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WHAT'S IN YOUR WATER? Making sense of consumer reports
Annual water-quality reports give consumers a snapshot of what's in their water

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Date published: 12/2/2006

By RUSTY DENNEN and MEGHANN COTTER

THE TREATED drinking water that comes from Fredericksburg-area reservoirs and rivers is clean, for the most part, and complies with state and federal health standards.

That's the gist of annual Consumer Confidence Reports sent out to tens of thousands of water customers, covering the 2005 calendar year.

But there's more to the reports, indicating that the water--while safe and drinkable--is far from pure.

There are low levels of lead and other heavy metals in tap water, byproducts from treatment chemicals, and naturally occurring radioactive materials. All of those items can be harmful at elevated levels.

The Free Lance-Star examined reports for Spotsylvania, Fredericksburg, Stafford and the town of Culpeper, which mainly draw their water from large reservoirs. The water is run through treatment plants and piped to customers' homes.

The reports go to everyone connected to city, town or county water. The 2006 reports go out next spring.

"It's meant to provide specific data to all customers to talk about how well, or poorly, we're doing," says Bruce Boyer, Spotsylvania County's water resources engineer.

No violations were turned up in any of the four localities' treatment reports, though some concerns were noted.

The Environmental Protection Agency began mandating the reports in 1996 as part of amendments to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. The aim is to inform customers of potential health effects pertaining to the quality, treatment, and management of their drinking water supply.

Along with test results, the reports offer general information on water and health, the water source, and potential contaminants such as cryptosporidium, a microbial parasite.

There are water-conservation tips and tidbits such as this: Serratia marceseus, a bacterium, causes that pink stain on bathroom fixtures.

Raw--untreated--water in reservoirs is tested, too, but those tests are not part of the consumer reports, and are done to help water engineers determine treatment options.

To reach RUSTY DENNEN:540/374-5431
Email: rdennen@freelancestar.com


Wells: Testing up to owners

If you rely on a private water supply, such as an individual well, you are responsible for the safety of that supply and any testing.

Regular testing will help you examine the quality of your water supply and trends that may alert you to contamination-causing activities. Establishing a record of your household water quality may help prove damage and obtain compensation should your water supply become contaminated from some pollution incident.

Local Health Department and Cooperative Extension Offices can provide information about water testing labs. Phone book Yellow Pages also can help. Some useful listings: Laboratories-testing, Water analysis, Water purification, and Water treatment .

Ask any laboratory you contact for a certification number indicating that it has been approved at the state level. In Virginia, water testing laboratories are certified through the Virginia Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services.

Source: Virginia Cooperative Extension.


Water testing by area localities

Spotsylvania

Spotsylvania's 2005 Consumer Confidence Report is typical of the brochures that go out across the state. Along with the water-sampling results are health tips and general information.

For example, one section cautions those with compromised immune systems about cryptosporidium, a parasite that can cause gastrointestinal illness.

Other sections deal with lead in drinking water--over 15 parts per billion is potentially harmful--and potential contaminants such as viruses and bacteria, salts and metals, pesticides and herbicides, byproducts of industry, and radioactive materials.

"I can assure you, we do look at trends," says Bruce Boyer, the county's water resources engineer. "There is daily and monthly monitoring so we can see what we are delivering to customers."

Although localities test for substances such as nitrates, fluoride and disinfectant byproducts every year, testing for metals such as copper and lead, and radioactive materials such as radium, is done less frequently.

All the samples are taken from treated water.

Spotsylvania's water comes from four sources: Ni Reservoir, Motts Reservoir, the Rappahannock River, and the county's newest reservoir, Hunting Run.

Twelve contaminants were identified in last year's report:

Alpha and beta/photon emitters and radium, radioactive materials that release charged particles that can damage tissue if inhaled or absorbed over many years; chloramines, water additives used to control microbes; fluoride, a water additive used to fight tooth decay; haloacetic acids, a byproduct of drinking-water disinfection; nitrates, from fertilizer runoff, septic tanks and sewage, and natural deposits; organic carbon, present in environment.

Also, trihalomethanes, byproduct of drinking water disinfection; turbidity, soil runoff; copper, from corrosion of household plumbing systems, natural deposits, and leaching from wood preservatives; lead--from corrosion of household plumbing; erosion of natural deposits.

In each case, levels were below amounts that would trigger a violation.

