Waterborne diseases

I am still irritated by the one sided New York Times article on people who think “raw water” is better than treated water. I wrote previously about the various microorganisms and chemicals that can be found naturally in groundwater, but I wanted to expand a bit on water borne diseases and why we treat water. Not all water borne diseases are a result of microorganisms.

High nitrates in water can lead to blue-baby syndrome, more properly known as infant methemoglobinemia. Nitrates is associated with human-related water contamination, especially agriculture.

Arsenic occurs naturally in many groundwater sources. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has mapped arsenic in groundwater based on a great deal of sampling. Arsenic in groundwater is particularly problematic in southeast Asia. Arsenic can cause cancer, cardiovascular disease, and skin lesions, among other issues.

Other naturally occurring metals and radioactive elements can be found in groundwater that can cause long term health problems. Groundwater and surface can also become contaminated from human activities with volatile organic compounds, pesticides, and other chemicals that you don’t generally want to ingest.

Then there are all the illnesses caused by microorganisms in water. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common waterborne disease outbreak for 2013-2014 was Legionella, which I admit surprised me. Legionella causes respiratory illness due to inhalation of it, which is why it is normally associated with people inhaling the mist of cooling towers and air conditioning systems. [This is how it was first discovered and named when members of the American Legion got sick at a convention in Philadelphia hotel with unsterilized water in a cooling system.]

Most waterborne microorganism caused illness cause gastrointestinal illness though. Most people have heard of Giardia lamblia, which can cause diarrhea. There is Shigella which causes diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps. E. coli is another common microorganism that can cause gastrointestinal illness found in both food and water. Cryptosporidium is a nasty microorganism that can cause illness. The reason I call it nasty though is because the parasite is protected by a shell that makes it particularly difficult to kill with disinfectants.

While luckily not a problem in the U.S., cholera, another waterborne disease, has killed many people throughout history. Yemen is currently in the midst of a horrible outbreak that has killed thousands and infected a million people. The cholera outbreak in London in 1854 is considered by most to be when the field of epidemiology started when John Snow, a physician, removed the Broad Street pump handle to show that that pump was the cause of most of the cases.

Point of all this is, be thankful for modern water treatment. There are very few waterborne illnesses in the U.S. It is rather rare for a person to get sick from water that comes from a public water supply, and when they do, most often because something has gone wrong at the water treatment plant. There are other issues of course, such as old water systems with lead in the pipes or solder. The source water can also become contaminated with something that the water treatment plant was not designed to treat. On the whole though, you are much more likely to become ill from untreated water then from treated water.

Raw Water

The New York Times ran an article about people who like to drink “raw water.” Evidently there are people who do not like tap water and like to drink unfiltered, untreated, unsterilized water. According to the article, some people like the taste. Fair enough. Most of the time when people object to the taste of tap water, what they are objecting to is the taste of chlorine or chloramines that are added to kill bacteria that can make you sick. Using a filter at the tap or simply putting the water in a container and letting it sit in the refrigerator overnight will solve the taste issue. One of the parts of this almost completely one-sided article that I find the most telling and amusing is this paragraph.

“He said “real water” should expire after a few months. His does. “It stays most fresh within one lunar cycle of delivery,” he said. “If it sits around too long, it’ll turn green. People don’t even realize that because all their water’s dead, so they never see it turn green.””

Water does not turn green unless there is something growing in it. The person quoted understands that there are microorganisms (algae most likely because it turns green) growing in the water but thinks that is good thing. There is a reason why water purveyors are required to disinfect water. Bacteria and other microorganisms can cause illness. Not all microorganisms call illness, and some can have beneficial effects (i.e. probiotics). Groundwater does normally have less microorganisms than surface water, but it is not sterile. Further, hot springs does not mean sterile. Scientists have been studying the microorganisms in hot springs like the geysers at Yellowstone National Park for years. Those microorganisms are often called extremophiles because they are so different from the “normal” microorganisms we normally find in less extreme settings.

Some people are concerned about the fluoride that is added to water to help dental health, and a person quoted in this articles believes it is a mind-control drug. Fluoride does help dental health, and it is not a mind-control drug. I really don’t even know where to go with the claim that fluoride is a mind-control drug, so I have decided not to address it right now. Also fluoride can be naturally occurring in groundwater.

