of your prescription medicines, including narcotics, over-the-counter drugs, and vitamins, so they don’t end up in the water system. Several secure drop boxes, installed in 2010, are located throughout Thurston County. Go to for a list of locations.

For more information about the Compounds of Emerging Concern Science Symposium held March 2, 2012, go to: To receive information about LOTT's groundwater recharge study and public involvement opportunities, email LOTT or leave a message with your name, mailing address, and/or email address at (360) 528-5716.