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drinking water

Amy Temple / The Center for Public Integrity

Arsenic is nearly synonymous with poison. But most people don't realize that they consume small amounts of it in the food they eat and the water they drink.

Recent research suggests even small levels of arsenic may be harmful. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been prepared to say since 2008 that arsenic is 17 times more toxic as a carcinogen than the agency now reports.

Women are especially vulnerable. EPA scientists have concluded that if 100,000 women consumed the legal limit of arsenic each day, 730 of them eventually would get lung or bladder cancer.

The EPA, however, hasn’t been able to make its findings official, an action that could trigger stricter drinking water standards. The roadblock: a single paragraph inserted into a committee report by a member of Congress, an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found.

Bushen Well Drilling. / Facebook

Parts of southeast Michigan – especially in the Thumb – have higher than average levels of arsenic in the groundwater.

Arsenic can cause cancer. It’s been linked to bladder, lung and kidney cancer, and other serious health effects.

If you’re on city water, there’s a federal regulation that limits the amount of arsenic in it, but if you’re on a private well, it’s up to you to find out whether there’s too much arsenic in your water.

If you’re on city water, your drinking water has to comply with a federal regulation that limits the amount of arsenic in it, but if you’re on a private well, the federal and state governments do not limit the amount of arsenic in your well.

It’s up to you to test your well and decide whether to treat it.

Arsenic occurs naturally in rock, and it can get into groundwater.  Michigan is one of a handful of states with unusually high arsenic concentrations in groundwater.

Arsenic is a deadly poison, and there are people in Michigan getting arsenic at levels high above federal standards every time they drink the water coming from their taps.

Michigan Radio's "The Environment Report" is presenting a five-part series this week called "Michigan's Silent Poison," in partnership with The Center for Public Integrity and the public radio show "Reveal."

The Environment Report’s Rebecca Williams spoke on Stateside today, along with David Heath from the Center for Public Integrity.

“No organ system goes untouched by arsenic,” Williams said.

Extremely high doses of arsenic can kill you. Smaller doses have been linked to lung, bladder, skin, prostate, and liver cancers. You can also get arsenic poisoning with symptoms such as nausea, headaches, gastrointestinal pains, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Arsenic can be found in rice, apple juice, beer and wine, and drinking water. The levels are exceptionally high in private wells at people's homes, mostly in the thumb region of Michigan.

Sampling done from 1983 through 2003 shows where arsenic levels in groundwater are the highest in Michigan. Arsenic levels are in micrograms per liter.
Michigan DEQ

In some parts of the U.S., arsenic in the groundwater is just a natural part of the geology. Michigan is one of several states where elevated levels of arsenic in ground water can be found.

This map shows the counties where these elevated levels have been found, but experts caution, elevated arsenic levels in well water can be found just about anywhere in Michigan:

There was a big push to educate people about the dangers of arsenic poisoning around a decade ago, but in some places in Michigan, people still don't know much about it.

And in some other cases, people know about it, but choose to ignore it, for one reason or another.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

 

It’s been called “the mother of all poisons.” You can't taste arsenic and you can’t smell it, which is why it’s been the poison of choice for centuries.

“During the Middle Ages it was called the succession powder,” says Jerome Nriagu, professor emeritus of public health at the University of Michigan.

“That’s the way people got rid of the kings and queens if they wanted to become the king or queen themselves,” he said.

Arsenic, in very high doses, can kill you.

But arsenic is a naturally occurring element and doctors and scientists like Nriagu are working hard to understand how arsenic affects us today.

A family experiences mysterious health problems

Renee Thompson and her family were sick for three years without having any idea why.

“My children and my husband all became very ill after we moved into the house we had in Ortonville,” she said.

At the time, Thompson had recently given birth to her third child, Danica.

“My son was six, and he started to have severe chest pains, while my older daughter had headaches,” Thompson said. “My husband had GI bleeding, and I had become very fatigued with headaches and skin problems.”

Listen to Thompson explain what her family experienced:

Michigan Radio

What’s in the water you drink?

Water faucet
user william_warby / Flickr

Before I talk about the small bits of chemicals often found in drinking water, I want to direct some attention to the national water contamination story going on now because I think it reveals something.

The water is bad in West Virginia

The nation has its eyes on a nine-county area in West Virginia that’s under a state of emergency. A coal-processing chemical leaked into a river and poisoned the drinking water there. Cleanup is ongoing. As they attempt to flush the chemical out of their drinking water systems, officials are trying to determine what level of the chemical is safe.

Ken Ward Jr. of the West Virgina Gazette reports that local and federal officials are saying that "1 part per million" of  crude 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (the coal processing chemical) is safe for people to drink.

But Ward is having a tough time finding out what they based that number on:

When you grab a bottle of water at the grocery store, do you ever wonder where that water came from.

And do you really know the quality of that water? We found out if it's really better than what comes out of your tap.

And, as the use of meth makes headlines across the state, we talked to one woman about her recovery and what she's doing for other addicts.

And, we traveled to the Headlands International Dark Sky Park near Mackinac City, one of only 10 designated sky parks in the entire world.