However, here, I would like to address the issues with not treating or filtering water and all the other contaminants that can be in water, including but not limited to the microorganisms. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets limits on microorganisms, disinfectants, disinfectant byproducts, inorganic, organics, and radionuclides. Bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), not the EPA, and the regulations and testing requirements are different. Tap water is tested more frequently and has more monitoring requirements.

Just because water comes from the ground does not mean that it is pure or clean. Bacteria naturally grows in groundwater. Groundwater normally has ions including metals in it, and not all of those metals are good for people. The only way to know if it is free of contaminants is to test it. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) studies and samples groundwater and surface water across the United States. I randomly pulled several reports by searching on water quality and groundwater at USGS’s website. This report of sampling from 2014 found heavy metals in almost all groundwater samples, as well as pesticides and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). “Groundwater Quality in the Yuba River and Bear River Watersheds, Sierra Nevada, California” indicates that while the groundwater is mostly clean, a few samples had high concentrations of four elements (arsenic, barium, molybdenum, and strontium), a few samples had high radioactivity, and coliforms were detected in over 20% of wells. This report on groundwater quality in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania shows 52% of the samples exceed the EPA standard for total coliform, 12% of the wells exceeded the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for arsenic, 67% exceeded the MCL for Radon-222, and a few exceeded the reporting limit for various VOCs.”Groundwater Quality in the Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain Aquifer System, Eastern United States” found fluoride, arsenic, and manganese in high concentrations in some of the samples. [Note this is naturally occurring fluoride.] Radioactive constituents were present at high levels in about 1% of the samples and at moderate levels in about 12%.

This is the reason why water treatment plants are not one size fits all. All water treatment plants have to disinfect the water. They can’t test for all microorganisms, but they test for indicator microorganisms like total coliform to determine how much disinfect is needed. They also have to test for VOCs, radionuclides, and numerous other indicators. They also test for smell and taste. Common processes at water treatment plants include flocculation and filtration to remove dissolved and suspended particles (this includes microorganisms). The source water will dictate what processes are used and the amount of treatment. The point of the treatment is to clean the water, make sure it meets the requirements set by the EPA and whatever respective state the plant is in, and prevent the people from drinking it from getting sick because of the water. The people of the United States can thank water treatment for better health. Drinking “raw water” means returning to the taking chances on acquiring an illness that people of the past were happy to do away with when water treatment plants became standard and laws like the Safe Drinking Water Act were passed. Edited to add: The EPA sets National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWR), which are legally enforceable primary standards and treatment techniques that apply to public water systems, and clicking on this embedded link will take to you a list of them along with the health problems that can occur if the water contains one of those chemicals or microorganisms above that limit.

Author’s Note: When I originally wrote this, I referred to microorganisms that live in extreme settings as xenophiles. I meant to say extremophiles. I have corrected it, and I apologize for any confusion. This is what happens when I edit my own writing. I think I had xenobiotics in my head. Xenobiotic is term generally used to describe chemicals that are foreign to body or ecosystem. In my field, I often use that term when speaking of a contaminant in the environment that needs to be cleaned up. You might find xenobiotics in raw water.

Chicago

I’ve never been to Chicago before until I did extended layovers between train rides out west and back. Chicago is a pretty neat city. It has a nice mix of old and new buildings. At least one really neat park. [There are probably more, but I didn’t get to them.] It also has a really nice riverwalk along parts of the Chicago River. It is definitely a city that I need to get back to and explore more. Note to any engineers or geeks reading this: If you are in Chicago, go see the historic water tower. It is a gorgeous building that was built to house a standpipe. Across the street is a pumping station in an equally gorgeous building. You can actually go into the pumping station and walk along a small portion of a balcony to see the pipes and pumps.

Jay Pritzker Pavilion

The “L” goes by a downtown office building

Floating gardens on the river walk

On the river walk underneath a bridge

River walk

Historic water tower near the John Hancock Building

Historic water tower

Pumping station building across from the water tower

Inside the pumping station building

Oak Street Beach

Buckingham Fountain

Chicago Architecture River Cruise

I’m traveling to the west for the solar eclipse and vacation, and I decided to take the train. I had to change trains in Chicago, so I decided to spend the night and have some time to explore Chicago. I decided to start with a river cruise focusing on the architecture. Like most old and big cities, Chicago has a lovely mix of old and new buildings. It has classic old stone buildings, modern buildings (as in the modern architecture era), post-modern buildings, and whatever era we are in now. I am also curious about the engineering that must have gone into many of the buildings as they were built right on the river’s banks. A cruise on its rivers is a great way to see some of them. A few photos I took are below.

