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  • Flint Followup: Unsafe Drinking Water is More Widespread Than You Think

    Flint Water Tower - unsafe drinking waterThe water emergency in Flint, Mich., where lead was found in unsafe amounts in the drinking water, has served one positive purpose. It’s brought attention to a widely neglected safety issue: unsafe drinking water. Here’s a rundown of stories just within the last month that discuss unsafe drinking water, and some ideas for how to protect your family.

     

    Chemistry in the Water

    Three drinking water systems near Colorado Springs, Colo., shut down wells after they found traces of man-made chemicals once used in things like nonstick cookware and firefighting foam.

    The chemicals are unregulated but can cause problems in laboratory animals. Water experts don’t know how the chemicals got into the water: leaking from landfills, maybe, or possibly even from airport firefighting foam.

     

    Unsafe Pipes

    Lead Pipe Lead pipes haven't been used in decades, but many old pipes haven't been replaced and can put out unsafe drinking water.

    Although lead pipes have been banned for 30 years, anywhere from 3.3 to 10 million older ones remain. And since it costs an estimated $5,000 per pipe to replace them, most will probably stay put. The trouble is, changes in water chemistry can cause lead pipes to leach lead into the drinking water.

    The school district of Sebring, Ohio, a town about 60 miles southeast of Cleveland, canceled school January 22-26 because of high levels of lead in two schools’ drinking fountains. The water system that serves about 8,100 homes around the town of Sebring, Ohio, tested the water over the summer and found high levels of lead in seven out of 20 homes tested. However, the system’s manager didn’t tell residents until January. As of February 6, after Sebring changed its water’s chemistry to reduce corrosion, about 30 homes, 4 percent of homes tested, still had lead levels above allowable amounts. Sebring’s water district blames lead pipes in homes.

    Lead can lead to digestive problems, muscle weakness, decreased IQ, attention problems and behavior changes. Lead poisoning affects young children first.

     

    Spills

    Remember last August, when the accidental spill of contaminants from a Colorado mine dyed the Animas River orange? On February 5, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a report saying the 3-million-gallon spill dumped more than 880,000 pounds of metals into the river. The metals included cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel and zinc. Arsenic levels also tested high. Some of the metals reached the San Juan River in New Mexico, and Utah officials said some reached that state too.

    At the time, officials briefly closed the river to recreation and encouraged people with wells to get their water tested.

    However, the mountains in that area have dozens of idle mines that release contaminated wastewater every day. In fact, the EPA’s report estimated the amount of metals released during the accident is similar to that released on a spring day with high runoff from melting snow.

    The EPA had previously tried to declare the area a Superfund site, but local leaders refused because they were afraid that, among other things, it would discourage tourists.

     

    What to Do

    Most of the country’s drinking water is safe, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you decide you want to filter drinking water at home, the CDC recommends four steps to choosing a filter.

    First, know your water source. If it’s a private well, you should get it tested yearly. If it’s a public system, the system is required to send an annual report about the water’s quality and contaminants.

    Second, think about why you want a filter. The main function of the activated carbon filters found in fridges and pitchers is to change the water’s taste. They may not fully protect against contaminants. If a test to your water system shows the presence of volatile organic contaminants, you may want a full-house or point-of-entry filter system so you can use the water for bathing and cleaning as well as cooking and drinking.

    Third, consider how the filter fits your home, lifestyle and budget. All water filters should be NSF-certified. Also, check the labels on filters, because no water filter removes everything. Often, filters that remove chemicals don’t remove organic contaminants. Consider things like cost of the filter system, how much filtered water you need and how a system might fit into your home.

    Fourth, maintain your filters. Change them on schedule.

    “Filters that are not well maintained can do more harm than good,” the CDC wrote.

    If you decide you only need a water filter for drinking and cooking, Emergency Essentials sells several. Also, water storage can be a great help if your water gets contaminated for a short period, like the Animas river spill.

