August 2, 2007 -- NEWS Alert NEWS - The premier newsletter for the drinking water quality community.
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  • "In Praise of Tap Water" Bargain Basement Sale:  $1400 value for only 49 cents. Where? At the tap! (N.Y. Times, August 2 - free registration required)
  • Where's the mystery in bottled water? (L.A. Times, August 2 - free registration required)

  • Commentary: By Michael J. McGuire, Publisher

    The Death of Trace Contaminants

    August 1, 2007 will be remembered as the beginning of the "Death of Trace Contaminants." An editorial was published in the New York Times on that day entitled "In Praise of Tap Water." In it, the editors decry the high cost and environmental damage caused by bottled water. High cost has always been an issue with bottled water. Water utility folks have always known that bottled water costs about 1000 times more than tap water. A Los Angeles Times Op Ed article today calls bottled water users "suckers."

    What is new is the focus on the environmental cost of producing the billions of plastic bottles and squandering our fossil fuel treasures to transport bottled water from glaciers in Alaska, the French Alps and islands in the South Pacific. Other news articles have begun to list these costs and call into question what we are doing in a society that drags a product weighing 8.34 pounds per gallon half way around the world when there is a perfectly acceptable and safe alternative as close as the nearest faucet. We are finally beginning to ask questions and understand how our actions affect the global environment and climate.

    Over 26 years ago, I wrote an opinion piece called the "The Age of Trace Contaminants." In that article, I predicted a continuing emphasis from the public, the media and regulators on controlling smaller and smaller concentrations of trace organics, radionuclides and microorganisms. A lot of regulations have flowed over the dam since 1981 and tens of billions of dollars have been spent to enhance drinking water treatment and distribution system infrastructure. There is no doubt that drinking water quality in this country has improved as a result of regulation and hard work by dedicated drinking water professionals.

    The editors of the New York Times would not have readily recommended tap water if there were lingering questions about the quality and safety of that resource. I guess all of the trace organics are gone. Wait a minute--they're not gone, but I guess they are not as important as they were in the 1970s and 80s when the same news media scared the public by publishing the latest stories on the drinking water detection of 2,3-methyldeath (or my favorite, sodium baloneyate). People were frightened about tap water and rushed to find an alternative-bottled water. They did not rush out and buy expensive bottled water so that they could become "smarter" or "super-hydrate their tissues."

    I published an article in 2002 entitled "Trihalomethanes in U.S. Drinking Water: NORS to ICR," which chronicled the significant decline in the exposure of consumers to trihalomethanes (50 to 60% decrease in 24 years). Trihalomethanes are not gone; they are still with us and always will be because of the need to safeguard the microbiological quality of drinking water. As the Stage 2 Disinfection Byproducts Rule kicks in later this decade, trihalomethane concentrations (and other disinfection byproducts) will continue to decrease.

    What is remarkable about the recent news articles is that global climate change has trumped parts-per-billion. Perhaps now we can focus scarce public resources on those drinking water system issues that really improve water service and protect the public health. We certainly do not need to start chasing parts-per-trillion levels of personal care products and pharmaceuticals that have shown up in some supplies.

    We are still, as I said in 1981, faced with complex challenges. It looks like we are starting to put trace contaminants in drinking water into their proper perspective. The debate will continue now that the news media is grabbing the public's attention once again.

    Well, maybe the trace contaminants issue is not dead, but it is surely on life support now that the "newspaper of record" for the U.S. is praising tap water.


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