Relentlessly Testing Water Safety
Meet Dr. Andy Eaton, the Technical Director at Eurofins Lab. He’s working on a nation-wide effort to test tap water to learn if there are trace amounts of substances that we don’t yet include in the day-to-day testing all tap water must undergo.
While the U.S. has some of the safest tap water in the world, our ability to find trace amounts of chemicals and other elements in water has increased significantly. As a result, the U.S. EPA runs several rounds of testing every fews years to look for new trace elements that may potentially have an impact on our health. It’s part of a proactive approach to ensuring that the water we drink and use everyday is safe.
SoCalTap: You are working on a national effort to test the safety of tap water for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. What is the UCMR 3 round of testing?
Dr. Eaton: About every 5 years the EPA tests our nation’s water systems, looking for up to 30 contaminants that are not currently regulated. The tests are called “Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, or UCMR.” UCMR3 is the 3rd round of that type of testing and occurs from 2013-2015. Our lab, Eurofins, is one of a handful of labs in the U.S. that is certified to test for trace amounts of these contaminants.
SCT: You are testing samples locally and from around the country. Can you name off a few locations?
Dr. Eaton: Our more than 400 UCMR3 clients touch all parts of the country – New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tucson, San Antonio plus we are testing a large number of small systems – in smaller towns – directly for the EPA. We just recently checked the EPA public database for UCMR3 and realized that we account for nearly 40% of the data in that database.
SCT: Before we get into the details of testing, can you tell us – do you and your family drink tap water?
Dr. Eaton: We drink both tap water and bottled water. Bottled water is a great alternative to soda when we are traveling and want convenience. Even with the UCMR3 detections we are finding, I consider tap water to be extraordinarily safe.
SCT: This round of testing – the third round – is a bit different than the first two. How so?
Dr. Eaton: This time, we are testing down to much lower levels, based on analytical method capabilities. In the past few decades, technology has advanced so far that we can find smaller and smaller traces of elements than ever before. In the last two rounds, testing levels were based on Health Reference Levels, which means we looked for these elements at levels that we know could be unhealthy. This time, we are looking for them at even smaller concentrations to help the EPA understand what’s in the nation’s water supplies.
What this means is that we are more likely to detect compounds. As an example, we have detected strontium in 100% of water supplies under UCMR3, but in some cases the concentrations are a thousand times lower than the health reference level – the level scientists believe could be harmful. This type of data will present a challenge to utilities because they have to report that these elements have been detected in their consumer confidence reports, and customers may well be concerned with large numbers of elements detected, even at such low levels.
SCT: Why would EPA require testing for compounds at these levels if they are not a health risk?
Dr. Eaton: In UCMR1 and UCMR2 when they were basing levels on health risks, there were very few detects – or compounds detected – and there were a few cases where EPA lowered the health reference level during the course of the monitoring. However, they had no data for those revised levels, so the EPA now decided to put detection technology to the test to see what was really there. If they do have to lower the threshold for a health risk, they will know where compounds show up around the country.
The problem (for water agencies) is that trace amounts of chemicals are showing up all over the place, and that could scare consumers unnecessarily.
SCT: Why do the EPA and local water agencies care about looking for contaminants that aren’t regulated?
Dr. Eaton: The EPA and water agencies are pushing detection technology’s limits to protect the public’s health. It’s possible that these compounds could be regulated in the future because they may have an impact on our health. However, there is also value in deciding not to regulate something if it does not show up in testing results. Or conversely something we did not expect to find could show up frequently at significant levels, so we should regulate it and require water agencies to find a way to remove it from tap water. Compounds that we are looking for in the UCMR3 round of testing are supposed to be ones that could have health significance.
SCT: Which among the 28 compounds and 2 viruses you are testing for might the average person recognize? What impact might they have on human health?
Dr. Eaton: In California, people will recognize hexavalent chromium, PFOS and PFOA from the list. PFOS and PFOA are used in Teflon and now in firefighting foams. It’s impossible to go back 50 years and find someone who doesn’t have them in their blood. Both 3M and Dupont phased out PFOS and PFOA in the early 2000s. For the most part, they are found at less than 50 parts per trillion. They are found worldwide – not just in America.
Most people will recognize hexavalent chromium (aka chrome-6) from the movie Erin Brokovich. In Hinkley, California, irresponsible disposal allowed chrome-6 to leach into the town’s water supplies at levels above even current regulations for total chromium. However, throughout the U.S. most chrome-6 in water occurs naturally in small amounts (it has been found in nearly 90% of public water supplies in UCMR3) and we know that it does not cause cancer until it reaches incredibly high levels. For example, we found it in concentrations of between below 1 part per billion and 9.7 parts per billion in Hawaii – that comes from volcanic activity. It’s also almost always below California’s new limit of 10 parts per billion (which equals ten drops in an Olympic sized swimming pool). The amount of chrome-6 found in Hinkley’s water supply, by contrast, was around 2,000 parts per billion.
SCT: Are there any chemicals that look like they should be regulated?
Dr. Eaton: In looking at the results we have so far, the compounds that I think are of concern are 1,4-dioxane, which is known as an issue in some parts of California, but seems to be a true nationwide issue, with a lot of samples well over California’s notification level, and chlorate, a disinfection byproduct, which is already regulated by the World Health Organization, but not by USEPA.
SCT: What is -1,4 dioxane?
Dr. Eaton: It’s a solvent stabilizer, found in dyes and other solvents. We’re finding it in North Carolina at close to 10 ppb. In California the reference level is 0.35 ppb (in California we occasionally see it above that level). In North Carolina it’s from the textile mills. They aren’t seeing a lot of it in groundwater, but it is mostly in surface water, like rivers. We’ve found it in 20% of water supplies nationwide. That indicates potential health concern and the high frequencies of detection would argue for regulation sooner rather than later.
SCT: Is there something you’ve found at much lower levels than expected?
Dr. Eaton: We are really not seeing a lot of the other organics that we are monitoring for, which is good news. We are generally not seeing hormones, and we’re looking for them at really low levels (less than a part per trillion). One part per trillion is about one drop in 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Some hormones are very sensitive to chlorine and are likely destroyed during the tap water purification process. Out of the seven hormones we’re testing for, we’ve not seen five hardly at all. For the other two – testosterone and androsteene dione, we’ve only seen them in 0.5% of samples, and at the .3 – .4 parts per trillion range. Unfortunately for the few utilities that did find them, they will have to explain them to their customers, because we know the public is extremely concerned about issues such as pharmaceuticals in drinking water.
SCT: Where do you think testing at such low levels will lead?
Dr. Eaton: It’s about protecting public health and ensuring that the tap water we drink is safe. The EPA is getting ready to regulate new compounds (like -1,4 dioxane and chlorate) and need to know how much of those chemicals are out there and where they are geographically to estimate the cost of any regulation. Also, some compounds (like hormones) don’t already have health reference levels, and depending on what we find, the EPA will decide whether or not to create them for those compounds.
SCT: Thank you for your time.
Dr. Eaton: You are welcome!