News Feature | March 25, 2014

Top 3 Threats To U.S. Drinking Water

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome


Did the chemical spill in West Virginia, which threatened the local water supply, revealed severe risks to U.S. drinking water?

"On January 9, a chemical -- 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM -- was discovered leaking from a storage tank into the Elk River and from there into Charleston's water supply. Its licorice smell alerted residents to the contamination and led to a do-not-use order for 300,000 West Virginians, some of whom could not drink or bathe in their water for more than a week," CNN reported

Shortly after that, North Carolina faced its own major water scare. "At least 30,000 tons of toxic coal ash was released into the Dan River when a pipe broke under the 27-acre (11-hectare) ash pond in a spill discovered on February 2. State officials found a second leak of arsenic-laced discharge from another pipe during their investigation," Reuters reported

So, what risks were revealed during these incidents? National Geographic had some insights.  

1) Energy Plants

"When you burn coal you leave behind metals and radioactivity," said Robert B. Jackson, an environmental scientist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, in the report. "The ash is quite toxic. The waste products we create to produce energy, the waste we generate every day, are a threat to drinking water quality."

"Coal ash contains arsenic, mercury, lead, thallium, and other dangerous contaminants. At power plants it is mixed with water, forming a slurry that is stored in large ponds. According to the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, 40 percent of the country's coal ash ponds are located in the southeast and contain 118 billion gallons of toxic material. Most of these impoundments, like the one on the Dan River, are located near major waterways," the report said.

2) Weather

"Research suggests that dry regions will become drier and wet regions wetter as a result of climate change. Both extremes pose significant challenges for maintaining safe drinking water," the report said.

3) Drugs

"What worries [some experts] more than headline-making spills and weather is chronic pollution of a more insidious kind—from pharmaceuticals and personal care products, or PPCPs. Studies have shown that pharmaceuticals, especially antibiotics and steroids, are widely present in the nation's water supply. We excrete them in our urine; our livestock do as well. Other chemicals from soaps, shampoos, and lotions get washed down the drains of our tubs and showers. Sewage treatment plants are not equipped to remove them. Some have been shown to disrupt the hormone system in fish," the report said.

Image credit: "Tap Water," © 2005 jcheng, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license:

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