9/11 and drinking water security

Richard Forno says:
The following paragraph is taken from a large AP article on the levels of drugs found in US drinking water:

"The drinking water in Dallas has been tested, but officials are awaiting results. Arlington, Texas, acknowledged that traces of a pharmaceutical were detected in its drinking water but cited post-9/11 security concerns in refusing to identify the drug."

...here's yet another case of "security" being invoked that likely does more harm than good. Does telling the local population WHAT IS IN THEIR DRINKING WATER constitute a security danger? I think not. Call me a risk-taker if you like, but I, and I bet a good deal of this country's populace, is more concerned about being "victimized" by poor drinking water in their homes, offices, and communities than the remote possibility of an attack by al-Qaeda or any number of nefarious Hollywood terror plots.

I continue to believe that the outcome of "9/11" has not improved the acceptable definition of "public safety" in America, but rather changed it for the worse. Our various corporate and government entities are building a new definition of "public safety" based on the perpetuance of unfounded fear, civic ignorance and the avoidance of any objective notion of reality (or accountability) in conducting risk analysis or consequence management. Not only are we no more safer from terrorists now than we were 8 years ago, but as a result of how we responded to "9/11" we've become more vulnerable to other, perhaps more sinister and dangerous vulnerabilities -- intentional or otherwise -- within our national infrastructure.

Indeed, we remain our own worst enemy. :(



  1. It’s incredibly obvious, isn’t it? A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual. Certainly without any choice. That’s the way your hard-core Commie works.

  2. Actually, in another discussion of this same topic the explanation that seemed to be agreed on is as follows. People upstream take their medications. Those medications are not 100% metabolized. They are then, uh, passed into the watter supply accompanied by a flushing sound. This happens along a couple hundred kilometers of river and those little traces add up.

  3. A few years ago, the feds reportedly conducted an anthrax-susceptibility test in the north Texas area in which they dumped a microorganism (probably B. subtilis) in local water supplies and tested the treated water for contamination. As it turned out, standard municipal water filtration was effective at removing bacterial contamination, but the tests were (AFAIK) never publicized.

  4. So… wait – I thought we were all just recently urged to switch to tap water over bottled water for the environment – and since our tap water was just as good and all.

  5. As someone who has lived in both Arlington and in Dallas, and who has drunk the tap water in both cities, and has sat on city board meetings in both locales, I have a small amount of insight here.

    Arlington will not divulge what pharmaceutical showed up in their drinking water because

    A: The details of Arlington’s water treatment are actually considered a matter of national security; Their system is not custom made but off-the-shelf and is shared by several other mid-sized cities in the United States and the details of that are a matter of public record (they had to bid it out); Revealing a particular chemical that they aren’t screening for would reveal the same for many other cities. Publicizing this exploit – in a system that can’t easily nor quickly be patched in all instances – would be ethically irresponsible. Parts of Arlington’s water supply comes, also, from the Ft. Worth municipal water supply, as Arlington grew, it incorporated previously un-incorporated parts of Tarrant county.

    B: The pharmaceutical was detected at a few parts per billion or per trillion – trace amounts – far less than what you would pick up if you were, say, involved in kissing or having unprotected sex with someone being treated with the pharmaceuticals in question. You might pick up a comparable dose, or more if that person /sneezed/ on you, or you shook their hand and then wiped your eye.

    C: Dallas and Fort Worth both have state-of-the-art water treatment and testing facilities. The water supply in North Texas comes, pretty exclusively, from publicly-accessible man-made reservoir lakes and for decades, someone poisoning those reservoirs has been a nightmare security scenario. We are in a drought condition and have been for many years, thanks to global warming patterns.

    Our wastewater treatment plants put the treated sewage right back into those reservoirs. The same can be said of So. California.

    Ozarka bottles their water – the water they deliver in five, three, and one gallon bottles as well as the 20-ozers – out of the Ft. Worth municipal water supply and filter and test it fairly thoroughly before they ship it out.

    What’s the answer? Well, probably the answer is to start catching more rain and filtering and treating it for use as drinking water. There’s upgrading wastewater treatment – which is expensive. And, of course, there’s giving people fewer drugs in the first place.

  6. #8: We are in a drought condition and have been for many years, thanks to global warming patterns.

    See, I would have just blamed it on a lack of rain.

  7. RyanH@#5: People upstream take their medications.

    This may explain lots more than just the cluster of idiots on the road whom I assumed had a prescription.

