Myron B. Pitts: Pulling for the 'hometown utility' – and all of us – against cancer-causing agent

So, the Public Works Commission water treatment systems do not filter the chemical known as 1,4 dioxane, a potential carcinogenic.

“What we get coming in, pretty much goes through the system and it’s what’s coming out,” says Chad Ham, the PWCs Water Resources environmental program manager.

When the chemical gets into the water – in our case the Cape Fear River – it gets in their rather good.

“It’s a very water-soluble compound,” Ham says. “Once it gets into the water, it pretty much just dissolves completely.”

I have been trying to gauge how worried I should be about 1,4 dioxane. I can’t say I was entirely encouraged by Ham’s news.

The compound is popular for use in solvents and other products. Long-term exposure to it can elevate the risk of cancer, according to research.

But Ham says we should keep it all in context.

He says, “You’re talking long-term chronic exposure.”

He says the standard health criteria is based on someone drinking 2 liters of water daily for 70 years.

Ham says that, using that standard, and based on current levels we’re seeing in the Cape Fear, and depending on what day’s levels you are using, 1 in 100,000 are at elevated risk of developing “some kind of health problem from that.”

Ham says he doesn’t want to sound flippant,  but the odds of dying in a car crash are much greater, and one in six people will die from heart disease. The Centers For Disease Control say it’s worse than that – 1 in 4. As for car accidents, the stats are 1 in 645.

“Everything we do has some level of risk,” Ham says.

He adds: “My family lives here. I drink the water every day. Every day the people here at PWC, we’re all drinking the water. We’re not telling our families not to drink it.”

Now, I’m old school in some ways. When people tell me things, I give it a little more weight when they have skin in the game.

PWC has its critics. I have at times been one. But the “hometown utility” as it bills itself is filled with people who have a strong interest that they get water, sewer and power right. That’s just the facts.

All that said, we need to decrease the 1,4 dioxane levels infiltrating our precious resource, the Cape Fear, and it’s going to take a commitment from governments and organizations beyond the PWC.

The Environmental Protection Agency put out a guidance in 2013 saying its presence in drinking water should be no more than .35 parts per billion, which is comparable to a single drop in a 10,000 gallon pool.

PWC’s tests last year showed levels six times that amount.

In a September report, the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit, cited Fayetteville in a report as having among the most-contaminated water systems in terms of 1,4 dioxane, based on PWC’s own tests from 2013.

“I would say based on the data,”  Ham says, “the Cape Fear does have some of the higher level categories of anyone else in the country.”

Not for the first time, we can thank our friends and neighbors upstream for our plight. Being downstream in the good old muddy Cape Fear is no picnic.

Commercial productions near Asheboro, Greensboro and Reidsville have been identified by N.C. State University researchers and the Division of Environmental Quality as sources of 1,4 dioxane, which appears in the wastewater of the municipalities involved. Fayetteville and other municipalities in the Urban Water Consortium funded the research, Ham says.

He says the best solution for 1,4 dioxane is to stop it at the source. Now that sources have been identified that should be easier to do, through permitting requirements and other regulation by the state, he said.

Meanwhile PWC is planning an expansion at its Hoffler treatment plant off Ramsey Street. As part of that, the utility may look at costly methods that can filter at least some of the 1,4 dioxane. Among methods that have been proven to remove at least some of the compound (50 to 60 percent) are advanced oxidation, reverse osmosis and prolonged contact with a carbon filter, Ham says.

And in case you’re wondering, a typical filter you could buy to put on a tap most likely won’t do the trick.

“If for some reason the state doesn’t get this thing figured out in the next year,” Ham says, the PWC will see “what we can do at the plant.”

I wouldn’t expect anything less from the “hometown utility.”

Columnist Myron B. Pitts can be reached at mpitts@fayobserver.com or 910-486-3559.

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