Be Well: Water Safety

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The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and closer to home in Sebring, near Youngstown, where residents have been exposed to lead-contaminated water, leaves many people concerned about water safety.  At a December neighborhood meeting in University Circle moderated by ideastream’s Civic Commons, residents including Reverend Crystal Smith of Mt. Pleasant and Anita English of Glenville worried about what was coming out of their taps.

“The pipes, for one thing,” said Smith. “It still has lead in it and it also has different toxins and things in the pipes. And from time to time it gets that skim on it and it smells. I don’t touch that water.”

“The pipes that the water come through… how long have they been in the ground? They’re corroded and they’re rusty,” English commented. “Like turn the water on any pipes first thing in the morning and what does the water look like?”

To better understand what’s in Northeast Ohio’s water, ideastream’s Stephanie Jarvis took a trip to a local water treatment plant.

It all starts with Lake Erie.

“We take the water in from the lake,” Danielson says.  “We have to add chemicals to remove the sediments and other materials in the water.  And then we filter all of that out.”

At the Avon Lake Water Filtration Plant, Todd Danielson oversees the water that serves 200,000 residents in Avon Lake and surrounding suburbs.

“And then we add things like chlorine to disinfect the water and fluoride for the teeth before it goes out to our customers,” he adds.

But there’s a lot that goes on besides filtering and treating the water.  They also do a lot of tests– about 150 a day, to make sure the water quality meets federal standards.

“Lake Erie can go from calm to a monster in just a matter of hours. And as that water quality changes, we have to change the treatment process so that we can keep providing water.”

Danielson says changing the treatment process means a careful balance in the water’s pH level to make sure it’s not too acidic. 

“The chemicals that we add to get rid of the dirt lowers the pH. So we need to raise the pH before it goes back out to the homes.  And so we raise the pH by adding something called lime.”

Avon adds lime while Cleveland’s water treatment plant adds a chemical called orthophosphate.  Either way, the result is the same – it causes a coating in the pipes so water that might be slightly acidic doesn’t leach metals from old lead or copper pipes leading into homes.  That’s where Flint and Sebring failed. 

Taylor Bailey clutches her four month old daughter in her arms as a nurse from the Mahoning County Health Department pricks the infant’s tiny finger and draws blood. Bailey was still pregnant when lead-contaminated water was first discovered in Sebring in August. 

“I was cooking in the water, bathing in the water,” Bailey says. “I bathed her in the water.”

The Health Department is screening all children under six, as well as pregnant and nursing women for potential lead exposure.  Lead in the developing brain of a fetus or young child has been linked to a variety of developmental problems including learning disabilities and hyperactivity.  In Sebring, it took months for water officials to notify residents including Bailey, of high lead levels.

“I don’t know what happens when, like say she wasn’t good,” Bailey comments. “If they didn’t say she was perfect. What would happen to her?  So now I do everything in bottled water. Which makes my life 100 times harder”

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency continues to work with the operators at Sebring’s plant to fine tune its water chemistry. Two officials from the Ohio EPA have been fired from the Columbus office.  Both state and federal lawmakers have called for legislation that would require the EPA to tell people sooner about possible water contamination. 

Additional Resources:

CDC: Lead in Tap Water

EPA: Lead Exposure

Avon Lake Regional Water: Lead and Drinking Water


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