Photo by Art (RUS) Potosi via Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

West Chester was recently named in a survey of 50,000 water sources across the United States, which identified several contaminants at dangerous concentrations in the borough’s drinking water. The tests, performed by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, found eight harmful chemicals in water samples provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Included among the contaminants identified by the EWG are chloroform, bromodichloromethane and hexavalent chromium, all of which are known to cause cancer with continued exposure to high concentrations. Each contaminant ranged in potency from 8 to 266 times the EWG’s maximum safe contaminant level (MCL).

Aqua PA, the utility company that operates and maintains West Chester’s water system, serves almost 34,000 residents around Chester County and owns large parts of the borough’s water infrastructure. West Chester’s drinking water is sourced from Brandywine Creek and five wells around Chester County. According to a 2003 assessment of Brandywine Creek’s safety as a water source cited by Aqua PA, the creek “was found to have a high susceptibility to potential spills on highway corridors and moderate susceptibility to wastewater discharges, including potential impacts from nitrates and taste and odor compounds.” Spills, mineral leaching and other sources of unsafe to consume materials can contaminate waterways and wells, leading to abnormally high concentrations of toxins, like the ones described in the EWG’s report.

Earlier this June, Aqua PA replaced the water pipes under several borough properties, exchanging water pipes made with lead for safer copper pipes. Kelly Baker, staff writer at The Quad, received a paper detailing the dangers of lead leaching in drinking water following Aqua PA’s replacement of the water pipes in his house. “When we encounter lead service lines during our maintenance and construction activities, we will replace our portion and notify the customer of our actions,” the flyer said, also including a list of tips on minimizing exposure to lead. Lead from outdated drinking water pipes can cause birth defects, brain damage in developing children and can damage the kidneys and nervous system, as seen most recently in the ongoing water crisis in Flint, MI. The flyer made no mention of other contaminants, although Aqua PA’s water quality report from 2018 detailed contaminant levels roughly in line with the EWG’s recent survey.

“Included among the contaminants identified by the EWG are chloroform, bromodichloromethane and hexavalent chromium, all of which are known to cause cancer with continued exposure to high concentrations.”

Although the data reported in the EWG’s study exceeds the MCLs that the nonprofit determined individually, the concentrations of the various contaminants are all well below the legal limits established by the Environmental Protection Agency. Most of these national MCLs have not been updated in several decades, some dating back to the late 1970s. Among these, the standard for nitrate, which the report found to be 22 times more potent in West Chester’s water than the EWG’s MCL, has not been updated in more than 40 years. Six of the eight toxins found in West Chester’s water have no legal limit.

EPA standards for tap water also do not take into account the disproportionate effect of toxins on children, instead providing one standardized MCL for everyone. The EWG’s updated safe concentration limits were designed to modernize the EPA’s dated standards according to health and safety research that has been done in the years since the standards were established. “EWG reviewed the best and latest scientific evidence, legal standards and health advisories, and then we defined water quality goals that will truly protect public health,” says the nonprofit’s description of their MCL methodology. “The fourth edition of EWG’s National Tap Water Database sets forth no-compromise standards for water contaminants that have no federal legal limit or that have legal limits too weak to ensure safe water quality.”

With the current administration of the EPA leaning hard to the right, it is unlikely that the agency will establish tighter national regulation on legal contaminant limits in the near future. While the issue of poor water quality can only sustainably be solved by whatever institution delivers the water, in the meantime one can safely consume certain poor quality water with the right filter. Carbon block and activated carbon filters can help remove chlorine and TTHMs from water and reverse osmosis traps lead that may leach into water from old pipes. If you suspect that your home’s tap water may contain toxic concentrations of contaminants, simple tap water tests can be found for under $20.

Brendan Lordan is a third-year student majoring in English writing and minoring in journalism. BL895080@wcupa.edu.

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