Also, musician Matt Jones talked about his newest work and overcoming a challenging year.

First on the show, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reed (D-Nev.) says a bipartisan deal has been reached, a deal that would avoid a U.S. default and it would end the partial government shutdown. 

Speaking on the senate floor, Reed thanked Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for working out the agreement, an agreement to reopen the government through January 15th and increase the nation’s borrowing authority through February 7th. 

Now though the deal’s in place the House and Senate still need to vote to approve the legislation.

Michigan Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow joined us today to give us her perspective on the issue.

Great blue heron covered in oil from the 2010 Enbridge oil spill near Marshall, Michigan.
Michigan's oil response Flickr page / State of Michigan

The Michigan Department of Community Health released its public health assessment of the waters and fish affected by the 2010 Enbridge oil spill.

You can read their report here.

They conclude the spill is "not harmful to health":

MDCH has concluded that no long-term harm to people’s health is expected from contact with chemicals in the surface water during recreational activities, such as wading, swimming, or canoeing. However, contact with oil sheen and globules in the river may cause temporary effects, such as skin irritation.

Fish from the Kalamazoo River and Morrow Lake were tested for oil-related chemicals, as well as chemicals that were previously found in fish there. Fish from areas impacted by the oil spill, including Ceresco Impoundment and Morrow Lake, had similar levels of oil-related chemicals as fish caught in Marshall Pond (upstream of the spill). All oil-related chemical levels were very low. Mercury and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) levels were similar to levels measured in fish caught before the oil spill.

The MDCH has released previous reports on the oil spill's effects on drinking water wells, and on the effects of submerged oil in the sediments of the Kalamazoo River.

Darwin Bell / Creative Commons

The E coli bacteria that was discovered earlier this week in Rockford’s municipal water system has cleared out. People living in the Grand Rapids suburb will need to do some things around their house to make sure their families are safe.

People were told to boil their water and sponge bathe their kids earlier this week to avoid the nasty illness E coli exposure can cause. Six schools closed over safety concerns. Some restaurants closed voluntarily.

Lisa LaPlante is with the Kent County Health Department.

Around 2,500 students in the Rockford Public Schools district are home today because of E. coli bacteria in the city’s water system. Complications over the holiday weekend led to elevated levels of the bacteria that could be a risk to human health. A boil water advisory is in effect until further notice.

Rockford schools superintendent Mike Shibler says six schools on the Rockford water system will have to be closed tomorrow too for the safety of the students who attend.

Water faucet
user william_warby / Flickr

Drink up! It’s national Drinking Water Week.

This week, the nation celebrates good old H2O, which just this year knocked out pop — or soda, if you prefer — as the number one beverage in the United States.

But as health-conscious Americans rejoice in the rise of water-drinking across the country, we wanted to know — where did your last drink of water come from? And do you really know the quality of that water?

Mark Kurlyandchik dives into the subject of water in the May issue of "Hour Magazine," with his piece “Ebb and Flow: Demystifying Drinking Water.”

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

Update 5:26 p.m.

Flint needed the state's permission to join the water pipeline project because the city is run by an emergency manager. Supporters say the new pipeline will save Flint money.

Bill Johnson, spokesman for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, said the state previously told Detroit water officials they would have more time to reach a new agreement with Flint. He says the Detroit water system stands to lose big if Flint starts getting its water from Lake Huron.

"Detroit will lose 6 to 7 percent of its total revenue base, amounting to something like $22 million. That cost would have to be absorbed by the remaining 3 million Detroit Water and Sewerage Department customers."

Detroit has until Monday afternoon to make one final offer to the city of Flint to keep its water business. Flint’s emergency manager has said he wants to see Detroit’s offer.

12:39 p.m.

FLINT, Mich. (AP) - The state of Michigan has approved Flint's plans to get its water by participating in a pipeline project that would tap Lake Huron.

The Flint Journal reports the approval is subject to review of a final offer from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department by Monday. State Treasurer Andy Dillon told Flint's state-appointed emergency manager Ed Kurtz of the decision.

Under the proposal, Flint would get 16 million gallons of water per day from Lake Huron, pipe it to Flint for treatment and then sell it to city customers. Another 2 million gallons per day would come from the Flint River and would be treated in Flint.

The Karegnondi Water Authority project could serve Flint and Lapeer as well as residents elsewhere in Genesee, Lapeer and Sanilac counties.

The Natural Resources Defense Council has recruited eight craft breweries in Michigan for a new campaign to promote clean water by supporting strengthening federal regulations like the Clean Water Act.

“When you talk about beer you have to talk about water,” said Jason Spaulding, co-owner of Brewery Vivant in Grand Rapids. “It’s not as sexy as talking about malt or hops or things like that.”

Spaulding says about 90-percent of beer is made up of water. He says if you want a great locally brewed lager, IPA or pilsner; you need clean water.

“Doesn’t matter how many hops or how much malt you put in it, if your water is not good your beer is not going to be good,” Spaulding said.

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

A battle is brewing over where the city of Flint will get its tap water.

Last month, the Flint city council voted to join a project to get fresh water from Lake Huron.   Supporters say the project will save the city millions of dollars by replacing its current water source: the city of Detroit.

