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Contaminated Tap Water: When Is the Public Told?

January 16, 1986|LARRY B. STAMMER | Times Staff Writer

With mounting public concern over the safety of California's drinking water, the state Department of Health Services on Wednesday began confronting the issue of when the public should be told that contaminants have been detected in drinking water.

"Our general posture has been that we want to err on the side of protecting public health," state Health Director Kenneth W. Kizer said in Los Angeles on Wednesday at the first of four public hearings to be held throughout the state.

The issue of public warning comes at a time when Californians increasingly appear to be questioning the integrity of their drinking water systems and are turning in record numbers to bottled water as a substitute to tap water.

The hearings come at a time when both privately and publicly owned water systems are under pressure from the health department to notify customers when concentrations of contaminants reach state "action" levels, the point at which remedial steps are recommended.

Until now, most water systems have complied with the state's notification requests, although they are not required to do so except in the case of seven chemicals that have been designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as posing a risk to human health.

Now, however, as increasingly sophisticated detection methods become available, smaller and smaller concentrations of contaminants are being detected in water supplies, and the operators of water systems are beginning to balk at notifying customers.

Duane L. Georgeson, assistant general manager of water with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, told the panel of health department officials: "The confidence of the public in the drinking water supply is being undermined," partly as a result of overblown or misunderstood reports.

Whatever the reason, bottled water sales have grown 15% a year for the past three years in Southern California and that rate is expected to continue for the next several years, according to William Deal, executive vice president of the International Bottled Water Assn. He attributed the boom to fears over contamination.

Use of Bottled Water

Deal said in a telephone interview Wednesday from Virginia that sales figures indicate that one of 17 homes in the United States use bottled water as their primary source of drinking water. But in California, he said, the average is one of six homes. And in Southern California, he said, one of three homes use bottled water as their principal source of drinking water.

"People are concerned about contamination," Deal said.

Before the hearing, Kizer said at a press conference that a comprehensive department study recently found that 40% of all contaminated wells in the state are in the Greater Los Angeles area--most of which have been shut down, cleaned up or their water blended with less-contaminated water before delivery to customers.

Survey of Water Systems

In the survey, 2,800 large water systems in the state were tested for the presence of 100 chemicals. About 19% or 530 of the wells had detectable levels of contaminants. About 160 of those surveyed exceeded the state's "action" levels.

All but six of the wells have been shut down. Those six are in the San Gabriel Valley, and Kizer said steps are being taken to upgrade the water supply.

"The finding that these chemicals are present in a significant number of wells has raised a number of significant public policy questions," Kizer said, "not the least of which is when the public should be notified about the presence of such contamination."

No Easy Settlement Expected

Kizer acknowledged that settling the notification issue will not be easy.

"Our ability to detect these chemicals in incredibly small amounts has progressed further and faster than our ability to know exactly what all this means (to public health)," he said.

"The relatively small but sometimes uncertain public health risk associated with the consumption of such water has led to marked anxiety and in some cases near-hysteria following public notification that the water supply contained trace amounts of the chemicals," Kizer said.

At issue, he said, are several questions: Should utilities be required to notify customers when water contaminants exceed "action" levels and under what conditions? How often must water contaminants exceed "action" levels before notification is required? How many samples should be required to assure accuracy? Should water systems notify customers when they anticipate using contaminated supplies--for example, during a drought?

Notification Limits

While water system representatives agreed Wednesday that the public should be notified, they called for limits on the notification requirement.

Environmentalists and a representative of Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, on the other hand, called for broader notification requirements.

Said Stephen Zetsche of the Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club: "We think that more notice of this contamination is needed. There ought to be considerable public alarm and anxiety about toxic chemicals in our drinking water."

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