Columbia water quality called into question

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Photo by Elea Gilles

Multiple Authors

Students often rely on the readily available water bottles and water fountains around the school. These students, however, rarely stop to consider the presence of contaminants in the drinking water and possible health concerns.
As the potential for lead in consumable water around Columbia has recently increased with 47 samples in the district that had to be retested, the city urged Columbia Public Schools (CPS) to go about handling the issue with a water quality evaluation for all schools and support facilities in the district.
An initial water quality evaluation June 1 had its follow up evaluation a month later July 8 according to the CPS 2016 water quality report. PDC Laboratories Inc. (PDC) along with CPS decided to provide five statements evaluating the samples.
Fulfilling these requirements requires transporting the water samples to the labs from the Facilities and Construction Services Department (FCS) location, analyzing the samples from the laboratory and developing a summary for the school.The report consists of sections including a 90 percent passing requirement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Lead and Copper Rule for public water.
While the five-step process for the collected samples help to ensure the safety and health of all water consumers, Community Relations Director Michelle Baumstark explains the meticulous process is not completely necessary.
“The district voluntarily chose to conduct water quality testing. There is no law or requirement that the school district do such testing,” Baumstark said in an email interview. “Over the summer, there were 1,429 samples collected from across the district. There were 47 that had to be retested. We only had three locations out of the 1,400+ that did not meet standards.”
Baumstark adds that the samples that did not meet standards were in the science labs and had indicators that the water should not be consumed.

art by Dzung Nguyen

“The remaining 44 sites that passed after the second testing with either flushing or otherwise are also at locations that typically are not used for water consumption (science lab sinks, hand washing sinks, etc.); or that shouldn’t be used is the first place,” Baumstark said. “For those areas, as an added precaution, we also placed signage instructing the user to do not use for water consumption.”
While the samples that did not meet standards were hazardous for any consumer, the main danger is for students who often rely on school fountains to drink water. For junior Devin Bernskoetter, however, the downsides are little to none.
“I don’t drink from school faucets. [I drink from] a water bottle that I bring from home,” Bernskoetter said. “I can see the water problem happening because the school is so old. I think CPS should provide water if we can’t drink out of the fountains. I think they should try to fix the pipes so the water is safer.”
Despite the intimidating process for water safety, RBHS principal Dr. Jennifer Rukstad reassures students that the conditions are slowly being brought back to normal.
“Testing shows that there was only one sample that exceeds the lead action eliminates means the testing shows that eliminating our lead fixtures is not called for,” Dr. Rukstad said. “The testing show that they do not affect RBHS because we don’t have any lead or copper in our water that would be harming.”
Though the testing isn’t a legal requirement, administrators are still seeking to find the cause of these problems. While they may be unharmful, they affect the health of RBHS students.
“The school district is reviewing how other school districts are handling similar testing and is working to determine a plan moving forward,” Rukstad said. “There isn’t a lot of guidance at the federal level for how to do this since testing is not required for school districts.”
by Ji-Sung Lee
Additional reporting by Rochita Ghosh

Contaminant concern expands beyond school system

From low water pressure to chemical residue, the city of Columbia has suffered water problems that have affected residents, businesses and Columbia Public Schools (CPS) throughout the past few years.
In 2008 the levels of trihalomethanes (TTHM) in the city of Columbia exceeded the federal limit of 80 parts per billion, which is worrisome because when TTHM is at high levels, it increases the risk of developing cancer.
Joe Strodtman, an Engineering Specialist at Columbia Water and Light (CWL), said the city later changed its means of disinfection from solely chlorine to the addition of ammonia — together known as chloramine. This mixture of substanes was created with means to purify water.
To add to Columbia’s water problems, in June earlier this year, CWL issued a boil advisory for the Thornbrook subdivision because of low water pressures that could be harming to resident’s health.
“Thornbrook has [had] a lot of water quality problems lately due to the new school coming in,” junior Devin Bernskoetter said. “Most of the summer it tasted a little more like iron than it usually does.”
Rather than adhere to the city-issued procedures during the advisory, the Bernskoetter family used bottled water to hydrate and cook with.
“My family just bought a lot of water bottles over the summer,” Bernskoetter said. “I’ve lived in Thornbrook for 13 years. It happens almost every summer.”
While to most these water problems are inconvenient, for Thornbrook resident and creator of the COMO Safe Water Coalition Julie Ryan, water safety goes beyond that. After she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, Ryan altered to begin living a healthier lifestyle as a supplement to chemotherapy and surgery. In learning about health promoting habits, she also became aware of the topic of water quality in Columbia.
“You start looking into things, and you start searching for the types of carcinogenic items that are in our environment. We’re never going to eliminate all of them, [but] we can do our best,” Ryan said. “Water is a valuable resource. Our kids are exposed to it, we are exposed to it [and] some of the disinfection byproducts that are found in our water are carcinogenic.”
Strodtman said the city follows the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) water treatment standards.
“We meet those [requirements] and [the EPA and DNR] determined that the products in our water are not carcinogenic at the concentrations that we have. We’re meeting our requirements as far as that [goes],” Strodtman said. “If there are more concerns that they believe things should be regulated, those concerns really need to be dictated to the regulation body rather than us. We’re meeting everything we can — and actually exceeding the quality standards that are set for us.”
Aside from low water pressure, another problem some believe residents of Columbia face is a process called the 90-day burn. Bob Bowcock, the coalition’s technical advisor and founder of Integrated Resource Management, a water management company based in California, said this phenomenon occurs almost every summer.As a consequence of the city’s switch from chlorine to a chloramine disinfectant in 2008, he said the ammonia oxidizes, causing nitrification in the city pipes. Thus, because of the nitrate in the water, during the summer the city reduces the ammonia levels by temporarily switching back to chlorine-only disinfection. The concern starts when chlorine reacts with natural organic matter in the water to create TTHM.