But six of the 12 contaminants were in the high range for their category--alpha and beta/photon emitters, radium, chloramines, nitrates and turbidity. Three of 30 homes tested for lead and copper had elevated lead levels because of suspected plumbing contamination.

Overall test results were similar in the 2003 and 2004 reports. Again in 2005, all test results were within acceptable limits.

Are consumers reading the reports?

Tim Slaydon, Spotsylvania's director of utilities, is not too sure.

"I've never taken a question from a person who was not a reporter," he said.

Stafford

Stafford's Consumer Confidence Reports reveal a few notable contamination issues in the last three years. Elevated lead levels and high amounts of two disinfection byproducts showed up in 2003 and part of 2004.

The lead traced back to solder used in some pipes before it was banned in 1986. The disinfection byproducts--trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids--came from excessive chlorine reactions in the water.

Utilities engineers got rid of the lead by changing some of the chemicals used to treat the water. And they reduced the disinfection byproducts by replacing chlorine with a less-reactive chemical combination of chlorine and ammonia--called chloramines.

The 2005 Stafford water quality report showed normal results in all categories. The county draws its water from Smith Lake and Abel Lake.

"An open reservoir leaves the county susceptible to contamination regardless of precautions because people can easily drop something in the water," said Harry Critzer, assistant director of operations for the Stafford Utilities Department.

He said fire and rescue departments are notified immediately if something is found in the water. A system is also in place to prevent a chemical accident at one site from contaminating the entire water supply.

Fredericksburg

The city's 2005 report includes this note under its "General Information" section:

"All drinking water, including bottled drinking water, may reasonably be expected to contain at least small amounts of some contaminants. The presence of contaminants does not necessarily indicate that the water poses a health risk."

About 95 percent of the city's drinking water comes from Motts Run, the reservoir it shares with Spotsylvania County. The remainder comes from the Rappahannock River.

Because some river water is used by both Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, both their reports mention the presence of cryptosporidium, the waterborne parasite.

"The source waters serving Spotsylvania County's water treatment plants, which provide drinking water to the city of Fredericksburg, were tested for the presence of cryptosporidium monthly during the year," the city's report says.

"There was one positive result taken from the Rappahannock River." It goes on to say that the treatment process includes filtration, which removes most of the organisms.

Turbidity, levels of lead, copper, radioactive elements, fluoride, nitrates and water-treatment byproducts were all within acceptable limits.

Culpeper

The town, west of Fredericksburg, draws its water from Lake Pelham, a 254-acre impoundment in Culpeper County.

Lake Pelham, the report notes, like other area water reservoirs, was found to be susceptible to contamination during a source water assessment by the Virginia Department of Health in 2002.

Test samples for 2005 were all within normal limits.

"We're pleased to report our drinking water is safe and meets all federal and state requirements," the report says.

--Rusty Dennen and Meghann Cotter


Common public water problems

Some examples of common substances found in area public water system tap water:

Alpha and beta/photon emitters, and radium--These are radioactive materials, either man-made or naturally occurring, that release charged particles that can damage tissue if inhaled or absorbed over many years.

Chloramines--A water additive used to control microbes.

Fluoride--A water additive used to promote strong teeth.

Haloacetic acids--A byproduct of drinking-water disinfection.

Nitrates--In fertilizer runoff, septic tanks and sewage, and from natural deposits.

Organic carbon--Present in environment.

Trihalomethanes--Byproduct of drinking water disinfection.

Turbidity--Soil runoff.

Copper--From corrosion of household plumbing systems, erosion of natural deposits, and leaching from wood preservatives.

Lead--From corrosion of household plumbing; erosion of natural deposits.

Source: Consumer Confidence Reports.


Virginia reports few violations

The Virginia Department of Health oversees water-quality testing through Consumer Confidence Reports, sent to most municipal water system customers each year.

Some highlights:

As of 2004, the latest figures available, there were 1,263 waterworks statewide.

Of that number, 401 reported violations with regard to sampling results or monitoring protocol.

Of the state's 7.5 million residents, about 6 million are served by waterworks; 356,689 are served by systems reporting violations.

The most frequent violations involved excessive levels of two common treatment chemicals--chloroform and fluoride. Chloroform violations were reported by 271 waterworks; 45 systems had problems with fluoride levels.

Source: Virginia Department of Health


For more information on Consumer Confidence Reports, see the Virginia Department of Health Web site: vdh.virginia.gov /drinkingwater/consumer/ Confidence.htm