Water Quality InformationWritten By Actual Experts


Plastic pipes are polluting drinking water systems after wildfires – it's a risk in urban fires, too

Scientific Contributor @ Friday, December 18, 2020 at 12:52 pm -0500
Andrew J. Whelton, Purdue University; Amisha Shah, Purdue University, and Kristofer P. Isaacson, Purdue University

When wildfires swept through the hills near Santa Cruz, California, in 2020, they released toxic chemicals into the water supplies of at least two communities. One sample found benzene, a carcinogen, at 40 times the state’s drinking water standard.

Our testing has now confirmed a source of these chemicals, and it’s clear that wildfires aren’t the only blazes that put drinking water systems at risk.

In a new study, we heated plastic water pipes commonly used in buildings and water systems to test how they would respond to nearby fires.

The results, released Dec. 14, show how easily wildfires could trigger widespread drinking water contamination. They also show the risks when only part of a building catches fire and the rest remains in use. In some of our tests, heat exposure caused more than 100 chemicals to leach from the damaged plastics.

As environmental engineers, we advise communities on drinking water safety and disaster recovery. The western U.S.’s extreme wildfire seasons are putting more communities at risk in ways they might not realize. Just this year, more than 52,000 fires destroyed more than 17,000 structures – many of them homes connected to water systems. Heat-damaged plastic pipes can continue to leach chemicals into water over time, and ridding a water system of the contamination can take months and millions of dollars.

A baffling source of contamination

The cause of drinking water contamination after wildfires has baffled authorities since it was discovered in 2017.

After the 2017 Tubbs Fire and 2018 Camp Fire, chemicals were found in buried water distribution networks, some at levels comparable to hazardous waste. Contamination was not in the water treatment plants or drinking water sources. Some homeowners found drinking water contamination in their plumbing.

Tests revealed volatile organic compounds had reached levels that posed immediate health risks in some areas, including benzene levels that exceeded the EPA hazardous waste threshold of 500 parts per billion. Benzene was found at a level 8,000 times the federal drinking water limit and 200 times the level that causes immediate health effects. Those effects can include dizziness, headaches, skin and throat irritation and even unconsciousness, among other risks.

Pipes stacked up after a fire.
Plastic water pipes don’t have to burn to be a problem. Andrew Whelton/Purdue University, CC BY-ND

This year, wildfires triggered drinking water contamination in at least two more California drinking water systems, and testing is still underway in other communities.

The problem with plastics

Plastics are ubiquitous in drinking water systems. They are often less expensive to install than metal alternatives, which hold up against high heat but are vulnerable to corrosion.

Today, water pipes under the street and those that deliver water to customers’ water meters are increasingly made of plastic. Pipes that transport the drinking water from the meter to the building are often plastic. Water meters also sometimes contain plastics. Private wells can have plastic well casings as well as buried plastic pipes that deliver well water to plastic storage tanks and buildings.

Pipes inside buildings that carry hot and cold water to faucets can also be plastic, as can faucet connectors, water heater dip tubes, refrigerator and ice maker tubing.

Some common types of drinking water pipes: Black plastic is HDPE; white is PVC; yellow is CPVC; red, maroon, orange, and blue are PEX; green is PP; and gray is polybutylene. The metal pipes are lead, iron and copper. Andrew Whelton/Purdue University, CC BY-ND

To determine if plastic pipes could be responsible for drinking water contamination after wildfires, we exposed commonly available plastic pipes to heat. The temperatures were similar to the heat from a wildfire that radiates toward buildings but isn’t enough to cause the pipes to catch fire.

We tested several popular plastic drinking water pipes, including high-density polyethylene (HDPE), crosslinked polyethylene (PEX), polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and chlorinated polyvinylchloride (CPVC).

Benzene and other chemicals were generated inside the plastic pipes just by heating. After the plastics cooled, these chemicals then leached into the water. It happened at temperatures as low as 392 degrees Fahrenheit. Fires can exceed 1,400 degrees.

While researchers previously discovered that plastics could release benzene and other chemicals into the air during heating, this new study shows heat-damaged plastics can directly leach dozens of toxic chemicals into water.

