Monday, January 16, 2017

Whats in the Private Water Wells of Virginia

Because private drinking water wells serve more than a fifth of its population Virginia created the Virginia Household Water Quality Program (VAHWQP) to provide affordable water testing and education about private water wells to residents of the Commonwealth. Volunteers and Extension Agents hold drinking water clinics and provide information to assist private well owners in understanding and maintaining their wells. 

The quality and safety of private wells are not regulated under Federal or, in most cases, state law. In Virginia only construction and the absence of bacteria at well completion are required for a private drinking water well in the Commonwealth. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Safe Drinking Water Act cannot (and should not) regulate individual households. As a result, individual homeowners are solely responsible for maintaining their domestic well systems and for any routine water-quality monitoring that may take place.

The Virginia Household Water Quality Program was originally created in 1989, but was relaunched in 2007 with a USDA grant. In 2011 the program was expanded under another USDA grant to subsidize testing, quantify bacteria, add metals and begin research out of Virginia Tech. Now the program is self-sustaining with annual clinics in 60 counties. The analysis is done by the laboratory of Dr. Mark Edwards (a recipient of MacArthur Genius Grant and world expert on water chemistry) and research utilizing the data is being pursued by graduate students.

In Prince William County the Cooperative Extension office and the Conservation District hold an annual subsidized drinking water clinics for well owners as part of the Virginia Household Water Quality Program. As in all the clinics the water samples are analyzed for: iron, manganese, nitrate, lead, arsenic, fluoride, sulfate, pH, total dissolved solids, hardness, sodium, copper, total coliform bacteria and E. Coli bacteria, and last year cost $55. These are mostly naturally occurring contaminants and common sources of contamination: a poorly sealed well or a nearby leaking septic system, or indications of plumbing system corrosion. Though not an exhaustive list of potential contaminants, these are the most common contaminants that effect drinking water wells.

Though about 600,000 of Virginia households (22%) have private wells, only around 7,000 households have chosen to participate in the Virginia Household Water Quality Program clinics over the past 8 years and may not be representative of all private drinking water wells in the Commonwealth. Nonetheless, the data collected is the largest database on private drinking water wells available. The wells tested are an average of 25 years old and 72% are drilled wells, 13% are dug or bored wells, 5% are cisterns or springs and in 10% of the cases the owner did not know what kind of well they had. Eighty percent of the participants in the clinics had never tested their wells since the purchase of their homes (most mortgage lender require a bacteria test). Slightly over half (51%) of well owners had a treatment system, but the most common treatment devices were for aesthetic contaminants as can be seen below. 
from E. Ling VHWQP
Water quality tend to vary by location and depth. For example, in Floyd County in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the geology is crystalline rock with few fractures. This impacts water quantity and quality. The wells tend to be highly acidic and though they have low mineral content and total dissolve solids, these wells are likely to have lead and copper because the acidic water is likely to leach metals from the plumbing system. Northumberland County is the uppermost peninsula into the Chesapeake Bay with a geology of unconsolidated sandy sediments. Well water quality tends to vary by depth. Shallow wells are highly susceptible to nitrate and bacteria contamination from the surface and septic systems. Deeper wells are generally protected from contamination, but are highly saline from saltwater intrusion. Prince William County has an are within the coastal plain and a section in the Piedmont there are areas high in minerals with pockets of iron, manganese, and sulfur. For a complete list of county results see the summary

Overall the statewide sampling over the last 8 years has found that 41% of the wells have coliform bacteria, and 9% have E. coli bacteria. Though 28% of wells were found to have acidic water (low pH) only 17% of homes have first flush lead levels above the EPA safe drinking water standard maximum contaminant level of 0.015 Mg/L. Lead and copper leach into water primarily as a result of corrosion of plumbing and well components, but can also result from flaking of scale from brass fittings and well components unrelated to corrosion. Copper and lead do not naturally appear in groundwater and lead in drinking water is predominately coming from the pipes. Over time older pipes and fixtures corrode or simply wear away and the lead and other corrosion material (like rust) is carried to the drinking water. Time and water do cause corrosion, but this can be aggravated by the pH of the water or other changes in water chemistry. The amount of lead corroded from metal plumbing including faucets with brass interiors generally increases as water corrosiveness. For more information on lead in drinking water see here.

