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Oxybenzone and Drinking Water

Emily Driehaus @ Friday, June 25, 2021 at 3:39 pm -0400

Emily Driehaus  |  Science Communication Intern

Oxybenzone is a common sunscreen ingredient that has been shown to have negative impacts on human health and the environment. Evidence has shown that it can contaminate drinking water after being washed down the drain while showering off sunscreen. 

What is Oxybenzone?

Oxybenzone is a UV filter used in sunscreen and other cosmetics. It absorbs UV rays from the sun and helps prevent them from penetrating the skin and causing sun damage. While it does help protect our skin against the sun, it has implications for both our health and the environment, particularly aquatic life. 

Oxybenzone and Marine Life

Much of the concern regarding oxybenzone began when researchers noticed damage to coral reefs near beaches with many visitors. As sunscreen gets sloughed off the skin by the water and sand, it can make its way into the ocean and harm aquatic life. Coral reefs are especially susceptible to damage, as oxybenzone can harm normal growth and development, damage DNA and put them at an increased risk of bleaching. 

Health Implications of Oxybenzone

As research into oxybenzone has continued, it has been designated as an endocrine disruptor. Endocrine disruptors interfere with normal hormonal processes in the body and can impact the reproductive system. Most research on oxybenzone in the human body has focused on absorption through the skin rather than ingestion, but more evidence has shown that oxybenzone is present in drinking water, especially in communities near large bodies of water.

How Does Oxybenzone Get Into Drinking Water?

After a day at the beach, most individuals hop in the shower to rinse off the sunscreen and sand that has accumulated on their skin throughout the day. When this water goes down the drain, it goes to wastewater treatment plants to be treated before being released into water sources, which can be used for drinking water. Wastewater treatment plants and drinking water facilities lack the ability to filter out endocrine disruptors like oxybenzone, so it ends up in drinking water consumed by the public. A study looking at oxybenzone in Honolulu tap water showed that individuals consume between 0.8-1.2 micrograms of oxybenzone a day from drinking water. This concentration is not particularly harmful to fully grown adults, but can have a greater impact on children, infants and developing fetuses. 

Regulations on Oxybenzone

The previously mentioned study was submitted as part of testimony on a bill that would ban the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone in the state of Hawaii. The bill passed in 2018 and went into effect at the beginning of this year. The city of Key West, Florida has also enacted a ban on sunscreens with oxybenzone in an effort to protect coral reefs. These bans are not without controversy, as skin damage from UV rays can lead to skin cancer and banning sunscreens with oxybenzone leaves individuals in these areas with one less form of sun protection.

What Should I Do if I’m Concerned About Oxybenzone in my Water?

Carbon water filters are able to filter out oxybenzone and other endocrine disruptors. Using sunscreen with ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide rather than oxybenzone can also reduce your overall exposure. Switching sunscreens will also help protect aquatic life when you swim in bodies of water like lakes or oceans.

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How Do Hurricanes Affect Your Drinking Water?

Emily Driehaus @ Thursday, June 3, 2021 at 3:39 pm -0400

Emily Driehaus  |  Science Communication Intern   

The start of hurricane season not only brings the threat of deadly storms, but also the potential for problems with drinking water infrastructure and systems. Heavy rain and flooding from hurricanes can interfere with both public and private water systems and contaminate water sources, leaving individuals without safe drinking water for days after a hurricane.

Drinking Water Contamination From Stormwater Runoff

Stormwater runoff can contaminate both groundwater and surface water during a hurricane. As stormwater runs into a storm drain or the nearest body of water, it picks up both biological and chemical contaminants from the ground that make their way into the water supply. Impervious surfaces exacerbate this problem, as stormwater cannot penetrate the ground and instead sits on top of these surfaces, contributing to flooding during a hurricane. Some local governments, such as Washington, D.C. and other municipalities surrounding the Chesapeake Bay, are working to combat this issue by replacing impervious surfaces with materials that soak up stormwater and allow it to permeate the ground instead of sitting on top of surfaces gathering contaminants that harm drinking water supply. 

