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water contamination

  • Climate Change May Diminish UV Penetration Allowing Pathogens to Thrive in Waterbodies

    One of the impacts of climate change is extreme weather events that often bring heavy rainfall and flooding to some areas. Heavy rainfall increases organic runoff into freshwater and coastal waters, and according to a study that was recently published in Scientific Reports, may inhibit the sun's ability to penetrate these waterbodies. As UV light is able to kill pathogens, the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays provide important ecosystem services, ridding rivers, lakes and coastal waters of pathogens. If this ability is diminished, there is a greater likelihood of waterborne pathogens becoming more prolific.


    Research has shown that globally aquatic systems are becoming browner due to the increase in organic material being washed into them from surrounding terrestrial systems — a phenomenon known as "browning". Using a model developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), this latest study is the first to quantify the impact that dissolved organic material has on limiting the sun's UV rays from disinfecting waterbodies and killing pathogens that lurk in them.

    This not only poses a potential health risk for people who are exposed to pathogens when using waterbodies for recreation, but also poses a potential drinking water safety risk — even if the water has been treated. According to Craig Williamson, an ecologist at Miami University and lead author of the paper, dissolved organic matter doesn't only inhibit the ability of the sun to disinfect water, it also renders the water treatment process less effective. Considering that every year between 12-19 million people already fall ill in the US alone due to exposure to waterborne pathogens, this will in all likelihood cause that figure to rise.

    For the study, the researchers analyzed water samples collected from lakes in the US and other countries to determine the level of dissolved organic matter present in each of the samples and the wavelengths of ultraviolet light absorbed by the organic matter present.

    Then using the Tropospheric Ultraviolet-Visible model — which simulates how UV light is scattered and absorbed as it passes through Earth's atmosphere — the scientists estimated how much of the sun's UV rays reaches the surface of these lakes at different times of the year. They also assessed the amount of reflection and refraction of light from the surface of each lake to determine how much UV light penetrates together with the depth it reaches.

    According to the report, "the Tropospheric Ultraviolet-Visible model also calculates the expected disinfecting power of UV light in a particular body of water based on its dissolved organic matter and other characteristics, a measurement known as 'solar inactivation potential (SIP)'. In some cases, researchers calculated the SIP across different parts of, or for different time periods in, the same lake."

    From there the researchers were able to quantify the impact that dissolved organic matter had on water quality of lakes, as well as drinking water supplies. For example, modeling of water samples collected prior to and following a severe storm from a site on Lake Michigan — a source of drinking water for over 10 million consumers — showed a 22% reduction in SIP due to the additional dissolved organic matter that flowed into the waterbody from just this one storm.

    "Water clarity is dropping in many regions due to factors such as browning, and this research demonstrates that this change is likely decreasing natural disinfection of potentially harmful pathogens," said Kevin Rose, a freshwater ecologist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and coauthor of the paper.

    Journal Reference

    Craig E. Williamson et al. Climate change-induced increases in precipitation are reducing the potential for solar ultraviolet radiation to inactivate pathogens in surface waters. Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 13033 (2017) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-13392-2

  • Contaminated Drinking Water Responsible for Thirteen Deaths, Thousands of Illness Cases in US

    If your drinking water is clear it doesn't necessarily mean it is clean. Clear water may harbor invisible pathogens that can be harmful to your health. A new report that was recently published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has revealed that during 2013-2014, 42 health related outbreaks associated with drinking water contamination due to the presence of chemicals, pathogens or other toxins (excluding lead) were recorded in 19 US states.

    The outbreaks, which have increased from thirty-two reported during 2011-2012, caused more than a thousand people to fall ill, with 124 patients requiring hospitalization, and resulted in 13 deaths.

    According to the CDC, a large percentage (57%) of these outbreaks was caused by Legionella, which was also responsible for 88% of cases requiring hospitalization and all of the deaths reported. Legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can cause the deadly Legionnaire's disease, can also cause legionellosis, which although not as deadly, causes symptoms such as coughing, difficulty breathing, high fever, aching muscles and headaches in those affected.

    Scanning electron micrograph of Leptospira interrogans. Scanning electron micrograph of Leptospira interrogans.

    Legionella bacteria can enter the water supply via various channels, for example, through damaged pipes or as a result of flooding. And while water utilities typically treat drinking water with chlorine before it is distributed along the network, there may be cases where the dosage isn't high enough to ensure water reaching the end of the supply line is adequately treated. So if Legionella bacteria are present and are not sufficiently suppressed at the water treatment plant, their numbers can grow again by the time the water reaches the end of the water distribution network, causing people at the end of the supply line to fall ill.

