Archives : 2013 : January
The topic of arsenic in drinking water has been in the news lately. Earlier this month, the water supplier in the small town of Tacna, Arizona was cited for numerous violations of high arsenic levels in the drinking water. Elsewhere in the country, local wells have been found to have extremely high levels of arsenic in Hinkley, California, a community already well-known for having contaminated groundwater. Even if you have read these news stories, you, like most Americans, may not know what arsenic is, where it comes from, and how harmful it can be if consumed at high levels for a long period of time. It is worthwhile for you to take a moment to learn a little bit more about this drinking water contaminant.
What is arsenic?
Arsenic is a tasteless, odorless semi-metal. It can be released into the groundwater via several sources, including mining and smelting operations, agricultural applications, and processes used to manufacture products like glass, electronics, paints, drugs, soaps, and dyes. Unfortunately for certain regions of the country, arsenic can also enter the groundwater through natural weathering of soil and rocks. Arsenic is a regulated drinking water contaminant and the EPA has declared that 0.010 milligrams per liter (mg/L) or 10 parts per billion (ppb) is the maximum contaminant level that can be present in drinking water.
Where is arsenic found?
In most regions of the country, drinking water supplies contain less than 2 ppb of arsenic. Approximately 12% of groundwater sources in the western US and 12% of surface water sources in the North Central region, however, have levels that exceed 20 ppb. A few individual wells in the West were found to have levels up to an unbelievable 3,400 ppb.The majority of the high arsenic concentrations are found in the West, the Midwest, the Northeast, and parts of Texas. This is most likely due to local geology. These regions tend to have volcanic rock and sulfide-containing mineral deposits that are high in arsenic which release the contaminant to the water through natural processes. The US Geological Survey (USGS) provides a map of arsenic concentrations in groundwater which clearly shows a pattern of higher concentrations in the western United States. This map was created in 2000 but still provides a good representation of current concentrations.
How can arsenic affect your health?
If you drink water that is contaminated with higher levels of arsenic for a long period of time you may experience certain health effects. Changes in the skin such as thickening, discoloration, or “warts” on the palms, soles, and torso, are the most common health effects. Arsenic can also cause circulatory system problems such as decreased red and white blood cells, abnormal heart rhythm, and bruising from blood vessel damage. Irritation of the stomach and intestines may also occur, causing nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
The EPA, Department of Health and Human Services, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have all classified arsenic as a human carcinogen (cancer-causing agent). Skin tumors are the most common type of cancer caused by arsenic but if you regularly consume high levels of this contaminant you also increase your risk of cancer in the bladder, lungs, liver, kidney, and prostate.
Is arsenic in your water?
With its relatively widespread distribution and long list of potential health effects, arsenic is a water contaminant that you should take seriously. If your drinking water comes from a municipal water supply, the arsenic level should not exceed the maximum contaminant level however you can contact your local water supplier to find out if it is present in your water supply and if any violations ever occurred. If you have a private well, experts recommend that you have the well water tested by a state-certified laboratory if you suspect arsenic contamination. If arsenic is present in your drinking water supply, rest assured that water filters are available that can remove this contaminant. Do not risk your health or that of your family – take the time to determine if arsenic is in your drinking water and, if necessary, find a way to reduce the contamination as soon as possible.
Many Americans enjoy watching the wildly popular television show “Doomsday Preppers” on the National Geographic Channel and musing over the elaborate disaster preparations that were created to aid in surviving in a post-apocalyptic world. Meanwhile the hands of human civilization’s hypothetical Doomsday Clock are hovering closely to midnight. The Doomsday Clock symbolizes humanity’s susceptibility to destruction and at the stroke of midnight; our civilization’s time will run out.
Created in 1947 by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Doomsday Clock’s time setting is based on the current state of nuclear weapons, climate change, and other emerging technologies, and can change based on current events. A team of experts, including the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists board members, several Nobel Prize recipients, and leading authorities on nuclear weapons and other threats, determine the clock setting. At its inception, the clock was set at 7 minutes to midnight as a result of the recent creation of the first atomic bombs. This historical event resulted in the potential for universal destruction through the use of nuclear weapons.
In the past 65 years, the clock’s setting has changed 20 times. In 1953 the clock was set to 2 minutes to midnight, based on the decision of the United States and Soviet Union to create the hydrogen bomb. Earlier, and more optimistic, settings have been announced in the past, though they were not as hopeful as one would like. The earliest setting ever on the Doomsday Clock was 17 minutes to midnight in 1991 and resulted from the end of the Cold War between the United States and Russia and the subsequent Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
On January 14, 2013 it was announced that the current clock setting is 5 minutes to midnight. Adjusted from the previous setting of 6 minutes to midnight, this setting signals the increase in destructive means available to the world population. Since some of the most powerful nations are still armed with nuclear weapons and it is estimated that 20 to 30 more countries intend to create an atomic bomb, nuclear weapons still provide the potential for world-wide destruction. But intercontinental ballistic missiles and the like are not the only weapons available that bring us closer to a catastrophe. The potential for widespread use of biological weapons that can cripple a nation force the hands of the Doomsday Clock slightly closer to midnight as well. Concerns about possible climate change events, like sea-level rise, that may also wreak havoc globally, also influenced the clock setting.
