(Beyond Pesticides, September 24, 2012) In the face of widespread pesticide contamination of U.S. waterways and the lack of drinking water standards for hundreds of pesticides, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has devoted a $499,778 grant towards developing low-cost water decontamination facilities serving less than 10,000 people. Though conventional water treatment facilities remove many contaminants including suspended solids, bacteria, algae, viruses, fungi, and some chemical pollutants they do not remove many pesticide or antibiotic contaminants. Led by Professor Christopher Bellona, PhD of Clarkson University Civil and Environmental Engineering Departments, research into new water treatment technologies will aim at eliminating these antibiotics and pesticides from potable water.
There are currently 88 drinking water contaminants and indicators regulated under the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations which are legally enforceable for public water systems. EPA determines whether a contaminant should be regulated based on peer-reviewed science-based research, with a focus on the health impacts due to exposure. They then propose an enforceable standard in the form of a Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL), taking into account the risks of exposure and availability of technologies to remediate the contaminant. EPA has not established drinking water standards for all the pesticides found in water. Of the hundreds of pesticide active ingredients it registers, EPA (balancing consumer risk against water supplier cost) has established MCLs for only a couple dozen pesticides.
One major short-coming to this system is that often states are allowed to grant variances from these standards if they cannot afford to comply with rulings. While microbial contaminants must meet standards, exemptions for other chemicals may be granted so long as there are no “unreasonable risks to human health.” Indeed, according to Watertown Daily Times, EPA recently acknowledged drinking water concerns in a recent statement: “Concerns for man-made and naturally-occurring chemicals found in surface water, ground water, finished drinking water, and wastewaters pose a host of treatment and management challenges and potential health risks for communities served by public water systems, these challenges are exacerbated for small systems, those serving 10,000 persons or less.” Thus, many have looked to technological advances to eliminate these new and unregulated chemicals.
One new technology Dr. Bellona and associates are developing is a dual system to clean water requiring a membrane system and an oxidation process. Through this process, water passes through an ultra-fine membrane to sift out larger particles, then moving to the oxidation process which removes organic materials. The advanced oxidation process, as it is known, can effectively eliminate pesticides, aromatics, petroleum constituents and volatile organic compounds that may not be otherwise filtered. While this may prove to be an important strategy in diminishing the risks to human health, particularly for small treatment plants, it begs the question: Are there more effective hazard-management methods for providing potable water?
Reliance on technological solutions, particularly in the case of environmental stewardship, often ignores the problem (in this case pesticide use) and treats the symptom (dirty waters). Remediation is just one of many approaches that need to be considered when considering potable waters. In the long run though, stakeholders must consider applying the precautionary approach, considering that unforeseen threats to potable water can be averted through stricter regulation and management. The consequences of allowing harmful chemicals into our environment will oftentimes not be revealed until it is too late. The procedure our government takes to assess the risk that these chemicals pose makes all the difference. This is why Beyond Pesticides consistently advocates that the regulatory process should adopt an “alternatives assessment” (under the “unreasonable adverse effects” standard) in environmental rulemaking, which creates a regulatory trigger to adopt alternatives and drive the market to go green. The “alternatives assessment” approach differs most dramatically from the current EPA risk assessment method by rejecting uses and exposures deemed acceptable under risk assessment calculations, but unnecessary because of the availability of safer alternatives.
In response to the challenges facing our waters, Beyond Pesticides is working to identify threats, educate individuals, engage with local and state agencies to encourage more stringent standards, while simultaneously protecting current regulations. To learn more about the threats to our waters, see Beyond Pesticides Threatened Waters Brochure.
Source: Watertown Daily Times
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.