  8. it is intriguing that water filtering systems can block out bacterial contamination, but not pharmaceutical residue…

    i wonder if there will be a special type of home filtering system to black out such substances like PUR water filtering systems.

  9. Comrade Forno!

    Your outrageous and antisocial comments are entirely inconsistent with the noble goals and glorious spirit of the Union of Soviet Capitalist Republics! Please retract them at once, or our heroic Department of Homeland Security will be forced to take measures which we cannot disclose.

  10. Ok, I happen to work in the water security world – I’m a programmer, not a chemist, but I’ve learned a bit along the way.

    This is a big political issue right now, and there’s a lot of money being spent on it. I know, because we get a little bit of it. But it’s honestly not the type of terrorist attack I’d be most concerned about.

    Even attacking treated water (say, at a reservoir within the distribution network, or by pumping water back into a fire hydrant) requires a LOT of contaminant if you’re trying to kill more than a handful of people. Obtaining the contaminant and successfully delivering it would be far more difficult than, for example, setting off a few bombs at a sporting event. While it’s not totally infeasible, it’s still more of a movie plot sort of attack.

    I only feel good about my job because I know that if what we’re working on works, it will catch REAL health threats, like e. coli and cryptosporidium. A lot of people in the water business feel the same way – they’ll take the money in the name of homeland security if it means improving quality and safety in normal operations.

    If you’re worried about contamination, get a reverse osmosis system for your tap, and keep it maintained properly.

  11. Very interesting line of thought, Ken and Bardfinn.

    In general, it’s a good idea to avoid flushing one’s excess pharmaceuticals. Take them back to your pharmacy and they’ll process them as the hazardous waste they are.

  12. My municipality’s water provider (Denver Water) sends out an Annual Report of Water [PDF], with stats on what’s in there. Of course, if you wanted to be all paranoid, you could imagine that they don’t publicize _everything_ that’s really in there, but I’ll choose to have a little faith in humanity. At least for another couple of weeks.

    In fact, they have a little note on trace pharmaceuticals in the water, too. Just updated today. Way to be sensitive to the news on teh internets, DW! Here’s what they said:

    Denver Water decided to be proactive and participate in some of the earliest research projects looking for microconstituents (a project with Colorado State University in 2005). We did NOT find any estrogenic compounds but did detect trace amounts of antibiotics and pharmaceuticals at part per trillion concentrations (one part per trillion is equivalent to one drop of water in twenty Olympic-sized swimming pools).


  13. Ah the fear that creeps in… Secrets. There will be a class of people who only are aware of matters of the national security – The top people of private companies and many officers in the government. I wonder when the secrecy becomes so mundane, that it creeps into a child’s play?

  14. #11
    “it is intriguing that water filtering systems can block out bacterial contamination, but not pharmaceutical residue…
    i wonder if there will be a special type of home filtering system to black out such substances like PUR water filtering systems. http://www.purwater.com

    Firstly, sewage treatment facilities were designed to eliminate fecal coliforms (E. coli, etc) and to reduce ammonia levels, nitrates, nitrites, etc – the vast majority of treatment facilities do not even have the capacity to target xenobiotics (man made chemicals) for removal. If they have denitrification capabilities by bacterial colonies (secondary or tertiary treatment) the concentration of these chemicals CAN be reduced, but how much really depends on the compound and the sludge retention time. Bacteria often cannot break down a chemical if they have never evolved the ‘machinery’ to recognize it in the first place.

    Scientists have really only known about, and thus been concerned about the presence of pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) in sewage effluent or the receiving environment within the last 15 years or so. Sewage treatment plants were often designed and built way before this.

    Secondly, regarding a method to remove these chemicals from drinking water, it’s as simple as an activated carbon filter! (also used in fish tanks and brita water filters).

    #17: “From this article: “More than 100 different pharmaceuticals have been detected in surface waters throughout the world.””

    Just because you can detect a compound in the environment does not necessarily mean it will have an effect on an organism in that environment. Animals have many physiological ways to deal with toxic/dangerous compounds – it is only when these defense mechanisms get overwhelmed that damage/negative effects occur in the animal.

    This does not mean that we should not be concerned about the chemicals we put into the environment, but we should also look at the concentrations at which these compounds are present within the environment and their active concentration within sensitive species before fully raising the alarm bells.