Is the Doomsday Clock an accurate depiction of the state of humankind? Are we teetering on the edge of destruction? The figurative clock’s setting is merely subjective, based solely on the opinions of a small team of experts. Nevertheless it is a little unnerving to think that the fate of humanity can be represented by the simple image of a clock nearing its final hour. Perhaps preparing for an apocalypse or other catastrophic event isn’t such a bad idea. Take the time to put together an emergency preparedness kit so that you are ready to survive any disaster but remain hopeful that in the near future the human race will find a way to turn back the clock.
According to the American Thyroid Association, more than 12 percent of Americans will develop a thyroid condition in their lifetime. Many Americans feel that this rate is higher than expected and that perhaps not only genetics are to blame. A quick search on the internet reveals many websites suggesting that fluoride, an additive in many community water systems, may be partially responsible for thyroid problems. Since January is Thyroid Awareness Month, it seems worthwhile to investigate whether fluoride affects the functioning of the thyroid.
What is the Thyroid?
The thyroid is a gland located in the middle of your lower neck, in front of your trachea (windpipe). Though it is small, the thyroid affects the major functions of your body by releasing the hormones, triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). The thyroid gland uses iodine from your food to produce T3 and T4. These hormones affect growth and development, body temperature, and metabolism. T3 and T4 are necessary for brain development in infants and children as well.
Studies of how fluoride may affect thyroid functioning have been ongoing since the early 1900s. In 2006, the National Research Council (NRC) released a report that reviews many studies about fluoride and thyroid problems. Numerous experiments have been performed on animals with varying results. While some did not show any effect of fluoride on thyroid functioning, a few studies of rats and mice showed decreased thyroid hormone levels and increased goiter development (swelling of the gland) at higher fluoride intake levels. The intake levels varied with each study. One interesting fact that was mentioned in a few of the studies was that high fluoride levels intensified the effects of the test subjects that were iodine-deficient. Remember that, as mentioned previously, iodine is necessary to produce the thyroid hormones.
The NRC report also mentioned several studies that examined thyroid hormone levels in children in other countries with high fluoride levels in the drinking water. The conclusions of these studies were similar to several of the animal studies in that the scientists speculated that high fluoride levels may cause greater effects in low-iodine situations.
A Word of Caution
It is important to not rush to any conclusions about fluoride and thyroid issues. As the NRC mentions in the report, there are many inconsistencies in the studies that make them difficult to compare. The studies vary in: 1) types of test subjects used, 2) test concentrations of fluoride, 3) the types of measurements taken, such as hormone levels and occurrence of goiters, and 4) the types of effects observed. Scientists are not even certain how fluoride affects the thyroid gland. One theory that fluoride competes with iodide has been disproven. Clearly, more research is needed in this area.
Though the EPA has set limits for fluoride in drinking water, it is not known how much fluoride is necessary to cause effects in humans. If you already have a thyroid condition or are iodine-deficient, you might want to consult your doctor about limiting your exposure to fluoride. Visit the blog about Drinking Water Quality to learn about how you can discover how much fluoride is added to your drinking water.
Winter storms can produce adverse driving conditions that could leave you in an emergency situation. Poor driving conditions like blowing snow and icy streets can cause your vehicle to slide off the road. Other vehicle problems like dead batteries, flat tires, and low fuel can also leave you stranded on the side of the road as well. If the weather conditions remain hazardous, rescue crews may not be able to reach you for hours or even days. Every year thousands of stranded motorists are rescued but there are always a few unfortunate individuals that do not survive.
It is recommended that if the weather may potentially become hazardous, you do not leave your home. But it is important to prepare a car emergency kit to keep in your vehicle so that if you must venture out in harsh road conditions, you will be prepared for survival. Here are some essential supplies that you should definitely keep in your car emergency kit. These supplies are so small they can fit in a backpack which is easy to carry and will not take up a lot of space in your vehicle. The supply list is partly based on the American Red Cross Emergency Supply Kit.
- Water: A 3-day supply is recommended. You will need about 1 gallon per person per day.
- Food: It is recommended that you keep a 3-day supply of non-perishable, high energy foods that are easy to prepare.
- Manual can opener
- Glow stick: A one-time use, short-term light source.