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What to do about contamination

A community can stop water contamination from spreading if damaged pipes can be quickly isolated. Without isolation, the contaminated water may move to other parts of the water system, across town or within a building, causing further contamination.

During the CZU Lightning Complex Fire near Santa Cruz, one water utility had water distribution system valves that seemed to have contained the benzene-contaminated water.

Rinsing heat-damaged pipes won’t always remove the contamination. While helping Paradise, California, recover from the 2018 Camp Fire disaster, we and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that some plastic pipes would have required more than 100 days of nonstop water rinsing to be safe for use. Instead, officials decided to replace the pipes.

Melted plastic pipes alongside metal pipes.
Different types of pipes respond to heating in different ways. Andrew Whelton/Purdue University, CC BY-ND

Even if a home is undamaged, we recommend testing the water in private wells and service lines if fire was on the property. If contamination is found, we recommend finding and removing the heat-damaged plastic contamination sources. Some plastics can slowly leach chemicals like benzene over time, and this could go on for months to years, depending on the scale of contamination and water use. Boiling the water doesn’t help and can release benzene into the air.

Avoiding widespread contamination

Communities can take steps to avoid contaminated drinking water in the event of a fire. Water companies can install network isolation valves and backflow prevention devices, to prevent contaminated water moving from a damaged building into the utility pipe network.

Insurance companies can use pricing to encourage property owners and cities to install fire-resistant metal pipes instead of plastic. Rules for keeping vegetation away from meter boxes and buildings can also lessen the chance heat reaches plastic water system components.

Homeowners and communities rebuilding after fires now have more information about the risks as they consider whether to use plastic pipes. Some, like the town of Paradise, have chosen to rebuild with plastic and accept the risks. In 2020, the city had another wildfire scare and residents were forced to evacuate again.The Conversation

Andrew J. Whelton, Associate Professor of Civil, Environmental & Ecological Engineering, Purdue University; Amisha Shah, Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering and Environmental and Ecological Engineering, Purdue University, and Kristofer P. Isaacson, Ph.D. Student, Purdue University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

8 Communities Living With PFAS Contamination Through No Fault Of Their Own

Analies Dyjak @ Friday, December 11, 2020 at 3:39 pm -0500

Analies Dyjak, M.A. | Head of Policy and Perspectives

“Forever Chemicals” or PFAS are a category of contaminants that are found in drinking water supplies across the country. PFAS are associated with the production of both chemical and consumer products - most notably, it’s use in firefighting foam or AFFF. Military installments engage in on-base training activities that require the use of PFAS-containing firefighting foam. The Department of Defense (DoD) has granted approval for 8 facilities across the country to burn PFAS chemicals. Many of these communities did not have problems with PFAS contamination prior to contracts with DoD.

What Are The Health and Environmental Impacts Associated With Exposure to PFAS?

PFAS are known to cause cancer, increase the risk of miscarriage, increase cholesterol, and cause various other health impacts. Drinking water accounts for up to 75% of PFAS exposure, but can be problematic through inhalation. PFAS typically enter drinking water directly from facilities that manufacture PFAS-containing products. New research has found that PFAS do not fully break down when incinerated, and may indirectly enter drinking water that way as well. There are also growing concerns about PFAS accumulation in fish, which could cause an additional route of exposure for humans. There are currently no EPA approved testing methods for PFAS in ambient air

8 Facilities Approved To Burn PFAS In The United States

There are 8 incinerators approved by the Department of Defense to burn PFAS chemicals. Not all of the locations are actively burning PFAS, or have burned PFAS in the past: 

Why Are We Burning PFAS In The First Place?

There is no scientific consensus on how to entirely remove PFAS from the environment. The Department of Defense even acknowledged that “no satisfactory disposal method has been identified” and that “many likely byproducts will be environmentally unsatisfactory.” This is in part due to the fact that PFAS were created not to break down in the environment. The carbon-fluorine bond is the strongest carbon bond there is

Incineration Facility in Cohoes, New York

The approved incineration site in Cohoes, New York, resulted in significant environmental damages. The Norlite incineration facility burned PFAS chemicals for over a year without the residents’ approval. The Norlite facility was granted a contract from the Department of Defense to burn PFAS chemicals from military bases across the country. A team of researchers from Bennington College detected PFAS downwind of the plant - indicating that the PFAS were not fully incinerated. The town of Cohoes and bordering municipalities did not have a PFAS problem until these chemicals were brought from out of state. On November 23, 2020, the Governor of New York signed legislation that bans the incineration of PFAS chemicals in certain cities, including Cohoes. 

