Monday, February 8, 2016

Is Our Water Safe to Drink?

With the Flint water crisis being in the news now for weeks, it's very likely that citizens from all over Michigan are asking themselves if they can trust the water coming from their faucets. Certainly Grand Rapids residents aren't the only one wondering if their water is potable or if it's full of harmful bacteria and toxic chemicals.

To begin with, it's important to note that Grand Rapids City Deputy Manager Eric DeLong says that the water in the Grand Rapids area is safe to drink. That water comes from Lake Michigan, is treated in West Olive, and is piped in from there to residents' homes. It is checked at multiple points to determine that it meets specifications for drinking water safety. The Grand Rapids Water Systems sends out an annual water quality report detailing how it makes sure that the city's water is safe to drink.

Also, Grand Rapids has a history with its water. Its location on the Grand River facilitated its success as the Furniture City, and Grand Rapids was the first city to implement a policy of adding fluoride to it public water system in 1945.

The problem in Flint appears to be one of oversight and accountability, but it's clear the public doesn't understand what the risks with untreated water are either. Water is most often contaminated because of how humans behave around water sources. Toxic chemicals get dumped in streams, river, and lakes. People don't keep their drinking water separate enough from the water they use to clean, bathe, urinate, or defecate in. Very frequently the water-borne illnesses travelers pick up in other countries are because the water is not sufficiently treated to remove germs, bacteria, or parasites.

One of the larger problems with the Flint case is the lead currently found in the drinking water. Heavy metals including lead dissolve in water when it flows through pipes or within the natural aquifers the water is taken from. Sometimes people notice it, such as when water has an iron taste or stains a sink red over time. Mostly it's invisible, though. Unfortunately, once a person has ingested heavy metals, they are hard to remove from bodily tissues. Instead, they build up over time and eventually interfere with numerous bodily processes in various ways. The simplest way to treat heavy metal poisoning is not to be exposed to heavy metals in the first place. It's hard to recommend that as a strategy after exposure has already occurred, however.

A good water treatment system has multiple steps included in order to remove all of the above hazards and more. These include coagulation and flocculation, sedimentation, filtration, and disinfection. The water must be well monitored over time to make sure the system is working and consistently. In Flint neither of these were done effectively.

This is certainly not the first time the public has gotten nervous about contamination. Now that such a large percentage of our food comes from hundreds or thousands of miles away and is subject to contamination anywhere from point of origin to each loading dock stop it makes. We all rely on both municipal systems and government oversight to maintain public health. The question is, can we trust these people to do their jobs?