Monday, June 8, 2009

On Municipal Water Quality: A voice of caution

The issue of municipal water quality is raving its head all over again. Complaints from neighborhood residents as regard lateness in the flushing of their utility water pipes and the challenge of the definition of what constitute safe water source is not making the problem easier. Just as water coming from natural sources may be considered safe, the same source of water with high levels of sodium, trace metals and or dissolved solids with high pH-value, can be considered as unsafe. Civil Engineers working for water works inform me that where the arsenic level in a mineral water source is excessive, such water source may be considered as toxic and unsafe for human consumption. Arguably, many water utility companies providing municipal water supply, work extensively to diversify the risk of source water pollution, they go as far as finding multiple sources of water harvesting to reduce the risk of water pollution and guarantee water supply throughout the year. Some use a combination of natural surface water source(s), while others make use of water from wells and/or boreholes. Further, many engage in water management practices that ameliorate chances of municipal water contamination or pollution.

Civil Engineers at California Water works differentiated water contamination from water pollution in 1963. A differentiation which is still applicable four decades over : Water contamination is the impairment of the quality of water by sewage or industrial waste to an extent that it renders the water a hazard to public health because of the potential to poison or spread diseases. Water pollution is an impairment of the quality of water by sewage or industrial waste to a degree that does not create an actual hazard to public health, but adversely and unreasonably affect the quality of water for domestic, industrial, navigational or recreational use. These definitions provide a barometer for measuring water quality standard and also serve as the foundation of established policy of what may be considered as permissible pollution. For municipal water consumers these definitions are more confusions. The consumers would just like to know if the source(s) of water they are drinking or cooking with is clean. The technicality of defining water contamination as against pollution could be tricky considering our experience in the late 80’s when the National Resource Defense Council campaigned against the United States Environmental Protection Agency on the way it handled pesticides pollution from farms. At the time, the levels of dioxins in some municipal water source were unacceptable. While the Council had its own definition of acceptable standard the EPA had its own, and this completely just muddled up the public understanding of a problem that kept everyone on the edge.

No matter what definition you may rely on in differentiating a safe water source, it is important to adhere to the precautionary principle: When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or environment, precautionary measure should be taken, even if some cause and effect relationship can not be fully scientifically established. The application of the precautionary principle, gives everyone some degree of control as to the safety of water they consume.
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