ABOUT THIS SERIES
This report is part of the Troubled Water project produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. TCPalm provided the local information.
At least twice in recent years, drinking-water contaminants on the Treasure Coast spiked to dangerous levels, with potentially detrimental effects on public health.
It's unclear, however, how much contaminated water was consumed, whether public health officials correlated any health problems to the tainted water or whether people will have health problems down the road.
Millions more Americans don’t always know what’s in their water, and even when they do, the science can’t always make definitive connections between tainted water and health problems.
Health officials, from the federal level down to local authorities, also face budget constraints that can limit how they investigate, monitor, report and treat water contamination.
“More people are affected by contaminated drinking water than is being reported, and there are many U.S. communities facing a health crisis because of bad water,” said Erik Olson, health program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit international environmental advocacy group.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates tap water causes 16.4 million cases of acute gastrointestinal illness each year, but that’s only a small portion of what’s really happening. Government officials don’t necessarily have the data to show the full picture. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gathers data about waterborne-disease outbreaks, but not all states report them.
A News21 analysis of EPA data shows 63 million people were served by water systems that violated federal standards two or more times, sometimes for lead, copper, arsenic and cancer-causing poisons. These contaminants can cause a wide range of health problems, from liver and kidney damage to birth defects.
Treasure Coast violations
A TCPalm analysis of eight of the Treasure Coast's largest public water systems showed all but Fort Pierce Utilities Authority and Indiantown Co. received violations in the past five years.
Violators included St. Lucie West Services District, the county utilities for Martin and Indian River and the cities of Vero Beach, Stuart and Port St Lucie, according to Florida Department of Environmental Protection data.
Those six public water systems, which serve about 432,512 customers, racked up a combined 27 violations. All the violations — except for one in Indian River County — were for failing to perform sufficient monitoring or reporting in a timely manner, according to DEP. Indian River Utilities had one E. coli violation, according to DEP.
But mystery still surrounds the effect tainted drinking water has on health.
Even when officials can identify problems in the water, there often is confusion and disagreement about how to treat it. Critics also say officials don’t act quickly enough to identify problems and alert the public to contamination.
“The public’s health is put at risk every day because often, we don’t know exactly what we’re drinking,” said Robert Bowcock, water consultant to environmental advocate Erin Brockovich.
Bacteria and parasites
Water experts do have a handle on how certain contaminants affect health.
Some of the regulated contaminants sickening people in the U.S. include naturally occurring bacteria and parasites such as giardia, cryptosporidium and legionella, which are responsible for the majority of waterborne disease outbreaks.
The latest CDC report on waterborne diseases shows 32 widespread outbreaks between 2011 and 2012, resulting in at least 102 hospitalizations and 14 deaths.
Legionella, a bacteria found naturally in water, was responsible for 66 percent of these outbreaks. The U.S. Water Quality and Health Council describes it as “public-health enemy No. 1.”
The bacteria causes Legionnaires’ disease, a respiratory illness from which 1 in 10 people die, according to the CDC.
While legionella attracts headlines, health experts say other bacterial contaminants also have major health implications.
Stuart's drinking water, until 2016, contained high levels of dangerous chemicals once used to clean carpets, make nonstick pans and extinguish petroleum fires.
The water, which is pumped to 19,000 customers, tested positive for PFOS and PFOA in 2014 and 2015, the first years the EPA tested for the still unregulated contaminants.
In 2016, when the EPA recognized the chemicals' dangers and lowered acceptable PFOS levels by 65 percent, the city closed and later replaced the wells that were contaminating the water supply to all customers.
"Once we found out what that new number was and what that new science was, we shut off the wells," city spokesman Ben Hogarth told TCPalm earlier this year.
Researchers have linked the chemical to some cancers, high cholesterol and fetal development complications.
In another case, Indian River County Utilities, with about 109,286 customers, reported E. coli in the water in August 2015, according to the EPA and DEP.
Samples collected by the county detected only the presence of E. coli, Utilities Director Vincent Burke said. The E. coli level in the water remains unknown because DEP doesn't keep records on that.
There is no acceptable level for E. coli contamination.
E. coli was detected in two samples on Aug. 24, 2015, and corrected within 30 days, DEP data show. A portion of the county was under a two-day precautionary boil-water advisory, said Burke, who thinks the E. coli originated from the equipment used to test the water.
E. coli symptoms include bloody diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.
Arsenic is among the naturally occurring contaminants often found in water. Others include radium and uranium, which are linked to cancer and kidney disease.
