Water-quality database shows several Pa. utilities with high levels of contaminants
July 27--A water quality database released Wednesday morning by environmental group EWG shows water utilities in Pennsylvania have high levels of a few different classes of contaminants.
But experts interviewed about the data said the findings were not a surprise.
The database allows people to look up their zip code or water utility to access data related to contaminant and violation reports. It shows that for several of the contaminants found in water above health guidelines, Pennsylvania is toward the top of the list when it comes to the number of people drinking that water.
In the southcentral region, three utilities region were in violation of health-based federal guidelines during a recent quarter: Lancaster City, North Middleton and the U.S. Army Garrison.
Almost every large utility in the area had higher levels of a class of contaminants called trihalomethanes. These show up when chlorine and other disinfectants are introduced into the water to counteract any pathogens that may be present, according to EWG. The chemicals added as disinfectants can react with plant and animal waste in the drinking water, forming harmful disinfectant byproducts.
Frank Forman, a researcher at Penn State who studies industrial contaminants in ground and surface water and has sampled water in central Pennsylvania in his research said these are common in water supplies.
Because utility workers often have to estimate how much of something might be in the water, Forman said they can sometimes add too much disinfectant during treatment, resulting in trihalomethanes ending up in the water.
Lancaster City had total trihalomethane levels above state and national averages for most quarters from 2010 to 2015. The levels were above health guidelines for four quarters in the last six years, according to the database.
Charlotte Katzenmoyer, the head of public works for Lancaster, said Tuesday this is because the municipality's water has a higher level of organic matter -- debris from trees and other vegetation -- in the water. Trace amounts of the organic matter can react with chemicals when the water is chlorinated to create some of the trihalomethane disinfectant byproducts.
Katzenmoyer said the level of the organic matter in the water supply would be higher for the Susquehanna and Conestoga rivers -- which are the two sources for the utility's water -- than for others because they run through heavily wooded areas.
Lancaster was in violation of the health-based standards for the first quarter of this year. Katzenmoyer said that can be chalked up to a higher level of haloacetic acid -- another disinfectant byproduct -- in the last quarter of 2016.
Other contaminants that came up in most utilities were chloroform, which Forman said was another type of the trihalomethanes. Nitrate, which can get into water due to agricultural runoff, was detected in most facilities, but in levels below health guidelines.
Heather Gall, a research at Penn State who studies the effects of agriculture and pharmaceuticals in water, said people who are on private wells should watch out for nitrate contamination.
"When you're getting your water from a public water supply, there is someone that is responsible for your water standards," she said Tuesday. "If you have a private well on your property, then its up to the home owner to make sure their concentrations are low enough."
Katzenmoyer and Gall both cautioned that just because a contaminant had been detected at above health guidelines, doesn't mean that people who drink it will experience adverse health effects.
Katzenmoyer said someone would have to consume large amounts of water to be at risk for health effects from the contaminants found in Lancaster's water.
"A violation here or there, which is one sample that is taken in a four-month period that makes it higher than that legal limit, is not something to be concerned of from a health standpoint," she said.
But Dr. David Andrews, a senior research with EWG, noted Friday that some potential contaminants don't have federally regulated limits, and the limits on some contaminants aren't as stringent as they could be.
Andrews noted that federal guidelines for many contaminants have not been updated in decades. With the current administration, Andrews said it was more likely that any changes to health guidelines would come at the state and local level.
"Part of our goal in putting out this database is really to educate consumers, and they could really become more knowledgeable about what contaminants in their drinking water," he said.
Perfluoronated chemicals were detected in water samples taken from the United Water Pennsylvania utility. The chemicals are an emerging contaminant, meaning they have become more prevalent in water supplies. Andrews said the perfluornated chemicals have health implications, as they function as endocrine disruptors.
Intake of the chemicals can also increase risk of accelerated puberty, liver and immune system damage thyroid changes and cancer risk, according to EWG. The chemicals are making their way into water sources as fire-proof and non-stick technology is added to more household items.
The chemicals can run off from things like fire-retardent clothing and non-stick pans into the water supply. Forman said he isn't surprised they have made their way into water.
Another contaminant, chromium hexavalent, also popped up in varying concentrations in several utilities. Forman said the contaminant can come from industry runoff, but has also been detected in areas around State College that have less of an industrial presence.
The reason the contaminant is in State College is still up in the air, Forman said. Although both the presence of the chromium hexavalent and the perfluorinated chemicals is not a surprise, Forman said that doesn't make it less of an issue.
"The more concerning thing is that those levels continue to grow," he said.