While 22% of households report having a water softener, only 15% of households had their water test as “hard” over 180 mg/L. This could be a result of some homeowners testing their water after treatment with a water softener or could indicate that water softeners are oversold for treatment of things like iron and manganese. At the water testing clinics we allow the participants to choose whether to test the water before or after any treatment devices (or both). Likewise, 29% of homes have sediment filters while only 7% of homes tested high for total dissolved solids. You might want to test your water to make sure it is safe to drink and you have the appropriate treatment system. Only 3% of homes had a treatment system for bacteria, though 41% of homes had bacteria present in their water.
from E. Ling VHWQP

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Chesapeake Bay Get a Gentleman’s C

Last week the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) released their bi-annual State of the Bay health index score.The health of the Bay has increased by over six percent bringing us to a C−, from the D+ received in 2014. 
from CBF
The 2016 State of the Bay Report scores the health of the bay at 34 out of 100, a C- according to their scoring system which measures the current state of the Bay against the unspoiled Bay ecosystem described by Captain John Smith in the 1600s, with extensive forests and wetlands, clear water, abundant fish and oysters, and lush growths of submerged vegetation would rate a 100 on their scale. That was a time when this region was 95% old growth forests and sparsely populated. The current goals of all the Environmental Protection Agency mandated Watershed Implementation Plans is a grade of 70, which would represent a saved Bay according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation report uses 13 indicators in three categories: pollution, habitat, and fisheries to offer an assessment of the health of the Chesapeake Bay. If you recall the EPA mandated a contamination limit called the TMDL (total maximum daily load for nutrient contamination and sediment) to restore the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. The TMDL sets a total Chesapeake Bay watershed limits for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that were then partitioned to the various states and river basins. Each of the states and Washington DC were required to submit and have approved by the EPA a detailed plan of how they intend to achieve the pollution reduction goals assigned to them. These plans are called the Watershed Implementation Plans, WIPs, but the Chesapeake Bay Foundation refers to them as the “Clean Water Blueprint.”

For the first time, the CBF lowered the score for forest buffers—those strips of trees near waterways that protect them from soil erosion and other pollutants. Despite federal and state commitments to increase planting, forest buffer plantings in 2015 (the most recent data) were the lowest in the last 16 years. The states planted only about 440 streamside acres (versus an EPA mandated goal of 14,000 acres annually) along the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams. In addition, states typically report only planted buffers, not those that are removed, suggesting to the CBF the data may be overestimating progress over time.

Tidal and non-tidal wetlands are among the most important natural resources in the Chesapeake Bay region. Wetlands—swamps; bogs; salt marshes; many shallow areas of our rivers, creeks, and the Bay; and even some forested areas—provide valuable wildlife habitat and act as natural filters. They improve water quality by trapping and treating polluted runoff. The Chesapeake Bay States committed to a goal of restoring 85,000 acres of wetlands by 2025. The most recent data (2015) suggests the states have achieved only 10% of that goal. Though we are moving in the right direction, progress is too slow.

Growing mostly in shallow water, underwater grass beds are critical to the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay. They provide habitat for fish and crabs, add oxygen to the water, help remove pollutants from the water, and trap sediment. Between 2014 and 2015, underwater grasses increased by 21% to 91,621 acres. This has resulted in the improved scores in fisheries. The coast-wide rockfish (striped bass) population appears to have stabilized after a ten-year decline. The total number of crabs has increased dramatically since 2014, from 297 to 553 million, as estimated from the annual winter survey. The Oyster harvests exceeded one million bushels in 2015 for the first time in thirty years, though they fell a bit in 2016. The return of shad to the Susquehanna River improved slightly in 2016 as did the number of juveniles hatched in the river. A new agreement to improve fish passage at the Conowingo Dam holds great promise.

The Conowingo Dam brings up the Susquehanna River. Starting in Cooperstown, New York, and flowing 444 miles to the Chesapeake Bay, the Susquehanna River basin drains 27,500-square-miles of land and contains over 49,000 miles of rivers and streams. Half of the freshwater in the Chesapeake is from the Susquehanna and the impact the Susquehanna River has on the Bay is hard to overestimate. The Susquehanna remains a significant source of pollution to the Bay. Polluted runoff coming from farm fields and urban and suburban developments are the primary sources affecting the health, way of life, and economies of people in the watershed portion of the Commonwealth and those downstream to the Chesapeake Bay. In October 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the EPA together committed $28.7 million in new federal and state funding to focus on the people, places, and practices that would accelerate pollution reductions from agriculture, the “Best Management Practices cost share funding.” This initial investment will help to jumpstart efforts to reduce pollution entering the Susquehanna but much more is needed.

In Virginia where there is a budget shortfall, Governor McAuliffe put forth the Biennial Budget that reduces Best Management Practices cost-share implementation from the current level of $62 million to $8 million.

