Activists question the safety of Columbia water

Engineering professor Enos Inniss: “With those numbers being lower than the [maximum contaminant level], you really can’t say it’s unsafe water.”
Columbia water quality has recently been brought into question by Activist Erin Brockovich.

Activist Erin Brockovich brought attention to Columbia’s water quality recently in a September Facebook post that called out the city for “burning out” its water system.

“They will lie to you and tell you everything is okay ... unless you are pregnant, or suffer from upper respiratory or dermal conditions ... or you are an infant,” the post read.

However, the city’s water tests below all of the Environmental Protection Agency’s limits for contaminants and other substances commonly found in drinking water. The question has been been whether the quality, though below the federal limits, is up to the standards that Columbia citizens should have for their water.

The Columbia Water and Light Department began an Integrated Resource Plan over a year ago in response to water quality concerns. The plan has a timeline of 30 years in which the city will be looking into alternative use of chlorine in the city’s water.

“It’s been the process for about a year now,” Columbia Water Operation Manager Floyd Turner said. “We’ve met with [the COMO Safe Water Coalition] a couple times, yes, and they’ve entertained the idea of working together in the future.”

The COMO Safe Water Coalition is a group of residents advocating for “safe dependable water that is NOT treated with chloramine,” according to the coalition’s Facebook page. The group started almost a year ago to raise awareness about water quality in the city.

“It is very timely to address this issue in Columbia since the city is considering spending millions of dollar to expand, the integrated water resource meetings have been informational but also raised more questions/issues,” coalition co-founder Marie-Josee Brown said in an email.

Columbia’s drinking water contains 1.3 parts per billion of Chromium-6 and 49.9 parts per billion of trihalomethanes. THMs are the byproducts of chlorination of water that contains natural organic matter.

Both these chemicals are associated with causing cancer if ingested in large dosages over a long period of time, as well as a host of other possible detrimental effects. In 2010, the EPA found that Chromium-6 in tap water is “likely to be carcinogenic to humans,” according to a report from the National Toxicology Program.

The city uses the chemicals in tap water as a disinfectant. The city alternates its disinfectant methods from chloramine for nine months to “free chlorine” for three months out of the year, which does not produce trihalomethane.

The EPA implements a maximum contaminant level for each state’s water contaminates. The MCL is a guideline for regulating most substances and chemicals in the water, from the calcium to the chlorine.

“The maximum amount for Chromium is 100 parts per billion, and the city water is at .094, which is practically nothing for what the maximum levels can be,” Turner said. “And trihalomethane MCL is 80 parts per billion, and the quarterly run average for 2016 was 49.9 so it’s 30 points below the MCL.”

Some consider the MCL too low to be safe. Scientists from the California Department of Public Health estimate the limit for Chromium-6 should be 0.02 parts per billion for public safety. That figure is 50 times less than the MCL the EPA deems as safe for Chromium-6.

“MCL is a threshold measurement, meaning a level that has been established to prevent negative health effects,” coalition co-founder Julie Ryan Walsh and Brown said in an email. “Ideally, we want the city to incorporate a perspective that providing safer water is more important than just meeting the regulations, especially when these regulations will most likely change.”

MU has a separate water system from the city of Columbia.

Assistant engineering professor Enos Inniss said because of the large deficit between the city’s levels of trihalomethanes and Chromium-6, and the MCL standards, he doesn’t find the levels to be of immediate concern.

“With those numbers being lower than the MCLs, you really can’t say it’s unsafe water,” Inniss said.

The COMO Safe Water Coalition and officials from the city have met three times at open forum meetings to discuss the coalition’s concerns and suggestions for the Integrated Resource Plan.

“I think, similar to the citizens, it’s good to understand public health, and the water quality in your city is one of those things,” Inniss said. “Why not look at the water quality report to better understand what’s going on, just like you look at your credit report, your bills and everything else? It’s important for the students at the university to understand that they are on their way to becoming very active citizens of this country.”

Edited by Emily Gallion | egallion@themaneater.com

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