But the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is asking the state Treasury Department to veto the plan.

Bill Johnson is with the DWSD. He says state officials need to step in to prevent a “water war.”

A sewage main for the Detroit sewer and water system.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Running the country's largest wastewater treatment plant is not easy.

You've got to treat more than 700 million gallons of 'who-knows-what' every day.

In 1977, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department wasn't complying with federal Clean Water Act laws. That's when federal oversight over the department began.

That oversight ends today, according to federal judge Sean Cox.

From the blog DWSD Update:

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

A judge will consider a request to dismiss a lawsuit challenging Flint’s skyrocketing water and sewer rates this week.

Since 2011, Flint’s water and sewer rates have more than doubled. City officials say the rate increases are needed to cover rising costs in the system.

But Attorney Val Washington says that’s not how the city is using the money.

“Instead of being used what it’s for….water and sewer….related expenses,” says Washington,  “It's being used to pay the general obligations of the city.”

Flickr user Carol VanHook

Mount Clemens in southeastern Michigan has been honored for the best drinking water.

The Macomb Daily says Mount Clemens recently received the nod from the Michigan branch of the American Water Works Association. The competition was conducted by a state engineer, and three judges graded the city's water and others on clarity, taste and odor.

Mount Clemens water comes from Lake St. Clair. The city has its own water department and doesn't rely on Detroit, a major supplier of water to the suburbs.

(Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio)

Rising water costs have Flint officials looking at the Flint River as a source of drinking water. 

(Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio)

Tests suggest household wells near the 2010 Kalamazoo River oil spill have not been contaminated.

A pipeline break in July, 2010, resulted in more than 800 thousand gallons of crude oil leaking into the Kalamazoo River.   The cleanup of the river and the surrounding area continues.

Health officials have spent the past few years testing 150 wells in the spill zone.

Julie Grant/The Environment Report

by Julie Grant for The Environment Report

When Ernie Runions took the job as maintenance manager at the Senior Citizens Housing Center in Louisville, New York, he didn’t realize how much time he’d be spending in this small room. The water room. It’s filled with water tanks and filters. Runions says the equipment cost about $25,000 and the price tag keeps rising.

“It’s in terrible shape. It keeps falling apart. Every time we fix it, it’s $5,000, $3,000. This place is right in the hole because of that.”

We fill a bucket with the nursing home’s water – before it’s gone through the extensive filtering.

It smells bad, like eggs and iron. It’s got a blackish tint, and it’s got black particles floating in it.

Runions says even after the filtering, the elderly residents don’t want to drink it. It’s high in sodium, which can be bad for their health. And it smells like chlorine, which Runions uses to kill bacteria.

“And they complain. They say the chlorine is making me itch, all the extra chlorine. I’ve got red blotches all over my body, and my doctor says it’s the chlorine from the building.”

Town leaders say that until a few years ago, everyone used well water. And most people had some kind of problem with it. Nearly half the wells tested had coliform bacteria contamination – some suspected sewage was seeping into the wells.

It looks like a system that monitors drinking water for at least three million people in southeast Michigan will stay online for another year.

The monitoring system gives early alerts if chemical spills are detected—so it keeps contaminants out of the drinking water system.

The system was in danger of shutting down when federal and state dollars ran out. But officials from Macomb and St. Clair counties have each come up with enough money to keep the system going for another year.

But policymakers are still searching for a long-term solution.

Macomb County Commission Chair Kathy Vosburg says a long-term fix will likely mean a small consumer fee.

“Consumers are very willing to pay for that, it comes out to be something like 50 cents to a dollar per household per year.”

But implementing that would take cooperation from the many different cities that send out water bills--and the city of Detroit, which owns and operates the whole drinking water system.

Photo courtesy of Birmingham Public Schools

Detroit’s water department has been under federal oversight for almost 35 years. Recently, the city tried to get that oversight lifted. But the federal judge who monitors the department shot that effort down, and he ordered stakeholders to find a way to fix the system’s decades-long problems--within two months. Some people wonder about that short timeline—and whether some of the Judge’s suggestions hint at a possible takeover. 

Water running from tap
jordanmrcai / Creative Commons

A computer glitch at the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department led to some customers receiving shut-off notices.

DWSD officials say customers who received the notices "with an address that isn’t theirs" can disregard them.

In a news release, DWSD Public Affairs Manager Mary Sevakis said “We received numerous customer complaints about the notices, and we determined that they referred to one address and one account that had an overdue balance. Customers who received those notices had no connection to that account, and they don’t have to worry about their water being shut off."

The DWSD says shut-off notices have been stopped until the software problem is fixed.

An example of a chromium compound (chrom(VI)-oxide)
user BXXXM - wikimedia commons

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) says it commissioned a study that tested tap water in 35 cities across the United States and found a cancer causing chemical in 31 of the cities they tested.

In Michigan, the EWG tested for evidence of hexavalent chromium in Ann Arbor's water supply and found the chemical at .21 parts per billion. The group says a proposed "safe" level in California is .06 parts per billion.

The group says:

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