Hurricane Flooding and Water Systems

The large influx of water from hurricane rain and flooding can overwhelm both public and private water systems, leading to the overflow of sewers, wells and other parts of water infrastructure. Combined sewer overflows are systems designed to collect stormwater runoff, sewage and other wastewater to be transported to a wastewater treatment plant to be treated before moving to a larger body of water. Hurricane rain and flooding can cause these systems to overflow and untreated water can spill into nearby water sources, potentially contaminating drinking water supply. Wells can also be contaminated with sewage, bacteria and other microorganisms due to hurricane flooding. 

Hurricanes and Water Treatment Facilities

Water treatment plants are not immune to the power outages and structural damage caused by hurricane winds. Treatment plants can lose power and infrastructure can be damaged during a hurricane, leaving facilities without the ability to treat water. Equipment and infrastructure in water treatment plants can also be contaminated by runoff and floodwater. The inability of treatment plants to treat water due to power outages leads to boil water notices to ensure people in the affected area are not ingesting biological contaminants through their drinking water. 

Case Study: Hurricane Harvey

Hurricane Harvey made landfall in southeast Texas on August 25, 2017, and bombarded the Gulf Coast with heavy rain and wind for days. The Category 4 storm caused $125 million in damage in Texas and Louisiana, including damage to water systems. According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, 61 public drinking water systems and 40 wastewater facilities were declared inoperable and 203 boil water notices were issued during the storm. Flooding also damaged chemical and energy plants in the area, leading to the contamination of surface water and drinking water reservoirs with sewage, wastewater and toxic chemicals. All inoperable facilities, except one wastewater facility, were restored in the cleanup process following the storm. However, tap water was not safe to drink in some communities for months, with boil water notices lasting into December for some areas affected by the storm.  

How To Prepare for Water Service Interruptions in a Hurricane

The best way to avoid losing access to clean drinking water is to prepare before the storm arrives. The National Hurricane Survival Initiative recommends beginning preparations as far in advance as possible to avoid the chaos at stores right before a hurricane hits. Buying bottled water is an option for individuals preparing for a hurricane, but prices can increase dramatically right before a storm due to increased demand. Alternatively, individuals can store their own water in the days before a hurricane hits. The NHSI recommends storing water in containers made out of durable materials, such as plastic bottles. Because hurricanes can leave water treatment plants without power and contaminate water sources, individuals should prepare enough water, about a gallon, per person for at least three days.

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City Programs Invest in Green Solutions to Reduce Runoff

Analies Dyjak @ Monday, April 5, 2021 at 12:00 pm -0400

Emma Johnson | Scientific Contributor   

On September 10, 2020, a torrential rainstorm hit Washington, DC, dropping up to six inches of rain in a matter of hours in some places. Nearby waterways, like the northwest branch of the Anacostia River, rose eight feet in an hour, flooding streets and stranding drivers. 

One reason so much water ends up in the region’s waters so quickly is because 43% of the city is covered in impervious surfaces like rooftops, roads, and sidewalks that immediately direct water into the drain, straight into the rivers and creeks. DC’s Department of Energy & Environment (DOEE) says that a storm that drops 1.2 inches of rain produces about 525 million gallons of stormwater runoff. 

In addition to quickly flooding buildings and streets, stormwater runoff poses another problem: pollution. When water flows over impervious surfaces, it collects oil, pesticides, pathogens, or whatever else is on the surface and washes it into watersheds. This can contaminate drinking water and poison wildlife.

Controlling the volume of water remains a challenge for cities across the country. The Anacostia Watershed Society labeled stormwater runoff as one of the fastest growing sources of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay in it’s 2020 State of the Anacostia Report Card.

City programs around the country are working to reduce the runoff volume and pollution by replacing impervious surfaces with green spaces that soak up water like a sponge. DC’s RiverSmart Homes program, which started in 2007, helps homeowners reduce runoff by providing rebates on water bills and installing features like rain gardens and permeable pavement. Today, over 4,000 DC homeowners have participated all across the city. The program has also expanded to include schools and communities outside the city’s limits.

