Do Warnings of Contaminated Water Arrive in Time?

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Photo by: Mary R. Vogt Since my post on pharmaceuticals in drinking water, a few readers have contacted or IM’d me pointing out that contamination of drinking water supplies is nothing new. The fact of pharmaceuticals in drinking water was new to me although contamination by other compounds does occasionally make the news. Even today, there is a story breaking about contamination in the Chicago suburb of Buffalo Grove. In this case the contamination is with fecal coliform bacteria, likely from animal or human waste. Nice.

This story got me wondering about the time lines involved in contaminated municipal water supplies. How fast is the detection and notification process? Is the contamination usually caught and publicized quickly? Or does the water generally reach the home of tens of thousands of customers before the alert is given? This information is more difficult that you might think to find. The EPA has a 72 page guide titled “A Water Security Handbook”, (warning, large, slow PDF file download). It is interesting to browse, but I could not find anything about specific times from detection to notification or whether notification time in general was quick enough to prevent exposing people to the contaminated water.. The phrase “fast, reliable communication is the key to success” is used several times in the EPA document, but that is just sort of stating the obvious. What I was looking for were examples of actual events and whether the water departments were able to notify users before any of them actually drank the contaminated water.

I would think timely warning might not be as difficult as it sounds. If detection methods are on-going before the point where the treated water enters the delivery system, there should be a window of time between detection and when the first contaminated water comes out of a tap. Maybe that is a new criterion for determining the desirability of a neighborhood when moving to a new home? The closer to the end of the water delivery line, the better the neighborhood!

I was not able to find specific information about how many customers actually consume contaminated water before they get the notification form their water authorities. I did find several articles like these: Water Sickened Almost 500,000 Americans, and Cryptosporidium in Milwaukee’s Water Supply Caused Widespread Illness. Most of the articles found in searches turn out to be about the threat of terrorism. One of the best summaries I found dealing with that threat is by the author of the book: Understanding Water and Terrorism.

My searching turned up almost too much information to absorb completely. What I started out to find today, I really did not get the answer to: Is the time from the discovery of contamination in a water supply to the widespread dissemination of a warning short enough to prevent consumers from drinking the contaminated water? Or is the time frame involved in the delivery of the water sufficiently lengthy so that, as long as testing and detection is reliable, warnings can be given in time? If any of you know of specific instances where the issue of timely warnings is discussed, please post information or a link in a comment below. Thanks!



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Will Sig

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