  15. Informing the public that “X” has been found in their drinking water does NOT disclose what other substances can be tested for.

    Working under THAT assumption, the govt. wouldn’t want to warn the public about ANYTHING since it might tip off wanna be terrorists.

    I agree with the poster Vib’s take… we’re moving towards a country where mere civilians are second class citizens.

    It seems more likely that they don’t want to disclose this information because they want to protect some corporation from legal action.

  16. Excellent posts by #8 BARDFINN, #14 MADSCI and #20 ARTEMIA.

    I would only add that Water Security is probably going to be the hottest issue in the coming decade. The concept covers much more than ‘security’ in the post-911 sense; it includes a variety of broad principles such as:
    – protection of the entire watershed/basin (the area of land that receives the precipitation that will feed the water source), including the regulation of land-use
    – protection of well heads and groundwater
    – in some cases, barring access to especially sensitive areas
    – encouraging the conservation of water, enacting legislation if neccessary

    I can’t think of a single issue that is more vital and yet so completely neglected… it’s crazy that an article like this should come as a surprise. Environmental scientists have known about aquatic pollution with synthetic estrogenic substances since the 1980s, and we’ve been measuring detectable levels of pharmaceuticals (prozac, viagra, etc) in sewage effluent and fish since the late 90s. I’m relieved the word is finally starting to get out.

  17. “The security we profess to seek in foreign adventures we will lose in our decaying cities.”
    – Martin Luther King, Jr.

  18. LI MOM, I think the concern is that we are only just beginning to understand how widespread a problem this is. I really don’t believe bullshit conspiracy theories- I’ve worked with people at all levels on this issue (EPA, state agencies, public works) and they are dedicated, hardworking people… the only thing I can fault them for is occasionally having too much faith that existing regulations adequately protect people.

    Example: during the 1993 Milwaukee outbreak that led to 403,000 people getting sick and 100-150 deaths, the water supply was repeated tested. Not once during the outbreak did the water supply violate EPA standards- which led to some initial resistance to the notion that the water supply was responsible. We now know that the causative agent was Cryptosporidium, and that existing testing facilities were not equipped to detect them. Since 1993, we now understand that Crypto is almost universally present in our water supply- it’s one of the reasons people buy home filtration systems.

    What really worries me is that we may be heading for another Milwaukee- a slower, more insidious kind of mass poisoning, one that doesn’t pop up on the regulatory radar until it’s too late.

  19. “I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.” Link.

  20. #21 “Informing the public that “X” has been found
    in their drinking water does NOT disclose what other substances can be tested for.”

    Thousands and thousands of chemicals can theoretically be tested for within water samples – it just all depends upon you’re willing to pay for it.

    People cannot expect publicly funded wastewater treatment facilities to test for all potential man made compounds in drinking water unless:

    a) there is a reasonable risk that this compound will occur in the drinking water

    b) it will occur at levels found to, or believe to be a threat to human health

    and most importantly,
    c) someone is willing to pay for it.

    It’s amazing how vehemently people will crusade for a cause, but then back down when they find out that their taxes will go up x amount more than they’re willing to pay. Perhaps in the US where such an obscene amount of money is spent on the military, you have good justification for wanting the government to upgrade sewage treatment and drinking water facilities. But you just have to recognize that these things cost money. Lots of money. People tend to look at the short term, not the long term. Everyone wants to improve the environment, but very few people are truly willing to change their behaviours to the degree that will actually make any measurable impact.

    Hell, the majority of coastal cities just dump their sewage into the ocean, totally untreated. How about we get them to do some sewage treatment before we start on getting reverse osmosis and activated carbon filtration into all our sewage plants and water treatment facilities?

  21. Wine is good too, I like wine. Or gin. We could have gin running through our taps. Think of the possibilities. Then our conversion into Victorian era capitalism would be complete.

  22. We could have gin running through our taps.

    I’d want to switch to something autumnal after Labor Day, like Calvados or mulled mead.

  23. Shamefully lacking from the media reports is any evidence that this stuff is present at levels that could potentially have an effect.

    Also worth considering is that the compounds found at the highest levels are likely to be the least well-absorbed, and therefore the least likely to pose a danger via ingestion of homeopathic quantities in tap water. Water soluble compounds don’t tend to build up in the body, so that’s not a means by which the low levels would become dangerous over time.