Monday, January 9, 2017

For a Healthy Mind and Body-Move

It is possible that regular moderate exercise may prevent anxiety and depression. According to Thomas Insel the former director of the National Institute of Mental Health the mental health of our nation has declined in the past two decades. Suicide rates per 100,000 have increased to a high, Substance abuse of opiates has become epidemic. Social Security disability awards for mental disorders have significantly increased since 1980. Over the past two decades mental illness has become the second most common cause of disability in the United States second only to musculoskeletal disorders and it is becoming clear that these may both be diseases of inactivity and obesity.

In the past decade scientists have uncovered details about how exercise alters the brain and the body as a whole. Exercise boosts your heart rate, sending blood, oxygen, hormones and neurochemicals throughout the body. There is increasing evidence suggesting that habitual moderate exercise conditions the brain and immune system to better cope with physical and mental strain. Exercise has also been found to alleviate symptoms such as low self-esteem and social withdrawal. Aerobic exercises, including jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, gardening, and dancing, have been proved to reduce anxiety and depression. In addition, a 2016 meta-analysis examining 25 of the most rigorous experimental studies found that exercise, especially moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise is a potent treatment for depression. It is now accepted that working out can alleviate the symptoms of depression. Exercise is necessary for more than improving or maintaining mental health, it is necessary for our bodies to function.

There are two complete circulation systems in the body. The second is the lymphatic system and it is as essential as the blood circulatory system. As the blood circulates around the body, fluid leaks out from the blood vessels into the body tissues. This fluid carries food to the cells and then the fluid collects waste products, bacteria, and damaged cells. It also collects any cancer cells if these are present. This fluid then drains into the lymph vessels.

The lymphatic system has no heart to pump the lymph fluid, it depends on the motion of muscles and joints to transport the lymph. Lymph fluid distributes immune cells and other factors throughout the body making a one-way journey from the interstitial spaces to the subclavian veins at the base of the neck. As it moves upward toward the neck the lymph passes through lymph nodes which filter the fluid to remove debris and pathogens. At the base of the neck, the cleansed lymph flows into the subclavian veins on either side of the neck. The lymph system interacts with the blood circulatory system to rid the body of toxins, waste and other unwanted materials. Without enough movement the lymphatic system cannot function.

It is possible that exercise is not so much a treatment for depression, but the lack of exercise the cause of depression and disease. Our lifestyles are causing the increase in mental illness and disease. Exercise is also necessary to maintain health and remove toxins, waste and other unwanted materials through proper functioning of the lymph system. The idea of Move for health is of course from First Lady Michelle Obama's  “Let’s Move!” initiative dedicated to solving the problem of putting children on the path to a healthy future. Despite its name the program emphasizes providing healthier foods in our schools lunch program; expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly Food Stamps); and, helping children become more physically active. Nonetheless, regular exercise through bike riding, walking, sports is the way to a healthy future.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Bagged Salads a Breeding Ground for Salmonella Bacteria

Fresh produce such as green salad leaves are part of a healthy diet. Bagged, washed salads are seen as a healthy convenience food, and their consumption in the United States and European Union has increased considerably in recent years.

Salad leaves, both lettuces and spinach, because of their high water content are highly perishable and subject to rapid spoilage by microbes both endogenous and exogenous. To minimize the growth of these bacteria requires rapid processing and special packing. Nonetheless, epidemiological profiling now ranks salads as the second most common source of foodborne illness outbreaks.

In a recent research paper published in the November 18th 2016 issure of Applies and Environmental Microbiology found that traces of juices released from salad leaves as they became damaged through crushing in transport, storage and time significantly increased Salmonella enterica salad leaf colonization by a factor of 2-24 over the controls depending on conditions and media.

Until now very little was known about what happens to salad and the Salmonella bacteria within the actual salad bag. The scientists showed that the juices released from the cut-ends of the salad leaves enabled the Salmonella to grow in water even when it was refrigerated. Salad juice exposure also helped the Salmonella cells to attach to the salad leaves so strongly that washing the salad could not remove them. This study shows that exposure to even traces of salad leaf juice may contribute to the persistence of Salmonella on salad leaves as well as priming it for establishing an infection in the consumer.