art by Joy Park

“In Columbia, [residents] experience a 90-day chlorine burn that has the community pretty upset every summer [the city goes] through this. The city really doesn’t understand what they’re doing from a chemical perspective,” Bowcock said. “The coalition was formed to provide them with information [so that the city] can make the water better so that we don’t have the chlorine burn.”
City Laboratory Supervisor Diedra McClendon said the city recognizes there are drawbacks to using the current type of disinfectant, such as the small concentrations of TTHM that are created. However, she said there is little CWL can do to change that for the time being.
“Right now we’re on chlorine and chloramine [disinfectant] because we are required to have chlorine at the tap. We do not have any other options as far as [the] DNR is concerned,” McClendon said. “What [the coalition] wants, is they don’t want us to use chloramine or chlorine, which we absolutely cannot do because of our permit.”
While Strodtman said TTHMs are a valid concern, their presence is almost inevitable in the city’s water with the current DNR standards. Currently, however, he said the levels in the water are at small concentrations that meet all safe thresholds mandated by the DNR.
“If you’re treating your water with chlorine, you’re going to have levels of TTHMs within the water. We had issues with that years ago where we exceeded the thresholds; we changed our treatment technology to address that,” Strodtman said. “Since then we have not broken any of the threshold barriers and we run chloramine treatment through the year to reduce those levels.”
Though Ryan believes there are problems with the city water, she said the coalition’s intent is not to make a one-size-fits-all solution. Despite the city’s current inability to change the type of disinfectant they use, she wants the city to recognize there are better ways to disinfect the water.
“You find other unregulated substances in water before it’s treated. You can find chemicals like BPA and deet [an active ingredient in most bug sprays] — these other chemicals are in our water supply and chloramine isn’t going to disinfect those items out,” Ryan said. “There is a line between ‘Are we doing what the regulations say we have to do?’ or ‘Are we doing what’s best for our citizens?’ That’s where our coalition’s concern is. You may think we are meeting the regulations [that the EPA] and the Missouri DNR set forth, but is it really what’s best?”
According to the CWL’s 2016 water quality report, the city tests for 83 regulated substances. While CWL tests the water for every substance required by the EPA and the Missouri DNR, McClendon said there are “just some things that don’t require testing.”
“As far as carcinogens, I will give you this. Most of that is not regulated. It’s not looked at by the EPA or Missouri DNR, but we do meet all of their standards,” McClendon said. “Anything at high enough levels can be a carcinogen, that’s just something to keep in mind.”
Bowcock believes communicating with the Missouri DNR and CWL about water quality from a community and city-wide standpoint works in conjunction with the coalition’s philosophy.
“The coalition is attempting to advise and seek guidance on making certain water quality characteristic changes that will benefit the community,” Browcock said.
While Ryan works with the city to help improve the water quality in Columbia, she said there are many things people can do in their own home to purify their water like water filters and reverse osmosis systems. Other efforts like reducing the temperature and time taking a shower can also help; however, she said some of those remedies can be expensive.
“Finding that we’ve had so many residents interested in our coalition and being a part of this movement does make me realize there’s been a lot of talk about this in Columbia, but it’s been done quietly,” Ryan said. “The reason why we’re passionate about this is because not everybody in Columbia can [spend a lot of money on filters]. We want everybody to be protected. Water is a valuable resource and we need to protect and do the right thing by it.”
by Grace Vance