- Battery-powered or hand-crank radio
- Extra batteries
- First aid kit
- Multi-purpose tool
- Rain gear
- Work gloves
- Duct tape
- Candle: For emergency heating
- Sanitation and personal hygiene items
- Emergency blanket: These thin, metallized plastic blankets, though extremely compact, are waterproof and windproof and can prevent heat loss.
There are some additional supplies that you might want to add to your car emergency kit as well. These supplies include:
- Water Filter: In the event that your water supplies run low.
- Red bandana: You can tie this to your car antenna to indicate you need help.
- Medications: A seven day supply is recommended.
- Copies of personal documents
- Cell phone with charger
- Emergency contact information
- Extra cash
- Map of the area
- Extra clothing, hat, and sturdy shoes: Remember, loosely woven cotton and wool trap warm air and resist dampness really well.
- Plastic sheeting
- Sleeping bag
- Baby and/or pet supplies, if necessary
- Booster cables for starting vehicle
- Fire extinguisher
- Tire repair kit and pump
- Sack of sand or kitty litter: These items will help you get more tire traction.
- Windshield scraper and brush
If you become stranded, it is important that you stay with your vehicle. Remaining in your vehicle helps rescuers find you and protects you from severe exposure to the elements. In order to conserve gasoline, only run the engine for 10 minutes every hour. During this time you can run the heater to take away the chill. You can also turn on your interior light at night which helps rescuers find you and provides a small amount of heat. Before running the engine, make sure that the exhaust pipe is not clogged with snow, ice, or mud as this could cause carbon monoxide gas to leak into the passenger compartment.
The car emergency kit can be used for any emergency, not just during a winter storm. Gather your supplies and keep your kit in your car at all times so that you are better prepared to survive any type of crisis situation.
On January 4th, the drama “Promised Land” will premiere in theaters across the country. The basis of this film is centered on the subject of hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as fracking, and the possible consequences of this drilling process on nearby communities. Though fracking may seem like an odd topic to choose for a Hollywood film, it has gained a lot of recent attention regarding concerns about environmental impacts, particularly water contamination.
Hydraulic fracturing is a means of extracting resources like natural gas and oil from underground by pumping fluid, usually a mixture of water and chemical additives, into geological formations like shale and coalbed. The pressure from the fluid creates fractures underground, allowing extraction of the resources. A large portion of fracking is conducted in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, New York, Maryland, and Ohio. These states are on top of the formation called Marcellus Shale which is one of the most important gas reserves in the United States. Fracking can also be found in other parts of the country, such as Colorado, Texas, North Dakota and Wyoming.
Though fracking has been performed for many years, it was brought to our attention in 2011 when the EPA reported that sampling showed that water contaminants in a local aquifer in Pavillion, Wyoming were possibly associated with fracking operations. This study was initiated because many local residents complained the drinking water had a bad taste and odor. EPA stressed that the fracking conditions in Pavillion were different from conditions in other parts of the country because it occurred in and below the aquifer and in close proximity to drinking water wells. Therefore, water sources in other parts of the country may not be at risk of contamination if the fracking conditions are different.
So how can fracking result in contaminated water?
As mentioned previously, fracking fluids contain chemical additives. These chemicals are added to change the fluid properties. For instance, some chemicals are used to increase the thickness of the fluid. Hundreds of different chemicals may be used and the types used will vary depending on the site and company performing the fracking. Many of these companies prefer to not publicly disclose the chemicals used which causes more concern.
As part of a 2011 study, the US Committee on Energy and Commerce surveyed 14 leading oil and gas companies to learn about the composition of the fluids used for fracking. The most common chemical used was methanol. Isopropyl alcohol, 2-butoxyethanol, and ethylene glycol were also frequently used. These chemicals are not regulated by the EPA due to their low toxicity. A small percentage of companies were found to use petroleum compounds like benzene and toluene which are regulated by the EPA because they are highly mobile in ground water and are known human carcinogens. Other additives, such as instant coffee and walnut hulls, are not chemicals of concern but people are curious about their purpose as an additive.
The additives can possibly contaminate water sources through several routes. A common method of fracking fluid disposal is via underground injection of wastewater. EPA determined that this method is not likely to contaminate drinking water sources though it is mentioned that they reserve the right to conduct additional studies if necessary. Other means of wastewater disposal have a greater risk of water contamination. Since there are no specific national standards for fracking wastewater disposal, some wastewater is transported to treatment plants which are not all equipped to treat this type of water, according to the EPA.
Spills are probably one of the greatest sources of surface water contamination. From January to July 2012, several natural gas drilling incidents occurred in Pennsylvania alone. Thousands of gallons of production fluid were spilled in several of these incidents.
Since this process of natural resource extraction is quickly gaining in popularity, the EPA is still in the process of establishing regulations for fracking. Proponents of fracking, which often include local residents, firmly believe that it is a drilling method that is necessary to increase economic development and energy independence. It is important, however, that the operations are conducted responsibly in order to prevent unnecessary contamination.