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Troubled Water: The effect of water contamination on health is unknown

Troubled Water: The effect of water contamination on health is unknown


This report is part of the Troubled Water project produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. TCPalm provided the local information.

At least twice in recent years, drinking-water contaminants on the Treasure Coast spiked to dangerous levels, with potentially detrimental effects on public health.

It’s unclear, however, how much contaminated water was consumed, whether public health officials correlated any health problems to the tainted water or whether people will have health problems down the road.

Millions more Americans don’t always know what’s in their water, and even when they do, the science can’t always make definitive connections between tainted water and health problems.

Health officials, from the federal level down to local authorities, also face budget constraints that can limit how they investigate, monitor, report and treat water contamination.

“More people are affected by contaminated drinking water than is being reported, and there are many U.S. communities facing a health crisis because of bad water,” said Erik Olson, health program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit international environmental advocacy group.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates tap water causes 16.4 million cases of acute gastrointestinal illness each year, but that’s only a small portion of what’s really happening. Government officials don’t necessarily have the data to show the full picture. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gathers data about waterborne-disease outbreaks, but not all states report them.

A News21 analysis of EPA data shows 63 million people were served by water systems that violated federal standards two or more times, sometimes for lead, copper, arsenic and cancer-causing poisons. These contaminants can cause a wide range of health problems, from liver and kidney damage to birth defects.

Treasure Coast violations

A TCPalm analysis of eight of the Treasure Coast’s largest public water systems showed all but Fort Pierce Utilities Authority and Indiantown Co. received violations in the past five years.

Violators included St. Lucie West Services District, the county utilities for Martin and Indian River and the cities of Vero Beach, Stuart and Port St Lucie, according to Florida Department of Environmental Protection data.

Those six public water systems, which serve about 432,512 customers, racked up a combined 27 violations. All the violations — except for one in Indian River County — were for failing to perform sufficient monitoring or reporting in a timely manner, according to DEP. Indian River Utilities had one E. coli violation, according to DEP.

But mystery still surrounds the effect tainted drinking water has on health.

Even when officials can identify problems in the water, there often is confusion and disagreement about how to treat it. Critics also say officials don’t act quickly enough to identify problems and alert the public to contamination.

“The public’s health is put at risk every day because often, we don’t know exactly what we’re drinking,” said Robert Bowcock, water consultant to environmental advocate Erin Brockovich.

Bacteria and parasites

The latest CDC report on waterborne diseases shows 32 widespread outbreaks between 2011 and 2012, resulting in at least 102 hospitalizations and 14 deaths.

Legionella, a bacteria found naturally in water, was responsible for 66 percent of these outbreaks. The U.S. Water Quality and Health Council describes it as “public-health enemy No. 1.”

The bacteria causes Legionnaires’ disease, a respiratory illness from which 1 in 10 people die, according to the CDC.


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