Drinking water from nearly half of U.S. faucets likely contains “forever chemicals” that may cause cancer and other health problems, according to a government study released Wednesday. The synthetic compounds known collectively as PFAS are contaminating drinking water to varying extents in large cities and small towns — and in private wells and public systems, the U.S. Geological Survey said.
Alvis Jones looked out over Lake Murray and wasn’t impressed. “It’s dropping,” he said while casting a line into the lake. “Probably, looks like 10, 20 feet.” Jones stood on a metal dock that was floating on the surface of the water considerably lower than usual. “My first thought was evaporation,” said Valerie Weise, who was walking through dirt that should be underwater.
Tiny pieces of plastic shed from food wrappers, grocery bags, clothing, cigarette butts, tires and paint are invading the environment and every facet of daily life. Researchers know the plastic particles have even made it into municipal water supplies, but very little data exists about the scope of microplastic contamination in drinking water. After years of planning, California this year is embarking on a first-of-its-kind data-gathering mission to illuminate how prevalent microplastics are in the state’s largest drinking water sources and help regulators determine whether they are a public health threat.
San Diego County has started using new ocean water-quality testing technology intended to produce faster results and earlier warnings when bacteria reach unhealthy levels.
During a rollout of the DNA-based technology last week, county Board of Supervisors Vice Chairwoman Nora Vargas said the county plans to expand its use of the testing technology, known as droplet digital polymerase chain reaction, or ddPCR, to more than 70 miles of shoreline that the county samples and tests to help protect the public.
The city of San Diego has won an appeal in its suit challenging a state mandate that required local water districts to pay for mandatory lead testing at schools, the San Diego City Attorney’s Office said Wednesday.
The ruling issued Friday finds that either the state’s Commission on State Mandates must reimburse San Diego for water testing or the city can impose fees, charges or assessments to cover testing costs.
The coronavirus pandemic forced the City of Escondido’s Water Quality Laboratory to rethink its lab operations without compromising community health or employee wellbeing while ensuring the clean, safe, and efficient operation of the city. Through teamwork and creative thinking, the lab found success in maintaining its essential work.
“Whether we have a pandemic or not, people still want to open their taps and have clean drinking water,” said Ralph Ginese, supervising chemist with the City of Escondido.
Hale Avenue Resource Recovery Facility Laboratory Superintendent Nicki Branch says employee safety was addressed first.
“We immediately enforced the six-foot social distancing requirement and frequent handwashing,” said Branch. “The facility cleaning staff increased disinfection wipedown of all surfaces. We stopped having group staff and safety meetings by switching to online. We have changed our work schedule, essentially cutting it in half on a rotating schedule and allowing all employees to be able to telecommute from home periodically.”
The 14 employees have been provided additional personal protective equipment including facemasks.
“Staff is able to do administrative work, lab paperwork, study for exams, safety training, research on the industry and attend webinars,” said Branch.
Half of the staff members remain at the lab facility full-time, where they conduct analyses to verify the quality of wastewater treatment processes to safeguard community health, as well as required monthly and quarterly testing.
Unseasonal rainfall creates additional challenges
Recent heavy rains in Escondido complicated the testing process. Branch said several lab staff were placed on call in the event additional testing was needed due to a possible emergency-permitted tertiary discharge to nearby Escondido Creek due to high flows after five days of rain.
“They were all game to come in if needed on a Saturday to assist, but fortunately the operations staff worked miracles to keep us from discharging,” said Branch. “Heavy rains also caused a situation where additional sampling of lakes for drinking water analysis occurred, and the lab staff responded immediately to help the drinking water division with sampling and analysis.”
The Escondido lab routinely tests six sample sites along the outfall line.
“It’s a full-blown scan, so getting samples to contact labs would have been a real challenge,” said Ginese, crediting the work of the city’s operations staff to prevent any discharge into the creek.
“I am so proud of all the staff at the HARRF Laboratory for responding to this Covid -19 pandemic in a professional manner, adapting quickly to our City policies requiring social distancing, and for offering to come in on emergency situations when needed,” said Branch.
The San Diego County Water Authority and its 24 member agencies have increased regional coordination and communication to ensure the coronavirus pandemic does not impact safe and secure water service for San Diego County.
While restaurants, gyms, schools and other buildings are closed indefinitely to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the quality of water left sitting in pipes could change.
In buildings nationwide, water left sitting for long periods of time could contain excessive amounts of heavy metals and pathogens that are concentrated in pipes, say researchers who have begun a field study on the impact of the pandemic shutdown on buildings.
The problem of stagnant water may not be confined to buildings recently closed. Water could have been bad for months or years in old hospital buildings that cities are reopening to accommodate a potential influx of COVID-19 patients.
California’s 600 certified water quality testing labs will face strict new accreditation standards in the near future. While final hearings still need to take place on the draft regulations before adoption, the City of Escondido Water Quality Lab isn’t waiting. Escondido is working now to adopt the anticipated regulations.
Escondido is one of only two California labs already compliant with the draft regulations, which require more stringent quality controls.
The laboratory is certified by the California State Water Resources Control Board’s Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program to conduct 155 different certified test methods to ensure Escondido water and wastewater safety, including reclaimed water samples, stormwater samples, drinking water samples, wastewater from various stages throughout the treatment process, and industrial wastewater collected from permitted industries.
City of Escondido Laboratory Superintendent Nicki Branch supervises the 13-person lab staff. She said the decision was made to work toward Environmental Lab Accreditation Program compliance right away rather than wait for formal implementation.
“We thought, this regulation is coming,” said Branch. “It’s going to be the law. Let’s just go ahead and comply with it now. Each water quality laboratory has to be certified by the state. Adding the [proposed] standards adds more quality assurance and quality control procedures for everything you do in the lab.”
Improved reporting of water quality testing
Branch said the standards implement more rigorous reporting, not new processes.
“It takes what we are doing now and makes the data more defensible,” she said. “We can show the chain of custody and verify our procedures, from sampling to analyzing to reporting. The process protects the integrity of the data.”
The proposed new requirements are based on 2016 standards developed by The NELAC Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting “the generation of environmental data of known and documented quality through an open, inclusive, and transparent process that is responsive to the needs of the community.”
Escondido staff share expertise with industry peers
Branch said it took a full year to implement the additional sampling and paperwork. Once the City of Escondido completed the process, she realized her team gained valuable insight other labs would need. She encouraged her staff to submit abstracts to speak on the proposed new regulations at the annual 2019 California Water Environment Association conference.
“We had five people speaking who had never made a presentation before,” said Branch. “I told them ‘You are now the experts.’”
Lab staff presentation at 2019 CWEA Tri-State Seminar
“We expect to give more presentations this year,” said Branch. “Labs will need to do this. We can help people, counsel them, and give them tips. People are apprehensive. It’s human nature. ‘No, not more regulation!’ But when you are a lab doing drinking water analysis, you want the lab to be that stringent and that accurate with quality assurance procedures.”
Personal pride in the achievement, improved teamwork, and sharing their new knowledge as subject matter experts were unexpected benefits.
Aging water treatment systems, failing pipes and a slew of unregulated contaminants threaten to undermine water quality in U.S. cities of all sizes.
Why it matters: There’s arguably nothing more important to human survival than access to clean drinking water.