What Does This Mean For You and Your Family?

If you live near a PFAS incineration facility, it’s important to remain informed. Because PFAS are unregulated by the federal government, most actionable changes are being made by advocacy groups, and state and local governments. You can always use our Water Nerds as a resource for any questions you might have regarding PFAS contamination in your area. If you are looking to purchase a water filter, you’ll want to make sure that it’s able to remove PFAS. Hydroviv filters were part of a Duke University and NC State PFAS removal study that determined the effectiveness of residential water filters and their ability to remove PFAS. Hydroviv filters were effective at removing PFAS at the 1 and 6 month mark, while other major filtration brands were not. 

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The Noah System: Lead-Free Drinking Water For America's Schools

Analies Dyjak @ Friday, November 27, 2020 at 2:18 pm -0500

Analies Dyjak, M.A. and Michael Ramos   

The unresolved lead crisis in the United States disproportionately impacts young children - especially those in underserved communities. Many schools in the United States were built before 1986, when the use of lead in pipes and plumbing was still allowed. School-aged children who drink water from drinking fountains are exposed to unsafe lead levels on a daily basis. Michael Ramos, the Founder of The Noah System, created a device that automatically flushes water in drinking fountains to reduce the high lead levels in schools.

Why Are We Concerned With Lead in Drinking Water?

Babies and children are the most vulnerable to the long lasting impacts of lead exposure. Lead is a neurotoxin, and can cause lifelong irreversible damages to the brain. Children do not have a fully developed blood-brain barrier, making it easier for “unknown substances,” including lead, to cross into the Central Nervous System. Lead can be mistaken for calcium, in which the body can absorb lead as it would calcium in the brain, blood, bones, and soft tissue. The long term health effects include: slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems, lowered IQ, attention deficit, hearing and speech problems, and underperformance in schools. Lead was also associated with Autism in a recent study by the National Institutes of Health. According to the Environmental Protection AgencyCenters for Disease Control, and American Academy of Pediatrics, there is no safe level of lead for children. The current allowable level of lead in drinking water in the United States is 15 parts per billion

The Noah System and The Flint Lead Crisis

Michael Ramos is an engineer for Chicago Public Schools. In February of 2016, like most of the country, he watched as the failures of elected officials crippled the City of Flint, Michigan. Flint officials switched the source water from Lake Huron to the Flint River without considering a corrosion control inhibitor to reduce lead. As a result, 9,000 children under the age of 6 were exposed to unsafe levels of lead. Mr. Ramos thought of his own children, and the children he represented throughout Chicago Public Schools. He started to watch congressional hearings and grew even more concerned when the EPA officials stated that “lead in drinking water would be one of the most challenging tasks the country was going to face.” Chicago has its own ongoing issues with lead in drinking water, which he realized had not been mitigated when a school district detected 3,000 parts per billion (200 times over EPA’s Action Level). 

Chicago Has Lead Mitigation Tools In Place. Why Did They Fail?

Many cities across the country, including Chicago, use a chemical called Orthophosphate to help reduce lead levels in drinking water. In order for Orthophosphate to be effective, water must run through the pipes once every 6 hours to build an anti-corrosive crust. Mr. Ramos realized that the drinking water in most schools sits stagnant in pipes for hours - well beyond the 6 hour stagnation period. Orthophosphate is unable to coat the inside of pipes when water sits stagnant overnight, over the weekends, or during school vacations. 
Mr. Ramos noted that several school districts across the country flush their pipes in August, as students are getting ready to go back to school. As we now understand, it doesn’t take long for lead to collect in distribution pipes and reach unsafe levels for children. Mr. Ramos noted that a single-flushing event at the beginning of the school year “was not sufficient to make a meaningful impact on lead levels.” In short, lead levels in schools drinking water can be directly correlated to long periods of stagnation.

How Did The Noah System Come To Be?