Another city that is heavily investing in nature-based stormwater runoff mitigation programs is Philadelphia. The city created a $2.4 billion, 25-year plan in 2009 called Green City, Clean Waters, which aims to transform the health of the city’s waters primarily through green methods. The city hopes completing this plan will reduce runoff volume by 85%. Philadelphia also offers grants to help property owners pay for stormwater retrofit projects and a fee for commercial customers that is based on the square footage of impervious surface on the property.

DC and Philadelphia are just two of hundreds of cities around the country that are investing in green infrastructure initiatives to reduce stormwater runoff. From Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Lenexa, Kansas, to Huntington, West Virginia, cities are seeing how rain barrels, permeable pavement, street trees, and more can reduce runoff, decrease pollution, and improve quality of life for their residents.

Managing stormwater runoff will remain a major challenge for cities in the future, especially in a changing climate. Runoff can be poisonous to the areas where we live, work, and play and create long-lasting health effects on local wildlife. Cities are rising to this challenge by turning impervious surfaces into green sponges to better protect the safety and health of all beings who live there.

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How Does Stormwater Runoff Affect Drinking Water?

Analies Dyjak @ Tuesday, October 30, 2018 at 4:10 pm -0400

Analies Dyjak  |  Policy Nerd

As hurricane season is coming to an end, we wanted to let you know how heavy rains can impact drinking water. Here’s how stormwater runoff can affect your water.

How Does Stormwater Affect Drinking Water?

Heavy rain storms create a rapid influx of water, which can cause a host of health and environmental issues. Rainwater travels to low-lying bodies of water, including oceans, lakes, rivers, streams, and aquifers. Both surface and groundwater are susceptible to contamination from stormwater runoff, both of which are sources of drinking water. As water travels, it picks up loose debris, pesticides, herbicides, oil, and other types of pollution in its path. This cocktail of contaminants is then dumped into a nearby waterway. Some municipal water treatment facilities are equipped to deal with these types of contamination, while others are not. 86% of the U.S. population gets their drinking water from surface water sources, so maintaining clean lakes and rivers is extremely important for managing stormwater runoff pollution in drinking water.

What Are Combined Sewer Overflows or CSO’s?

Combined Sewer Overflows or CSO’s, are a system of underground canals that collect stormwater runoff, industrial wastewater, and sewage all in the same pipe. Under normal conditions, stormwater and sewage travels to a wastewater plant where it’s treated before being discharged into a body of water. During heavy rain events, the large influx of stormwater causes pipes to exceed the capacity of the the system. Untreated wastewater, including sewage, overflows into nearby oceans, lakes, rivers or streams or wherever a stormwater discharge output exists. CSO’s were used as early as the 1850’s, and were the only system in place to deal with such high volumes of water. Many cities have replaced CSO’s with advanced infrastructure, but cities such as Portland, Maine and Cambridge, Massachusetts still use them.

Impervious Surfaces and Stormwater

Impervious surfaces are developed areas where water is unable to infiltrate into the earth. This typically refers to paved roads, roofs, and sidewalks. When water is unable to infiltrate, it flows into the nearest body of water or wastewater system. Impervious surfaces are of concern because water picks up and carries dangerous contaminants, then deposits pollution into drinking water sources. Impervious surfaces also increase the impacts from floods. Unable to percolare, water sits on top of paved roads, increasing the flood potential and presence of biological contamination. As communities continue to develop, the area of paved or impervious surface increases as well.

Wetlands: Important for Stormwater Retention

Wetlands offer remarkable protection from the impacts of flooding and other stormwater damages. Wetlands absorb incoming water and release it slowly, acting as a natural sponge. According to the U.S Army Corps of Engineers, the state wetland conservation along the Charles River in Boston, Massachusetts saved approximately $17 million in potential flood damage. Additionally, wetlands naturally filter stormwater runoff pollution. The fast-moving water is slowed by vegetation, which allows suspended sediment and pollution to fall to the bottom.

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