Low levels of artificial sweeteners present in the aquifer, but what’s safe?

By Mike Ekberg, MCD manager for water resources monitoring and analysis

MCD staff recently found artificial sweeteners in five of 12 groundwater samples. The samples were collected from monitoring wells installed in the buried valley aquifer. This is further proof that many of the chemicals we flush down a toilet, rinse down a sink, or apply to our lawns and gardens ultimately end up in our rivers, streams, and aquifers.

It should be noted that none of the wells sampled in the study are used for drinking water. MCD uses its monitoring wells in the buried valley aquifer to act as a network of sentinels. Samples from the wells provide information on human impacts as well as natural changes in the quality of water over time.

MCD found artificial sweeteners in several groundwater samples (in monitoring wells, not drinking water wells), providing further proof that what we flush down the toilet and rinse down the sink makes its way to our rivers, streams and aquifers.

Artificial sweeteners in groundwater is a concern for two reasons: First, their presence is an indication that human sewage is flowing into the aquifer. Human sewage contains low levels of many contaminants that pass through the sewage treatment process and enter into natural waters. Second, artificial sweeteners are considered to be potential endocrine disruptors because they may interfere with the body’s endocrine system and harm people and animals.

The endocrine system is a chemical messaging system within the human body that regulates organ function. Fortunately, the artificial sweeteners were present in the groundwater at very low concentrations – parts per trillion.

These “endocrine disruptors.” as they are known, are present in many products we use every day, including plastic bottles, detergents, flame retardants, cosmetics, and pesticides. Among the other chemicals MCD found in the samples were:

  • Bisphenol A (BPA), a compound found in plastics.
  • DEET, an active ingredient in insect repellant.
  • The herbicides atrazine, metolachlor, simazine, and sulfometuron methyl.
  • Meclofenamic acid, a drug used for joint and muscular pain and arthritis.
  • Propylparaben, an ingredient in many cosmetics.

BPA is becoming a big concern because human exposure to the compound is widespread. Some animal studies report effects on fetuses and newborns exposed to BPA.

None of the chemicals found exceeded any human health-based standards. The jury is still out, however, on what the standards should be for some of these chemicals. It’s possible that new standards will be set once we better understand how these chemicals affect the human body.

If we want clean, safe water, we may need to support investments in advanced water treatment technologies to remove potentially harmful compounds from water.

 

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Well Owners – Is your drinking water safe?

Contamination is more common than you think

By Mike Ekberg, MCD manager for water resources monitoring and analysis

Hey well owners, when’s the last time you had your drinking water tested? If you’re like many well owners in the United States, you probably have never tested your water. Why should you bother? You have plenty of water and it tastes good, right?

If you want to be sure your drinking water is safe, you need to get it tested.

Test at least annually
The National Ground Water Association (NGWA) recommends well owners test their water at least annually for bacteria, nitrates, and contaminants specific to your area. Consider more frequent testing if:

  • There is a change in taste, odor, or appearance of well water.
  • The well has a history of contamination.
  • The well is near a failing septic system.
  • There have been recurring incidents of gastrointestinal illness.
  • An infant is living in the home.
  • Home water treatment equipment has been installed.

In our area, I recommend the following tests:

E. coliE. coli bacteria is a specific indication of fecal contamination in the well. Its presence is a warning that disease-causing bacteria may have entered the well.

Nitrate – Nitrate gets into drinking water from fertilizers, manure, and septic systems. It also occurs naturally. High nitrate levels present a health concern for infants if the water is mixed with formula. High nitrate levels can also suggest other toxins such as bacteria and pesticides.

Arsenic – Arsenic is naturally occurring in groundwater. It’s linked to various cancers and other health issues.

Manganese – Manganese also occurs in nature and can be present in groundwater. At high enough levels, it may cause brain damage.

Lead – Lead typically gets into drinking water from corroded pipes and plumbing fixtures. If your home was built prior to 1986, it’s more likely to have lead pipes, fixtures, and solder.

 

Get help with testing
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has a website with contact information about state-certified labs that can help with testing. Contact a lab and have the staff help you collect water samples and explain the results.

Ohio State University (OSU) also offers an on-line tool to help you understand the results. The OSU site offers a lot of information for well owners.

Bigger problem than you think
Recent studies show that private well contamination is not rare. A 2009 United States Geological Survey study of more than 2,000 private wells found about 23 percent of the wells had problems. More recently, MCD surveyed 107 private wells. Twenty percent of those wells had unsafe levels of arsenic in the water.

The need for testing is real. Now go out and get your water tested!

 

Could a drinking water crisis be headed our way?

Water quality crises are becoming more common, from algal toxins in Toledo to lead in Flint, Michigan; Sebring, Ohio and other communities. Could those crises happen here?

It’s possible—but not likely—because this region pulls almost all of its drinking water from groundwater stored in the buried valley aquifer, not from rivers and streams as these highlighted cities do. Why is groundwater better?

Groundwater offers several benefits over surface water (rivers and streams) for drinking.

  • Treating groundwater so it can be used for drinking water can be simpler than treating surface water. Groundwater may only need to be disinfected to kill bacteria and viruses, while surface water must be disinfected and filtered for other pollutants.
  • Groundwater in our region tends to be alkaline and not as corrosive to pipes as natural waters from other parts of the state.
  • Groundwater is commonly ‘softened’ during treatment which tends to reduce the buildup of scale on pipes and plumbing fixtures.
  • Surface water can be affected by polluted runoff from many different land uses including rural and urban land activities. This runoff can include bacteria and chemicals that are difficult or costly to treat.
  • Algal blooms, which are fed by polluted runoff flowing into rivers and streams, do not occur in groundwater because algae cannot live underground.
  • Spills of toxins or other contaminants into rivers and streams can flow downstream quickly for hundreds of miles, potentially reaching the intakes to water supply. Groundwater typically moves slowly, so there is time to prepare or to clean up contamination before it reaches water supply wells.

Protecting groundwater is key

The key is protecting groundwater and preventing contamination. Contaminated groundwater tends to stay contaminated for a long time. Once groundwater becomes contaminated, it’s often very difficult and costly to cleanup.

Advances in groundwater cleanup technologies have been made over the last several decades, but groundwater quality often can’t be restored to previous conditions.

Fortunately, for those of us who live, work and play in the Miami Valley, we can rely on the buried valley aquifer system to provide us with a reliable source of drinking water. Provided, that is, we are willing to do the things necessary to be good stewards of this resource and protect it for our future.

Communities can help

Every community in the Miami Valley has an important role in keeping our water clean and safe.

Make sure that your community has an up-to-date and thorough source water protection plan that is implemented. A source water protection plan protects your community’s water supply.

Communities can protect water by updating their development policies including zoning, codes, ordinances, and subdivision regulations. There are easy and economical ways to do a better job of developing land while protecting water.

Municipalities can also take steps to help residents learn how to ensure the quality of our groundwater. Educate your residents:

  • About the dangers of pouring household cleaners, paint and other chemicals onto the ground, and share information about proper disposal.
  • How to report spills.
  • How to use pesticides and fertilizers sparingly.
  • How to carefully change the oil in their cars, avoiding spills that could make their way to the storm drain. Ensure your community has an oil drop off program.
  • How to responsibly dispose of unwanted medication, and provide prescription drop-off events.