    Cryptosporidium and Giardia parasites, which both cause an infected person to become ill with diarrhea, were responsible for five and three outbreaks respectively, according to the report, while harmful algal blooms or chemicals were responsible for five of the outbreaks.

    The CDC noted that 75% of the reported illnesses were associated with community water supplies that are regulated according to government safety standards.

    Environmental Exposure

    Over the same 2013-2014 period, the CDC received 15 reports of disease outbreaks as a result of environmental exposure to contaminated water from 10 US states, resulting in 226 people falling ill, 69 of which required hospitalization, resulting in 9 deaths. A further 12 outbreaks resulting from 'undetermined exposure to contaminated water' was recorded for eight US states, resulting in 63 people falling ill, 39 of which required hospitalization, and 8 deaths.

    For the disease outbreaks relating to both environmental and undetermined exposure, Legionella was again found to be the largest cause of illness (63%), hospitalizations (94%) and death (100%), while Giardia accounted for most of the illness cases associated with exposure to contaminated natural water bodies.

    Experts warn that even if your drinking water looks clean, it may harbor microscopic pathogens that can be harmful to your health. It is wise to have your water tested so that you know what is in it. But even if you do, there is always that chance that your water supply may become infected after it shows up as clear. To be on the safe side, it is better to filter your drinking water with a good quality drinking water filter that is capable of removing tiny bacteria and viruses, including Legionella and Giardia that may be lurking in your water supply.

    Journal Reference

    Katharine M. Benedict, et al. Surveillance for Waterborne Disease Outbreaks Associated with Drinking Water — United States, 2013–2014. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (November 10, 2017) Vol. 66 / No. 44 (1216-1221). US Department of Health and Human Services/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    R. Paul McClung, et al. Waterborne Disease Outbreaks Associated With Environmental and Undetermined Exposures to Water — United States, 2013–2014. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (November 10, 2017) Vol. 66 / No. 44 (1222-1225 ). US Department of Health and Human Services/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • Water Contamination Symptoms

    Freshwater is our most precious resource, yet surface waters and groundwater are both vulnerable to contamination from various sources. The severity of the health impact on humans varies according to the pollutants involved, with some contaminants only having a relatively mild health impact, while others can pose a more severe health hazard.

    While consumers who receive their drinking water from a municipal water supply will have their water tested for them, people who get their drinking water from a private well will need to take their own measures to ensure their drinking water is safe, as it is their responsibility alone.
    Consequently, private well owners should be aware of common water contamination issues and their symptoms to enable them to quickly detect and respond to any sign of well pollution before they pose any risk to human health. But, how can you tell if your drinking water is contaminated — what common symptoms should alert you that your water may be contaminated?faucet-686958_960_720

    There are typically three clues that indicate your drinking water may be contaminated — if any one of these symptoms are present, there is a chance that your water may be suspect.

    1. Cloudy or Discolored Water

    When water is cloudy, murky or discolored, there could potentially be foreign particles such as silt or rust present. While many foreign particles are usually harmless themselves, their presence may indicate a failure within the water treatment or water supply system that could mean there are other more harmful contaminants, such as disease causing bacteria, present. Similarly, water that comes out the tap cloudy and then clears a few minutes after being poured may indicate a fault in the water filtration system. If water stains toilet bowls, baths, sinks or laundry, your water may be contaminated — green tinged stains are a good indicator that water is highly acidic, while brown or rust stains are a good indicator that your drinking water has high concentrations of dissolved iron present.

    2. Strange Tasting Water

    If your drinking water tastes brackish or salty it's likely that sodium levels will be high, while water that has a distinctive chemical taste is most likely polluted with chemical contaminants. Extremely alkaline or acidic water will also taste strange, with highly alkaline water typically tasting soapy, while highly acidic water and water with high levels of dissolved iron tend to leave a metallic aftertaste in the mouth.

    2. Foul Smelling Water

    If your water smells bad, it is a good indicator that something is amiss. One common symptom of water contamination is water that smells of rotten eggs. This foul odor is either caused by bacteria present in the water or by dissolved hydrogen sulfide. If the foul odor is only given off by hot water, it may be coming from your hot-water cylinder. Water that has a strong smell of chlorine has likely been treated with large amounts of chlorine at the water treatment plant. Water that smells dank and musty indicates there is most likely rotting vegetation held in suspension. If you drinking water is foamy and smells like washing detergent it may have been polluted by seepage from a cracked septic tank. Water that smells like fuel or oil has most likely been contaminated with petroleum products that have leaked out of a damaged fuel tank.