Potomac Eagle

About a month ago, I went for a ride on the Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad. The train follows a gorgeous path through the West Virginia country side, the highlight of which is through a gorge of the South Branch of the Potomac River known as the Trough. The train is called the Potomac Eagle because you are almost guaranteed to see bald eagles while in the Trough. I think we saw almost ten. I got photographs of about five. Truthfully even if I hadn’t seen the eagles, the scenery was worth the trip.

West Virginia countryside

Farmland

Entering the Trough

The Trough

The Trough

The Trough

The Trough

The Trough

The Trough

The Trough

The Trough

Bald eagles

Bald eagle and its nest

Duquesne Incline

This is the Duquesne Incline in Pittsburgh. It is considered part of the public transportation system of Pittsburgh.
IMG_2897It is also a wonderful place to view Pittsburgh, especially downtown, and many of its bridges. If you are ever in Pittsburgh, go there. The ride is fun, and the view from the viewing platform at the top is amazing. As a side note, Pittsburgh has a lot of bridges, and they are all lovely.
IMG_2863 IMG_2865 IMG_2869 IMG_2871 IMG_2878 IMG_2884

Northern Massachusetts Shore

While in Boston for a few days, my friend Kristen said I need to get out the city and see Massachusetts’s northern shore. I think she was hunting lighthouses, but I was just looking for pretty views and classic New England. We found all of that visiting Gloucester and Rockport.

Stage Fort Park

Stage Fort Park

Stage Fort Park

Stage Fort Park

Gloucester Fisherman's Memorial

Gloucester Fisherman’s Memorial

Lobster pots

Lobster pots

"Motif Number 1" on Bradley Wharf in Rockport

“Motif Number 1” on Bradley Wharf in Rockport

Rockport

Rockport

Thacher Island Twin Lights

Thacher Island Twin Lights

Quechee Gorge

I’m in White River Junction, Vermont for a very short work trip. My waiter at dinner last night tells me if I have any free time, I need to make the 10 minute drive to see the Quechee Gorge. He was right. I didn’t have time to go hiking down to the bottom, which I would have loved to do. I only had time to walk along a little to see the dam. I do love to see dams and bridges.

Looking north from the Quiche Gorge Bridge

Looking north from the Quiche Gorge Bridge

Looking south from the Quiche Gorge Bridge

Looking south from the Quiche Gorge Bridge

Quiche Gorge Bridge

Quiche Gorge Bridge

Dam in the Ottauquechee River

Dam in the Ottauquechee River

Snorkeling Belize

I went snorkeling today off the coast of Belize on part of its barrier reef. I have no true idea where I was, other than they said the boat ride was going to be about 14 miles. So that clears that up. Anyway, I saw several lobsters, a couple of rays, and a couple of nurse sharks. I was super excited by the rays and sharks. The coral was lovely, but somewhat sparse in that area. Also, there seemed to be a bit of what I can only assume was coral bleaching, which was rather depressing.

Nurse shark

Nurse shark

Eagle ray

Eagle ray

Coral

Coral

Ray

Ray

DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO

Nurse shark

Nurse shark

Coral

Coral

Coral

Coral

Coral

Coral

Coral

Coral

Coral

Coral

Seaweed?

Seaweed?

On the Monkey River

I took a cruise up the Monkey River today. Getting there was an adventure into itself. An hour drive to Placencia, then at least a half hour boat ride to Monkey River Town, to finally then cruise up the Monkey River. The journey ended at a spot in the jungle which is completely overrun by mosquitoes, but there are also some howler monkeys. The howler monkeys are about as loud as you can imagine an animal that gets the name howler would be. The Monkey River flows through a grassy and mangrove area that is quite pretty. There were numerous birds just sitting along the edge waiting to be spotted. Our guide also spotted a crocodile on the way back that nicely ignored us.

Dramatic storm clouds on the boat ride to Monkey River. These would later drench us on the boat ride back.

Dramatic storm clouds on the boat ride to Monkey River. These would later drench us on the boat ride back.

Monkey River

Monkey River

Little blue heron

Little blue heron

Yellow-crowned night heron

Yellow-crowned night heron

Bat

Bat

Focus tree strangling another tree

Focus tree strangling another tree

Howler monkey

Howler monkey

Howler monkey

Howler monkey

Howler monkey

Howler monkey

Mushrooms growing on a tree

Mushrooms growing on a tree

Palm forest

Palm forest