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Water Issues Surface Across U.S.

February 21, 2011

MOUNDSVILLE - The local area's drinking water does not contain high levels of hexavalent chromium, a dangerous metal that has been found in the drinking water of some of the nation's bigger cities.

However, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has issued an advisory for eating sport fish from some local waterways, as high levels of mercury have been found. And a recent Associated Press study found higher-than-expected levels of prescription drugs in some of the nation's waterways, as some drugs have been disposed of into municipal wastewater systems and then made their way into the water.

Tap water recently tested in Pittsburgh by the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group showed levels of hexavalent chromium - also called chromium-6 - about 15 times higher than the level deemed safe by California officials. Cincinnati, another city tested, had a level that registered half of what California officials deem safe.

Federal officials presently only require public water systems to monitor for total chromium, rather than distinguish between each different form. Varieties of the substance range from the common dietary supplement chromium picolinate to the dangerous hexavalent form. Hexavalent chromium became known as the chemical that sickened people in the movie "Erin Brokovich."

According to the Centers for Disease Control, exposure to the metal increases one's risk of the following: cancer, skin ulceration, occupational asthma, perforated nasal septa, nosebleeds, perforated eardrums, kidney and liver damage, epigastric pain, erosion and discoloration of teeth.

Locally, water officials note the levels of total chromium in their water supplies are far below the current U.S. Environmental Protection Agency limit, which is set at 100 parts per billion for total chromium. Information supplied by area water departments shows total chromium levels for their water supplies are as follows:

Fact Box

Regulations have been in place for decades now to clean up pollutants and toxins from the Ohio River. Has this effort worked?

Yes, for the most part, but those looking to eat fish caught from the river or from some local streams that flow into the Ohio River need to be cautious about how much fish they eat, primarily due to high mercury levels. Also, recent studies have found that prescription medications placed into the nation's water supply through disposal down the drain can lead to increased medication levels in water, and higher-than-wanted levels of dangerous chemicals such as Chromium-6 have been found in some cities' water, including Pittsburgh.

Potential Effects of prolonged mercury exposure, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:

  • Skin rashes
  • Dermatitis
  • Mood swings
  • Memory loss
  • Mental disturbances
  • Muscle weakness

The Environmental Working Group tested the tap water in 31 cities. The group contends the EPA's current requirements are not stringent enough.

Information from the group notes that "hexavalent chromium gets into water supplies after being discharged from steel and pulp mills, as well as metal-plating and leather-tanning facilities. It can also pollute water through erosion of soil and rock."

The Upper Ohio Valley has a long history of steel production along the Ohio River. Local water officials noted they do not test specifically for hexavalent chromium because there is no requirement to do so.

In response to the growing concerns over hexavalent chromium, U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said the current standard of 100 parts of total chromium per billion is "based on the best available science and is enforceable by law. Ensuring safe drinking water for all Americans is a top priority for EPA."

"The agency regularly re-evaluates drinking water standards and, based on new science on chromium-6, had already begun a rigorous and comprehensive review of its health effects," she continued.

As for fishing, West Virginia state officials are warning those wishing to eat smallmouth bass caught in Marshall County's Fish Creek to beware of high mercury levels.

A previous advisory limiting consumption of bass less than 12 inches long caught in this stream now applies to any size bass because of the higher mercury levels, according to Patrick Campbell.

"I would not call the situation dangerous, but there were higher levels of mercury found in the fish during our last test," said Campbell, assistant director of the West Virginia Division of Water and Waste Management.

The increased mercury levels caused this division of the state Department of Environmental Protection and the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources to issue the consumption advisory for bass in Fish Creek.

"Eating sport fish is encouraged. But if you eat lots and lots of sport fish, this may be something of concern," Campbell added. Campbell also said there is no particular reason why there may be more mercury in the the last sampling of fish tissue taken from the creek, compared to the the amount found in earlier tissue examinations.

"Most mercury comes down with the rain, and then gets into the fish," he said, noting the main source of the mercury comes from coal burning.

High exposures to inorganic mercury may result in damage to the gastrointestinal tract, the nervous system, and the kidneys. Both inorganic and organic mercury compounds are absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract and affect other systems via this route, EPA information states.

Ben Stout, a professor of biology at Wheeling Jesuit University, emphasized that "taking fish tissue samples is far from an exact science."

"Most mercury results from burning coal, so it makes it hard to pinpoint a particular source," he said.

"You really do not want to eat too much fish out of these streams anyway because there are just too many sources of pollution," Stout added.

At the same time state officials increased the consumption advisory for bass caught in Fish Creek, they reduced warnings in other areas of the state. Advisories for all non-game fish have been removed from the Potomac River because of lower dioxin levels.

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