    The above symptoms are physical indications that your drinking water may be contaminated, however, many other contaminants that pose a health risk to humans are not so easily detected unless you have the water tested. A good quality drinking water filter will be able to remove many of the contaminants that cause the symptoms above, plus many other drinking water contaminants that are not readily detectable by sight, taste or smell.

  • Roundup of Water Contamination Incidents in 2016

    There has been much focus on drinking water contamination in Flint, Michigan, where dangerously high concentrations of lead were discovered in the city's drinking water supply. Yet, Flint is not the only city trying to cope with drinking water contamination issues. Below is an overview of some of the key water contamination incidents that occurred during 2016.

    February 2016: A non-profit organization unearthed more than 2,300 misplaced public complaints related to water contamination due to fracking operations in Pennsylvania. While a study conducted by the EPA concluded that fracking did not pose a severe threat to groundwater sources nearby, the level of complaints clearly indicates otherwise.

    April 2016: Nineteen public schools in Detroit were found to have elevated levels of copper or lead in their drinking water.

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    April 2016: Wastewater spills from fracking operations contaminated soil and water across North Dakota with contaminants such as lead, selenium, and ammonium, as well as other toxic inorganic chemicals.

    May 2016: Schools in Portland, Oregon set about replacing their water pipes after higher than normal levels of lead where found in drinking water. However, they failed to shut off the water supply in the interim, or caution learners and their teachers to refrain from drinking it.

    September 2016: Unusually high concentrations of Chromium 6, a known carcinogen, were detected in 29 out of 30 drinking water sources supplying the northeastern Ohio region. Many of the water samples had concentrations of Chromium 6 exceeding 0.02 parts per billion, which is the level considered safe by public health officials, while water samples from Columbus and Cleveland had Chromium 6 levels that exceeded 10 parts per billion.

    September 2016: A sinkhole at a fertilizer plant in Florida caused millions of gallons of water laden with toxins to contaminate an aquifer. Yet, while the Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection holds the view that it is unlikely to contaminate nearby wells, Florida lies on top of porous karst formations, which is why sinkholes occur in the first place.

    October 2016: The city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania handed the management of the water supply to a private company due water contamination issues resulting from deteriorating infrastructure. But due to staff cutbacks and opting for cheaper, yet inferior anti-corrosion treatments, lead concentrations rose to above that recommended by federal safety standards.

    November 2016: Elevated levels of lead were found in drinking water at municipal schools in the Cleveland area, with one elementary school showing lead concentrations as high as 4,480 parts per billion — that is 4,465 ppb higher than the 15 ppb safety standard set by the EPA.

    December 2016: Nestlé wishes to switch to another source of groundwater for their bottled water, as a well they previously used was contaminated with perchlorate — a chemical that can impair thyroid functioning — originating from firework displays held near that source. Nestlé now dilutes the contaminated water from the original source with uncontaminated water from other sources in order to comply with safety standards.

    December 2016: Several private drinking water wells serving homes in Long Island, New York, that are supposedly located in a protected watershed, were found to have unsafe levels of MBTE, a fuel additive that has been banned in the area since 2004.

    December 2016: Residents of Chicago's North side were cautioned with a drinking water advisory after a car wash contaminated the local drinking water supply.

    December 2016: Dangerous levels of toxic heavy metals where found in the drinking water of an elementary school in Milwaukee, with one sample having lead levels six times higher than that considered safe, and copper levels nineteen times higher than that considered safe. Dangerously high levels of lead were found in water from nearly 200 water fountains at various locations, including sites attended by young children.

    December 2016: After testing water in 414 businesses and homes in St. Joseph, Louisiana, over 20% were found to have dangerously high lead concentrations.

    From this extensive list of contamination incidents, which in all likelihood is not complete, we can see that drinking water contamination is a real threat. From last years list of incidents we can see that lead is a common drinking water contaminant, affecting many communities, and in many cases, schools. Yet while lead is not readily detected due to it having no taste, color or odor, it poses a serious health threat. So what can you do to protect yourself and your family? Firstly, you can have your drinking water tested to see what toxins may be lurking; you can also make a sound investment in your family's health by purchasing a good quality water purifier that is able to remove lead and other harmful contaminants commonly found in drinking water.

  • Brain-eating Amoeba, Naegleria Fowleri, a Deadly Emerging Water Contaminant

    A brain eating amoeba is responsible for a deadly emerging disease, that usually always claims the life of the victims it infects. The disease is caused by a parasite known as Naegleria fowleri, or more commonly as the 'brain-eating amoeba'.