Mr. Ramos wanted to first insure that the water coming into his own home was free of lead. “I built a machine that would automatically flush water from the cold water line coming into my house. I took the 6 hour stagnation period and cut it in half, so water would flow through the pipes every 3 hours.” This would allow sufficient time for the Orthophosphate to build a protective crust and significantly reduce lead levels at the tap. He then asked himself: “How do I take what I built in my house and retrofit it for schools?” Mr. Ramos determined that The Noah System could be installed directly in drinking water fountains, and began building systems from his home workshop. In October of 2016, Michael Ramos installed his first Noah System in a Chicago Public School. 

How Many Schools Currently Have The Noah System?

Several schools, Universities, and office buildings across the country that currently use The Noah System. 

How Can I Learn More About The Noah System?

You can learn more around The Noah System by visiting https://www.noahsystem.co/. You can also get in touch via email but submitting your information here: https://www.noahsystem.co/pages/contact. You can schedule a free consultation by calling 708-320-3197. 

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How DuPont and Chemours Changed Drinking Water Forever

Goodwin Media Collaborator @ Thursday, October 22, 2020 at 4:28 pm -0400

Analies Dyjak, M.A.  |  Head of Policy

North Carolina has been at the heart of a largely under-reported drinking water crisis. Thousands of North Carolinians have been exposed to unsafe levels of an unregulated contaminant called Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, PFAS, or "forever chemicals." The source of the contamination traces back to a fluoro-chemical operation in Fayetteville - causing widespread contamination in municipal drinking water and in private wells. This article will discuss two companies’ legal tactics to try and avoid liability, and how the victims of this tragedy continue to be left in the dark. 

Polluter v. Polluter 

You may already be familiar with the two companies at the root of this crisis in North Carolina. In short, DuPont had been manufacturing and distributing a category of chemicals called Per and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances or PFAS, since the 1980's. DuPont created Chemours - a spinoff company in charge of overseeing all fluoro-chemical operations, including the entire category of PFAS chemicals. In doing so, Chemours assumed direct liability for DuPont’s decades of chemical contamination - including all environmental and public health damages. According to the 2019 lawsuit, Chemours claimed that DuPont was not entirely forthcoming about the amount of damages the spinoff company was to incur. Chemours claimed that they were set up by DuPont to be “financially overwhelmed,” and ultimately bankrupt. When Chemours took over DuPont in 2015, they agreed to historical liabilities of no greater than $1.42 billion. Chemours claimed that DuPont wildly underestimated the totality of the liabilities. For example, the cost of one particular class action lawsuit, including 3,500 cancer and bodily harm claims associated with exposure to PFOA, was grossly underestimated. DuPont claimed that settlement would cost no greater than $128 Million, while Chemours ended up owing $671 Million for that case alone. 

Chemours v. DuPont was ultimately dismissed by a Delaware judge in 2019. This was bad news for Chemours, and even worse news for the thousands of individuals impacted by PFAS contamination. Both companies are trying to delay and reorganize, in order to pay the absolute least amount of money to the state of North Carolina as possible. If you want to learn more about other Chemours’ litigation in North Carolina, click here. We also have an article about an unrelated case against DuPont, which you can find here.

North Carolina Attorney General Sues DuPont and Chemours

Soon after Chemours sued DuPont, the state of North Carolina turned around and sued both companies. On October 13, 2020, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, sued DuPont and Chemours for PFAS contamination in the Cape Fear River. The single Chemours plant in Fayetteville has caused widespread PFAS contamination throughout several major North Carolina counties, including New Hanover, Bladen, Pender, and Brunswick. The recent lawsuit is calling for both Chemours and DuPont to pay for all “past and future costs, necessary to investigate, assess, remediate, restore, and remedy” all damages. We'll have updated information on our blog and social media (@hydroviv_h2o) as this story unfolds. 

How Has PFAS Impacted The State of North Carolina?

There's no way to fully estimate how this negligence has impacted North Carolinians. What we do know is that exposure to PFAS chemicals has been associated with a variety of negative health effects, including: an increased risk of cancer, decreased immune function, increased cholesterol, and more. In a study completed just this year, a team of Yale researchers found that exposure to PFAS increases the risk of miscarriage by 80-120%. A PFAS variety that's especially problematic in the Cape Fear River, called GenX, was deemed a "probable carcinogen" by EPA in 2018. Still, none of these contaminants are regulated by EPA or the state of North Carolina, meaning it's not required to be removed by municipal utilities. PFAS have been detected at levels well above public health recommendations in Wilmington, Leland, Winnabow, and other cities that draw water from the Cape Fear River and its tributaries.

