After learning the EPA doesn't require public water providers to test for the presence of pharmaceuticals, the AP spent five months studying federal databases and scientific reports, visiting water treatment plants, and interviewing more than 200 experts.
So, have the questions about how “safe” your department's drinking water is slowed down yet?
You know, after the Associated Press (AP) announced in March that at least 41 million Americans are drinking antibiotics, anti-convulsants, anti-depressants, acetaminophen, and other pharmaceuticals? And that even though the amount they ingest is tiny—parts per billion or trillion—no one knows what the long-term health affects could be?
And that many public providers don't test for these chemicals because it's not required by the EPA? And if they do, they often decline to comment on the results because of national security concerns or because they don't want the public to panic?
If you think you've silenced customers' concerns, I hope you're right. But I wouldn't count on it. Because the seed has been planted. Even though you know that your operation's water is as safe as anything can be these days, the information is out there forever and easily accessible to anyone concerned enough to look for it.
Let's put aside the issues of how dangerous these compounds may or may not be, and whether or not their presence should be reported if your operation tests for them. Because it doesn't matter. Whenever a public employee declines to comment on his agency's product or processes, the public assumes there's something to hide. Suspicious consumers are scared and irrational, and that's the last thing you need when called upon to explain the intricacies of U.S. drinking water standards.
AP National Investigative Editor Richard Pienciak tells me that most of the 62 public water providers his team contacted readily responded to the AP's requests for information. In my opinion, that was the wisest thing to do.
A policy of full disclosure is why I applaud Milwaukee Water Works. In 1993, more than 100 Milwaukeeans were killed by Cryptosporidium in drinking water. Though devastating at the time, the tragedy led to a very close relationship with the city's health department and a new approach to disseminating information.
Since 2004, the department has posted the results of its semiannual testing for 490 contaminants at www.water.mpw.net (look for “07 Finished Water Quality Report”). So far, no one's panicked, although the list of unregulated compounds for which the agency tests includes 56 pharmaceuticals, 26 flame retardants and pesticides, and nine hormones.
“We want to know everything we can about what's in our water,” says Superintendent Carrie Lewis. “Even if there's some uncertainty associated with the information, we believe it's better to share it than not.”
Milwaukee Water Works markets to retail customers as well as homeowners, so it has an added incentive to eliminate concerns that could slow sales. The department's cost of testing for compounds that aren't federally regulated pays off in the perception among current and potential customers that it's being completely open about its processes.
Each operation has its unique challenges and opportunities, but human beings are the same everywhere: They just want to feel their concerns are being heard. So although it's time-consuming and painstaking, add “drinking water testing” to the list of subjects you need to boil down to layman's terms so the average customer becomes a friend and not a potential foe.
Editor in Chief