    Although still relatively uncommon, the brain disease, known as primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM), is typically fatal and is making news headlines the world over. The outbreaks of this deadly disease have resulted in cautionary warnings not to play or swim in waters that could potentially be infected, and to take precautions not to snort, sniff or squirt water up through the nasal passages, which is the parasite's primary passage of access to the brain.


    While N. fowleri is relatively common in warm water environments, it doesn't appear to cause any harm when ingested. However, a study that was recently published in the Journal - American Water Works Association suggests that N. fowleri is an emerging drinking water pathogen in the US, as drinking water supplies are also used for bathing, showering, topping up swimming pools, etc. The study outlines methods that water utilities can be used to treat drinking water supplies in order to control this emerging contaminant.

    This emerging pathogen is included on the EPA's Contaminant Candidate List (CCL 3) — but what are utilities doing to deal with it?

    According to the Journal AWWA paper: "Few laboratories in the United States or worldwide are experienced with this organism." The methods most commonly used to detect the parasite, which were primarily developed in Australia, include sampling using membrane filtration or centrifugation, with samples then being analyzed in a laboratory. Samples can either be taken from the surface of freshwater bodies, or by collecting samples of biofilm scraped off water pipes or plumbing fittings and fixtures.

    Alarmingly, samples have shown that the brain-eating amoeba can occur in water heaters, sink drains and shower-heads — where it thrives in temperatures of between 25-42 degrees celsius. It can also survive cold winter temperatures and regrow when temperatures warm up again.Yet, while chemical disinfection can effectively remove and control N. Fowleri, utilities have very little control when it comes to maintaining water quality at the end of the distribution network — at the point where it enters a consumer's home.

    According to the Center for Disease Control a person cannot become infected by drinking contaminated water, only when water contaminated with the parasite goes up your nose. Consumers can take the following precautions to avoid becoming infected with the deadly parasite.

    1.  Do not let water enter through your nose when swimming in warm freshwater bodies or in small plastic or blow-up swimming pools. Wear a nose clip or keep your head above water.
    2.  Do not plunge into small pools or bathtubs or let you head go under the water. Rather lower yourself into the water, keeping your head above water.
    3.  Ensure that children are supervised when playing with garden sprinklers or hose pipes, as water can accidentally be squirted up their noses.
    4.  Take care not to let water go up your nose when taking a bath or shower, or when you wash your face.
    5.  Keep your head above water when swimming or bathing in hot springs or other thermal waters that are untreated.
    6.  Avoid water-sports or other water activities in freshwater bodies when water temperatures are exceptionally warm.
    7.  Avoid stirring up bottom sediments when partaking in water-related activities in warm, shallow freshwater bodies.

    Journal Reference

    Bartrand, Timothy A.; Causey, Jonathan Jake; Clancy, Jennifer L. Naegleria fowleri: An emerging drinking water pathogen. Journal - American Water Works Association. (October 2014). 106:10, E418-E432. DOI:

  • Huge Sinkhole Contaminates Florida Drinking Water

    A massive sinkhole that formed beneath a stack of hazardous waste material has resulted in roughly 215 million gallons of radioactive wastewater leaking into the aquifer below. The aquifer is a primary source of drinking water for millions of residents, while water that flows out of the aquifer enters springs and rivers that are popular for recreational pursuits such as swimming and kayaking.

    The incident occurred at a waste storage site of a fertilizer plant in New Wales, Florida. The company, Mosaic, first noticed that water levels in a wastewater pond at the stack had dropped significantly, and upon inspection, discovered a massive sinkhole with a diameter of 45 feet. The stack is used to store phosphogypsum, a radioactive waste byproduct that is produced when phosphate is used in the manufacture of fertilizers, which apparently is a common practice at industrial plants such as this.

    According to a statement released by Mosaic, the pond liner beneath the phosophogypsum stack was damaged when the sinkhole developed, resulting in the leakage from the pond above, which has not as yet been contained.

    "Based on the nature of the water loss and what we've learned so far," the sinkhole damaged the liner system at the base of a phosophogypsum stack, Mosaic said on Thursday. "The pond on top of the cell drained as a result" and "some seepage continues."

    According to a company spokesperson, it is believed that the sinkhole extends to the Floridan aquifer, which means that this water supply has been contaminated with around 215 million gallons of water that contains industrial pollutants used in the fertilizer manufacturing process, which have seeped into the hole.

    The company has taken steps to rectify the situation and possibly avoid further damage. According to a company statement:

    "We are working closely with regulators and have been reporting to FDEP daily. We have also called in top experts in the field to advise us on this issue. Enhanced water quality monitoring continues, and we are developing a comprehensive corrective action plan to address and rectify the cause of the water loss," the company added.