What Can I Do?

Media coverage has been propelled by community organizers throughout impacted areas in North Carolina. Organizations like North Carolina Stop GenX in our Water, Cape Fear River Watch, and many other have “blown the whistle” on what’s going on in North Carolina. We recommend following these organizations, as well as our social media channels (@hydroviv_h2o) to stay up to date. It's important to point out that North Carolina is not the only state that has PFAS in its drinking water. Michigan, Minnesota, New York, New Hampshire, and California are just some of the states where PFAS have become a serious threat. The Environmental Working Group created a map which shows areas of the country with detectable levels of PFAS in drinking water. You can check out the map here.

If you are planning on purchasing a water filter, make sure that it’s rated to remove PFAS chemicals. Most pitcher, faucet, and countertop systems are unable to remove PFAS. Check out this PFAS filtration removal study completed by Duke and NC State. 

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NEW STUDY: Several Carbonated and Non-Carbonated Bottled Water Brands Contain PFAS or 'Forever Chemicals'

Analies Dyjak @ Monday, September 28, 2020 at 12:23 pm -0400

Analies Dyjak, M.A. |  Head of Policy

Consumer Reports recently tested 47 different bottled water brands for the presence of PFAS compounds. The study tested 35 still or non-carbonated brands, and 12 carbonated brands. Consumer Reports also tested the different brands for various heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury. 

Which Brands Had The Highest Levels of PFAS? 

The two still-water or non-carbonated brands that had detectable levels of PFAS were Deer Park and Tourmaline Spring, according to Consumer Reports. 7 out of the 12 carbonated brands that were part of this study had PFAS levels above 1 part per trillion. These brands included: Perrier, LaCroix, Canada Dry, Poland Spring, Bubly, Polar, and Topo Chico. Topo Chico had the highest levels of PFAS, totaling 9.76 parts per trillion. 

The “Acceptable Level” of PFAS Is Still Being Determined

There’s a lot of debate over how much PFAS should be legally allowed in drinking water in the United States. PFAS are not federally regulated despite an abundance of research regarding their negative health effects. For example, we know that exposure to PFAS increases the risk of miscarriage by 80-120%. We also know that exposure to PFAS increases the risk of cancer (kidney and testicular), increases cholesterol, causes developmental issues in infants and young children, and more. A lot of these health impacts can occur at levels lower than EPA’s current public health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion. 10 states have adopted or are in the process of adopting their own enforceable PFAS standards. Even so, there is no scientific consensus on the acceptable level of PFAS for human consumption. In a Duke/NC State filter study, Hydroviv Undersink Water filters reduced PFAS levels to “undetectable.” 

Is Bottled Water Safer Than Tap Water?

Not necessarily. People are surprised to learn that bottled water is actually less regulated than tap water. The Food and Drug Administration regulates bottled water and The Environmental Protection Agency regulates tap water. Both agencies must meet identical federal standards for the same amount of contaminants, with the exception of lead. Also, bottled water companies are not required to disclose where they source their water on the bottle itself. Municipal water providers are required to be transparent about where exactly their tap water is coming from. There’s no way to know if a bottled water company draws and treats water from a river, lake, groundwater aquifer, or the same source as neighboring tap water. Empty plastic water bottles typically end up in landfills, causing long-term environmental problems. We wrote an in-depth article about why bottled water is worse than tap water. Check it out here

Which Brands Had Detectable Levels of Arsenic?

Consumer Reports found that Starkey Spring (a Whole Foods bottled water brand) had Arsenic levels above the regulatory limit of 10 parts per billion in June of 2019. Consumer Reports re-tested Starkey Spring water, and found Arsenic levels just under 10 parts per billion at 9.53 parts per billion. It’s important to note that 10 parts per billion is much higher than what health organizations claim to be safe. Hydroviv Undersink Water Filters brought arsenic levels down from 23.9 parts per billion to undetectable, in a recent water quality study.

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