  24. One of the funniest and funnest things about Manhattan is that every old building (meaning 90% of them) have old “Farmer Joe” type of wooden-slat-barrel water tanks on top of them, held together by rusty but tenacious iron bands.

    Manhattan, when Columbia University was the first big development uptown, back before they flattened the island with dynamite and used the gravel to fill in its several swampy rivers was…farmland!

    I want to dig up the picture of Columbia with plowed fields all around it…but I only have my own copy, and copyright is likely over on it by now, so I’ll upload it:

    And here are the water towers, thanks to Google:

  25. The scary part (and I think the main point) is that the gubment is citing 9/11 when that incident has entirely nothing to do with it. Water contamination is certainly an issue. But their continued use of 9/11 as a defacto reason to deceive the American populace is far more nefarious.

  26. nik…the wooden barrels on top of buildings are for fire suppression systems. they are not drinking water

  27. #20:

    “Just because you can detect a compound in the environment does not necessarily mean it will have an effect on an organism in that environment. Animals have many physiological ways to deal with toxic/dangerous compounds – it is only when these defense mechanisms get overwhelmed that damage/negative effects occur in the animal.”

    Truly toxic/dangerous compounds are easy to detect, when you see bank-to-bank dead fish in a river. We’re increasingly finding that trace amounts of chemicals, far below established standards or at the limits of detection, can have systemic effects on wildlife and possibly humans. Some of them are synergistic, making the effects even harder to pin down. Do some searching on ‘endocrine disruptors’ or bisphenol A. There’s plenty of evidence of reproductive abnormalities in fish, for instance, associated with the outflows of sewage treatment systems, but few instances of replicating the abnormalities with specific compounds out of the thousands swilling around the system.

    Here’s an example of estrogenic compounds perturbing fish gender at 1 part per trillion:

    Detailed coverage of the research into abnormal gender in fish in Boulder Creek:

    Detecting a compound in the environment may not mean it is harmful, but since we know a) harm is happening, b) pollution is a factor, and c) trace amounts can be dangerous, then there’s cause to be suspicious of just about any contaminant. We cannot continue to assume that trace amounts are probably safe, or that most species are probably tolerant, because we’ve already been burned several times now.

    This quote is from the Yahoo article linked by BB:

    “For several decades, federal environmental officials and nonprofit watchdog environmental groups have focused on regulated contaminants — pesticides, lead, PCBs — which are present in higher concentrations and clearly pose a health risk.

    However, some experts say medications may pose a unique danger because, unlike most pollutants, they were crafted to act on the human body.

    “These are chemicals that are designed to have very specific effects at very low concentrations. That’s what pharmaceuticals do. So when they get out to the environment, it should not be a shock to people that they have effects,” says zoologist John Sumpter at Brunel University in London, who has studied trace hormones, heart medicine and other drugs. “

  28. Reg Comment #37 by PTERYXX

    lol… I am well aware of the various toxicological issues in the environment, and am in full agreement with the belief that there are true risks out there, and very likely subtle effects that we have no idea about yet. I did my Master’s thesis on the use of goldfish as sentinal species for detecting possible detrimental effects of treated sewage effluent and reuse water (primarily due to the presence of pharmaceuticals and personal care products, as well as pesticides).

    Endocrine disruptors are a major issue in many parts of the world, of this I have no doubt. But there are also a number of studies that have shown no effect of sewage effluent exposure on fish physiology, or inconclusive results. I’m not casting doubt on the studies that have shown positive effects, not at all (well, most of them, lol), but I’m just saying that when working with any biological system things are never simple. And we must look at all information with a critical eye. Neither laboratory nor field studies alone are sufficient to definitively determine whether a compound is harmful or safe.

    These are real issues, I 100% agree with you. But if we automatically cry wolf at any contaminant we find in the environment the public will become desensitized and not react as they should when a major toxicological issue comes about.

  29. I just like to play the devil’s advocate :)

    If you want to hear (what sounded to me like) a rock solid case regarding the negative effects of a compound we put into the environment at a rate of millions of tons a year. Atrazine is a pesticide used to kill weeds in food crops. It has been shown to cause major reproductive deformities in frogs, delay development of tadpoles, induce stress and immunosuppression, among many other effects.

    I recently attended a fantastic lecture by Dr. Tyrone Hayes (out of Berkley), who has been involved in many of these atrazine studies on frogs. Watch this (older) lecture of his. It’s worth your time.

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