     

    - Melissa

     

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  • Flint is Being Poisoned: Lead in the Drinking Water a Lingering Problem

    Flushing a Fire Extinguisher - Flint Flint's water problem is less than healthy... - via CNN

    Flint, Mich. is in crisis. Its 99,000 citizens haven’t had safe tap water for almost two years because of high concentrations of lead, and it could be months more before their water is safe. The National Guard has deployed soldiers to help pass out water, water filters and filter cartridges, and lead testing kits, and volunteers are going door to door with water.

    The state’s chief medical executive said every child in the city under six years old, an estimated 8,657, should be considered exposed to lead and get tested. Experts say lead poisoning most affects children and has a lifelong impact, leading to lower IQ, learning disabilities, speech and language problems and a higher risk for behavioral problems.

    In short, this crisis could continue for a long time and cost millions – even billions – of dollars.

    And, yes, it could happen to you.

    It didn’t have to happen. In 2014, a state-appointed city manager decided to change the city’s water supply to save about $9.2 million per year. Flint had been getting water from Lake Huron, but in April 2014 it switched to water from the Flint River while waiting to connect to a new regional water system (The new system isn’t ready yet). The river water corroded the city’s old pipes and leached their metals, including lead, into the water. Residents immediately complained about the change and a General Motors engine plant stopped using the water, saying it rusted parts. However, officials said the water was in compliance for safety.

    In September 2015, a group of doctors found a spike in lead levels in the blood of children and recommended Flint residents stop using city water for drinking and cooking. In mid-October, the state agreed to switch Flint’s water back to the previous system. But the pipes were already corroded, so the danger remained. On January 5, the governor declared a state of emergency and asked for federal help for the city. On January 16, President Obama declared it a federal emergency.

    Volunteers Helping Unload Water - Flint A volunteer helps unload water from a truck - via Independent

    The city had started passing out free water to residents. However, as of January 14, distribution was limited to a case per family, or about 3 gallons. FEMA recommends a disaster supply kit contain a gallon of water per person per day, so if a family has more than three people, they need alternate water sources. Many people and organizations are donating water. A list of ways to help is at the bottom.

    The mayor says the city’s pipes may need replacing, at a cost of up to $1.5 billion. But frankly, aging water infrastructure is a problem throughout the U.S.

    The American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) in a 2013 report gave the U.S. a D+ grade for its drinking water infrastructure. Some water pipes are 100 years old. Some are made of wood. Many, even some installed in the 1980s, contain lead. The ASCE report said there are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the U.S. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated it would cost $334.8 billion over 20 years to replace the old infrastructure. ASCE put the cost closer to $1 trillion. And frankly, water distributors don’t have the money. In 2010, Austin Water lost $53 million compared to its budget forecast, according to Circle of Blue, a water news service. The most expensive water bills are usually in places where infrastructure is being improved or water treatment equipment is being installed.

    Bottle Water and Kid - Flint People of Flint have to rely on bottled water - via Flint Journal

    Even functioning water systems have problems. Last August, algae blooms in Lake Erie poisoned the water supply for Toledo, causing hundreds of thousands of people to rely on bottled water for about a week.

    Individuals can help. The Environmental Protection Agency has steps people can take to protect watersheds. They include properly disposing hazardous material like motor oil and pesticides, volunteering for a watershed cleanup, and posting signs and stenciling storm drains with “No Dumping” reminders.

    Emergency Essentials sells many types of water filters. If lead is a concern, make sure that any filter is NSF certified for lead removal.

     

    How to help residents of Flint, from USA Today

    A fund has been established to address the short- and long-term needs of Flint children exposed to lead through contaminated drinking water. Donations can be made at www.flintkids.com.

    Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, 39020 Five Mile in Livonia, is asking for gallon jugs of water to be dropped off at the church by Jan. 30. Volunteers will take the donations to be distributed in Flint. Call 734-464-0211.

