Trouble on tap: what's really in your water?

Alan Pell Crawford

Terry Mejdrech's old home movies just don't afford the same enjoyment they once did. "When I look at those supposedly carefree images of our kids taking baths or laughing while they're splashing in the sprinkler out in the backyard," the 40-year-old Lisle, Illinois, wife and mother says, "I just cringe."

Six years ago, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) informed Mejdrech (pronounced MAY-drek) and 1,500 of her neighbors in this community of large lots and grassy lawns 20 miles west of Chicago that their groundwater had been contaminated by
trichloroethylene (TCE), a toxic chemical and carcinogen.

For more than 20 years, starting in the late 1960s, TCE seeped into the neighborhood's aquifer from an industrial plant operated by Lockformer, a company later acquired by Honeywell International Corporation. Honeywell, along with two other companies, agreed in September 2003 to pay $12.5 million in damages, subject to a bankruptcy court's approval. Honeywell and the other defendants in the class-action suit brought by Mejdrech and her neighbors also agreed to pay to hook up the communities to alternative water supplies.

That's cold comfort to the Mejdrechs, who have three boys, 4, 6 and 9 years old, two of whom grew up drinking the contaminated water, taking baths in it, eating food cooked with it off of plates washed in it and wearing clothes laundered in it. "I think about what they did when they were younger and ask myself what effect that exposure might have done to their little bodies," Mejdrech says.

Cause for Concern

In Lisle, a physician whose water supply was also contaminated by TCE from the same plant contracted non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of cancer, and won a $7.2 million settlement. Another resident who drank water allegedly contaminated by TCE from a different plant operating in the same industrial park also contracted non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. A teenager when diagnosed, this young woman is waiting for her day in court, as Mejdrech and her neighbors wait to be added to nearby DuPage County's water supply--or wherever theirs will come from, which has not been decided.

"The scary thing is, the effect of these chemicals on people's health is supposed to be a long-term thing, so you never know what's in store for you or your kids," Mejdrech explains. "In the meantime, we drink bottled water only, paid for by Honeywell, and the kids take shorter baths, always with the vents on and the bathroom door open. I even wait awhile to let whatever chemicals are in the bath water evaporate, which means colder baths. This is the Chicago area, and it gets cold in winter."

Decades of Misconduct

"The scope of the problem of contaminated drinking water is enormous, and the public is just now finding out about decades of environmental misconduct," says Shawn M. Collins of The Collins Law Firm, which has represented the plaintiffs in several of the northern Illinois class-action suits. "In every one of these cases, the government had known there were problems for years before the families found out. You just can't trust the government or business to provide you with safe water or to tell you if your groundwater is contaminated."

The national nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) announced in June 2003 that a review of reports from the government and from private water suppliers shows that several cities, including Albuquerque, New Mexico, and San Francisco, "have water that is so contaminated as to pose potential health risks to some consumers, particularly to pregnant women, infants, children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems."

Among other substances found in tap water, the NRDC says, are:

* Rocket fuel. A possible carcinogen, perchlorate is in the water of 20 million Americans, with high levels measured in Los Angeles, Phoenix and San Diego.

* Lead. Usually resulting from old pipes, some of them manufactured a century ago, high lead levels have been found in Boston, Newark, Seattle and Washington, DC.

* Germs. Cryptosporidium, an especially troublesome disease-carrying parasite, caused an outbreak of illness in Milwaukee in 1993, sickening 400,000 residents and causing 100 deaths.

* Arsenic. Used in the manufacture of glass, arsenic, "not safe at any level" in drinking water, is present "at significant levels in the drinking water of 22 million Americans," according to the NRDC.

"You can really never know for certain exactly what is in your tap water at any given time, even if your water is treated, because outbreaks do occur," says Kelly A. Reynolds, PhD, an environmental science researcher with the University of Arizona.

Test and Discover

Under the 1986 and 1996 amendments to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act passed by Congress in 1974, public sources are required to test their water for a range of contaminants, says Lorene Lindsay, an engineering scientist with the National Safe Water Clearinghouse at West Virginia University in Morgantown.

Once contaminants have been discovered, the US EPA requires that the consumer be informed. "That information is included in your water bill once a year," Reynolds says. "Once you see what's in the water, you have to determine whether that's a danger to you as an individual--whether you're pregnant, a recipient of a transplant, immunocompromised or whatever. And immunocompromised includes children up to 5, because their immune systems are not developed yet. The elderly also have to be careful because the gastric acids that help you process contaminants don't work as efficiently as they did when you were younger."

Those most at risk are the 12.4 million households, about 31 million Americans, who, like the Mejdrechs, rely on private wells rather than above-ground rivers, lakes and other sources from which most cities draw their water. The laws governing private wells are not as strict. "About 16 percent of the US population uses private wells," says Erik D. Olson, senior attorney for the NRDC. "There are no federal standards for water quality for those wells; it's up to state and local governments to regulate them." Most cities and states, Olson says, set standards only for coliform, a bacteria found in fecal material, and nitrates; chemical compounds that--occurring in safe levels in spinach, lettuce, beets and carrots--can, at higher levels, be dangerous to infants.

Steps to Take

If, as Collins says, you have no option but to protect yourself, what can you do? The simplest solution is to boil your water. Many consumers, either by choice or--like the Mejdrechs--by necessity, rely on bottled water. Others install home filter systems. There's a range of options for filters that are attached at the tap itself, in price and function, says Reynolds. "Some look for chemicals, others for microorganisms. The one I use is multipurpose, doing both." Home filter systems require maintenance, Lindsay notes. "If you don't change the filter when you are supposed to," she says, "you can actually contribute to the contamination."

What you cannot do is wait for more rigorous federal regulation. Looking out for your own family will require a great deal of adjustment, which Mejdrech says demands more attention than you might expect. "Just reminding yourself--or your kids--not to grab a glass of water any time [you] want it takes some getting used to," she says. "Or [not putting] tap water in the dogs' dish."

Each week, she estimates, the family goes through four 25-gallon jugs of bottled water, the kind installed in office water coolers.

"Bottled water may be good for some things," she says, "but try having to pour water from a jug for boiling pasta. The whole process seems to take forever. Things like that may sound like a little inconvenience, I know, but with everything else we have to contend with now, believe me, they add up."

But if that's as bad as it gets, she'll he thankful.


Under the right-to-know provisions of the 1996 amendments to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, water suppliers are required to make available to the public results of the testing that is also mandated by law. Suppliers must include this information annually in your water bill. The results, and a great deal of additional useful information, are also accessible on the US Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Web site, Click on the link for "Water" then "Drinking Water," then "Local Drinking Water Information." You will find a map of the United States on that page. By clicking on your state, you will be directed to more specific sites that offer information about the water supplied to your community. You can also access this information by entering your city's name or your ZIP code.

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