Long-term arsenic exposure can lead to skin disorders such as pigmentation or lesions as well as cancer, according to the World Health Organization.
But some of the contaminants show up in the water because people put them there. Mining and construction can release large amounts of heavy metals, such as lead, into water sources. Children who drink water contaminated with lead may develop learning disabilities.
Numerous studies indicate that children exposed to high lead levels are more likely to perform worse academically and enter the criminal justice system. Even at low levels, exposure to lead over long periods of time can cause significant damage.
Farmers using fertilizers and manure on their crops can contaminate water with nitrates. Babies who drink formula made with nitrate-contaminated water are at risk of blue baby syndrome, a condition in which the blood struggles to carry oxygen, turning their skin a blue-gray color.
It’s often difficult to make a definitive link between certain illnesses and contaminants found in drinking water.
For example, the EPA has classified the potentially cancer-causing perfluorooctane sulfonate — the chemical detected in Stuart wells and often found in cleaners, carpets, firefighting foams and nonstick surfaces such as Teflon — as an “emerging contaminant,” or a chemical the EPA is researching and monitoring to determine its human and environmental effects.
Stuart wells containing the chemical were immediately shut down and replaced once city officials found high levels in the water supply.
He explained why finding these links is such a challenge.
“Health researchers live in a world of gray. It’s never black and white,” said Chris Shuey, a researcher at the Southwest Research and Information Center who studies uranium contamination in drinking water. “One of the biggest challenges is that you need a lot of people over a fairly significant period of time to assess them, and then you need additional time to analyze all of the data, which costs a lot of money.”
Because people are exposed to so many potential environmental contaminants, Shuey said, it’s hard to point blame at one specific source.
“We have to go over so many medical records, analyze so much data and carry out surveys before we can even begin to make a link,” he said. “There are no hard-and-fast answers, and that’s why people get frustrated.”
Sometimes, entire communities say they’re left in the dark.
Thousands of contaminants lurk in America’s water systems and 126 of those systems are on the Treasure Coast. Contaminants range from brain-eating amoeba to cancer-causing chemicals such as chromium-6. But the EPAregulates only about 100 of them and hasn't added new contaminants to the regulated list in more than two decades, Walker said.
"For whatever reason — whether it's a lack of resources or pressure from the chemical industry or a lack of political will from the administration that may be in charge at a given time — we haven't seen any chemicals added to that list," Walker said. "They keep collecting this data and then not acting on it."
That means state health officials don’t test or report on many contaminants that sicken people across the U.S.
“I think health organizations declaring water as safe to drink is a bit reckless,” said Bowcock, the water treatment expert. “They should be saying the water is regulatory compliant, but how can they when a lot of dangerous contaminants aren’t even properly regulated?”
Because there’s no clear way to track everything that’s in the water, it makes it more difficult to connect disease outbreaks and health problems to contaminated water. Even when health officials do keep tabs, the data presented doesn’t paint the whole picture.
The CDC, America’s leading health protection agency, admits its data on contaminated water has many limitations. For example, states report disease outbreaks associated with drinking water to the CDC, but it’s only on a voluntary basis.
Water treatment issues
Sometimes the solutions to treating problematic water create their own health problems.
Chlorine is the most common chemical used to treat contaminated water. Some water-treatment experts, however, say it isn’t used because it’s the most effective method, but because it’s the least expensive.
“A common misconception is if chlorine is present in the water, bacteria will be controlled, but this isn’t always the case. Chlorine is also problematic,” said Janet E. Stout, president and director of the Pittsburgh-based Special Pathogens Laboratory.
High doses of chlorine can be harmful, but low levels are safe to drink, according to the CDC. Chlorine has been a major disinfectant in the U.S. since 1908, but this low-cost chemical can come at a heavy price.
Chlorine, once in water, interacts with organic compounds to create harmful byproducts, which can destroy or damage vital cells in the body when ingested. “Chlorine is a known poison to the body,” said Vanessa Lausch of Austin,Texas-based filter manufacturer Aquasana.
Because so much of the water Americans drink ends up in the bladder and rectum, it is particularly damaging to those organs if consumed in large amounts, Lausch said.
A sure way to significantly and safely reduce contaminants in water is to regulate them before they ever reach water supplies, Walker said.
"It would be far easier and far less costly ... if you put the burden on the sources of the chemicals — chemical agriculture and industrial chemical sources — that discharge their chemicals into water sources," Walker said.
News21 reporters Fionnuala O’Leary, Briana Smith, Lauren Kaljur, Bliss Zechman, Alexis Reese and TCPalm reporter Nicole Rodriguez contributed to this article.