    Flint Community Schools is accepting cash donations and bottled water. Call the district's finance office at 810-767-6030 about cash donations. Bottled water drop-offs can be coordinated by calling 810-760-1310.

    Donations are being accepted by the United Way of Genesee Count: Visit unitedwaygenesee.org and click on the "GIVE" button. There's an option to support the Flint Water Project. Call 810-232-8121 for details. A new phase for outreach is investment in services to help residents who have been exposed to contaminated water.

    Catholic Charities of Genesee County accepts cash or bottled water donations to aid soup kitchens and warming centers, call 810-785-6911.

    To help Flint community activists who are delivering water: Call Melissa Mays at 810-423-3435.

     

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  • El Niño vs The Arctic Oscillation: Opposing Weather Systems Bring Extreme Weather

    In the U.S., this year’s winter weather has been like a boxing match, with the southern El Niño sparring with the northern Arctic Oscillation and North Atlantic Oscillation for temperature and precipitation supremacy.

    May the best oscillation win?

    El Niño is a once-every-several-years warming of the eastern Pacific. A major El Niño event, like the one we’re experiencing now, commonly brings buckets of precipitation to the southwest, buckets of precipitation and colder weather to the southeast, and slightly warmer, drier weather to the northern Rockies and Midwest.

    In December and into early January, El Niño had commanded the match. Temperatures in the northeast reached the 60s and even 70s, smashing record highs. At the same time, tornadoes in the southeastern U.S. – a common El Niño phenomenon – killed two dozen people in four days. The severe storms continued into January in the southeast, as a tornado touched down in Florida on January 9.

    Shirtless - USA Today - Arctic Oscillation And then there was this guy... "What Arctic Oscillation?" - via USA Today

    Here’s where the match got interesting, though. The same storm system that brought the Florida tornado also brought extreme cold temperatures and blasting wind to the Midwest. A January 10 football playoff game in Minnesota was the third-coldest NFL game ever played, with a kickoff temperature of -6 degrees F. The storm left more than 120,000 people without power across several states.

    This extreme cold is more characteristic of a polar vortex, caused by the North Atlantic Oscillation and Arctic Oscillation. And it’ll probably continue through January.

    Arctic Oscillation El Niño is causing massive flooding in California, but won't do much in drought relief - via CBS News

    However, in California, El Niño is still the big hitter. The state is in a brief pause in a series of storms that could last for a few weeks. The storms are bringing lots of rain – which, alas, creates problems for awards ceremonies’ red carpet preliminaries – and causing floods in spots.

    Meteorologists expect even this El Niño won’t make much of a dent on the multi-year California drought. For starters, rainwater doesn’t stay put. Once the ground is saturated, water flows away, often in storm drains to the Pacific. In Orange County, in southern California, about half that water gets captured for later use. The rest ends up in the ocean.

    Rain Barrel - Arctic OscillationMany agencies in southern California are trying to collect more of that rainwater. On January 6, the State Water Resources Control Board approved a plan to spend $200 million for projects to capture more rain.

    In California and many other states, homeowners can capture rain for their own use. A 1,000-square-foot roof can collect 600 gallons from one inch of rain, according to the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension.

    It’s not that hard to make a small rain capture system; WikiHow has directions. Basically, it requires making a platform for a rain barrel (or barrels), taking a barrel and adding a spigot and overflow valve, attaching it to a rain gutter’s downspout and putting a filter in the downspout to catch larger stuff that would clog it. To use the rainwater for landscaping or gardening, set up a drip irrigation system and run a hose out to it from the barrel.

    Professional installers can also make a larger rain capture system.

    A few caveats. First, this system is gravity-powered, so if you want to water higher than your collection location, you’ll need a pump. Second, this water’s not suitable for drinking. It needs boiling and filtering to become potable. Third, not all states and municipalities allow rainwater collection, and some allow it only on a limited basis. This is especially true in the west, where water rights are paramount.

    --Melissa

     

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