    "Mosaic immediately implemented additional and extensive groundwater monitoring and sampling regimens and has found no offsite impacts," the company said. Mosaic also "began pumping water out of the west cell" of the affected phosphogypsum stack "into an alternative holding area on site to reduce the amount of drainage", and has also "begun the process of recovering the water" that drained through the sinkhole "by pumping through onsite production wells," it said.

    The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) have confirmed that the company has alerted both the DEP and the EPA of the incident that occurred at their facility, and has taken immediate action to investigate and implement remedial action, and keep both regulatory authorities updated on the status and progress. The FDEP is also carefully monitoring the situation, conducting frequent visits to the site to ensure that a "timely and appropriate response continues in order to safeguard public health and the environment."

    However, local residents are not convinced. Local news media reported that picketers from Polka County gathered outside the Mulberry City Hall on Saturday morning to protest the lack of preventative measures taken to protect their drinking water.

    While all the above efforts and responses are reactive rather than proactive, as consumers, we can take steps to ensure that the water we drink is free from contaminants. By investing in a good quality drinking water filter you can remove any unwanted pollutants — including many industrial pollutants — that may make their way into your water supply.

  • Toxic Environmental Contaminants Contribute to Antibiotic Resistance

    ** Antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a growing health problem that has prompted health officials, NGOs and media agencies to increase public awareness of the hazards associated with antibiotic use and misuse.

    ** Now a University of Georgia ecologist has warned that there may be more to this issue than misuse of antibiotic drugs.

    J. Vaun McArthur, an ecologist based at the Odum School of Ecology and the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, believes that environmental contaminants (primarily heavy metals) could play a role in the rise of bacterial resistance. To test his hypothesis he studied the effects of environmental contaminants in streams surrounding the U.S. Department of Energy's Savannah River Site.

    The DoE's Savannah River Site is situated alongside the Savannah River, close to Aiken, South Carolina, and covers an area of 310 square miles. In the 1950s the site was closed to the general public and used to produce materials required for building nuclear weapons. The production of these materials has resulted in toxic waste materials that have contaminated certain areas within the site and impacted streams in the surrounding areas.


    McArthur and his fellow researchers collected water and sediment samples from eleven sites along nine streams and proceeded to test five different antibiotics on over 400 strains E. Coli bacteria collected from the streams. Metal contaminants measured at the various sites ranged from low to high.

    "The site was constructed and closed to the public before antibiotics were used in medical practices and agriculture," McArthur said. "The streams have not had inputs from wastewater, so we know the observed patterns are from something other than antibiotics."

    The results of the study, which were recently published in the journal Environmental Microbiology, found that 8 of the 11 sites tested had high levels of antibiotic resistance. The highest level of antibiotic resistance (in both sediment and water samples) were recorded at the northern-most location on Upper Three Runs Creek, and on two tributaries within the industrial area.

    While the Upper Three Runs Creek does flow through agricultural, residential and other industrial areas before entering the Savannah River Site, therefore exposing bacteria in the stream to antibiotics, sites marked U4 and U8 are contained within the site and do not have any known antibiotic input from external sources. There is, however, a long history of contamination from legacy waste at these sites.

    McArthur then screened the samples a second time using twenty-three antibiotics on samples collected from U4 and U8, as well as samples collected from a stream nearby that was considered to be free from industrial contaminants.

    According to McArthur, more than 95% of bacteria samples collected from these streams showed antibiotic resistance to more than 10 of the 23 antibiotics tested, including antibiotics typically used to treat common bacterial infections such as pink eye, sinus- and urinary infections. The highest levels of antibiotic resistance were recorded at locations U4 and U8 (the streams heavily contaminated with industrial waste).

    "These streams have no source of antibiotic input, thus the only explanation for the high level of antibiotic resistance is the environmental contaminants in these streams -- the metals, including cadmium and mercury," McArthur said.

    While McArthur acknowledges that wildlife that have been exposed to antibiotics may have contributed by adding waste to these streams, only streams that had a history of industrial waste being discharged into them had bacteria that were resistant to antibiotics — bacteria in the other six streams located in pristine areas within the site that received no industrial input succumbed to antibiotics.

    McArthur finds it disconcerting that industrially contaminated water from these antibiotic resistance streams flows into the Savannah River, which flows past residential communities living on the border of South Carolina and Georgia.
    According to McArthur: "The findings of this study may very well explain why resistant bacteria are so widely distributed."

    Journal Reference

    J.V. McArthur et al. Patterns of Multi-Antibiotic-Resistant Escherichia Coli from Streams with No History of Antimicrobial Inputs. Environmental Microbiology, (Nov 2015); doi:10. 1007/ s00248-015-0678-4

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