This study demonstrates the need for producers and packagers to avoid all bacteria contamination in the processing of bagged salads. Also, the salads must be consumed when they are freshest before they are soggy and it may be safer to buy the salad in plastic clamshells where the lettuce can’t be crushed. Read the article:

Salad leaf juices enhance Salmonella growth, fresh produce colonisation and virulence; Giannis Koukkidis, Richard Haigh, Natalie Allcock, Suzanne Jordan and Primrose Freestone; Appl. Environ. Microbiol. doi:10.1128/AEM.02416-16.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Frenzy of Last Minute Activity at the EPA

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spent this month announcing a slew of last minute regulations and activities some of which I have covered others not. The agency is currently working on regulations for the oil and gas sector, and is finalizing new annual regulations for the nation's ethanol mandate and renewable fuel blending requirements. The agency is also moving forward with rules related to implementation of its Clean Power Plan for cutting carbon pollution from the nation's coal utilities to meet the pledges made in the Paris Accord even though the Clean Power Plan itself is currently under court review after being temporarily stayed by the U.S. Supreme Court on February 9th 2016 until all judicial review has concluded.

Thought the Administrative Procedure Act requires that agencies issue a notice of proposed rulemaking, provide an opportunity for public comments, issue a final rule with a concise statement of its basis and purpose, and make the final rule effective a minimum of 30 days after publication in the Federal Register, EPA will formally publish some of the proposed rules in the coming weeks. For example; the EPA issued a pre-publication version of a proposed rule to require rock mining facilities to demonstrate their financial ability to clean up releases of hazardous substances. The press release stated that EPA will formally publish the proposed rule in the coming weeks.

Other announcements from the EPA published the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) General Permit Remand Rule in the Federal Register on December 9, 2016. This is a final rule, EPA's latest effort to create rules for general NPDES permits for small MS4s after the agency's previous attempt was remanded by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

As mentioned last week, the EPA released its Final Report on Impacts from Hydraulic Fracturing Activities on Drinking Water Resources and EPA’s report concluded that hydraulic fracturing activities can impact drinking water resources under some circumstances rather than the previous conclusion and identifies factors that influence these impacts: These mechanisms include water withdrawals in times of drought, or in areas with, limited water availability; spills of hydraulic fracturing fluids and produced water; fracking directly into underground drinking water resources; below ground migration of liquids and gases from inadequately cased or cemented wells; and inadequate treatment and discharge of wastewater. EPA changed the emphasis from unlikely to impact water resources to could impact water resources. The underlying research did not change.

The EPA finalized a proposal to expand the hazards that qualify sites for the Superfund National Priorities List (NPL). EPA assesses sites using the Hazard Ranking System (HRS), which quantifies negative impacts to air, groundwater, surface water and soil. Sites receiving HRS scores above a specific threshold can be proposed for placement on the NPL. Now EPA has added subsurface intrusion to the ranking system. Subsurface intrusion is the migration of hazardous substances, pollutants or contaminants from contaminated groundwater or soil into an overlying building, like the moving of solvent vapor into a basement.  Subsurface intrusion can result in people being exposed to harmful levels of hazardous substances, which can raise the lifetime risk of cancer or chronic disease.

EPA announced the prohibition of 72 inert ingredients from being used in pesticides. Most pesticide products contain a mixture of different ingredients. Ingredients that are directly responsible for controlling pests such as insects or weeds are called active ingredients. An inert ingredient is any other substance that is intentionally included in a pesticide that is not an active ingredient. Now a group of 72 have been banned.

EPA also announced the slew of fines and settlements obtained throughout the year. I have no doubt missed a few regulations and intentionally left out a few of the press releases that I did not understand what the regulations addressed and could not find enough details on the EPA web site only the statement that the EPA will formally publish the proposed rules in the coming weeks. The number and complexity of the rule making can no longer be navigated without a team of specialists.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Massive Christmas Sinkhole

On Christmas eve 2016 a 250-foot-long, 100-foot-wide sinkhole opened up in Fraser, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. Authorities believe it formed after an 11-foot-wide sewer pipe burst 55 feet below ground; however, a sinkhole this massive means that the leak was ongoing for some time and may indicate other problems. The hole continued to grow over the holiday weekend and authorities say the ground won't be safe enough for residents to return for at least two weeks. The Mayor of Fraser, Michigan has declared a state of emergency. Gas and water have been shut off and engineers and contractors work to steady the sinkhole and start filling it back in. Three homes have been destroyed, 22 families evacuated.

The sinkhole runs along 15 Mile Road, which divides the two communities of Fraser and Clinton Township. It's expected to shut down 15 Mile for several months. This isn't the first time a sinkhole has struck the area. This is at least the third time that a huge sewer pipe has failed in this immediate area. Most recently the same road caved in in 2004. Contracts for repairs on the same 11-foot-diameter pipe the cause of the 2004 sinkhole were at the center of racketeering charges against former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

Macomb and Oakland counties have spent about $170 million on sewer infrastructure repairs during the past 12 years, designed specifically to prevent this type of catastrophic failure from happening again. The 2004 collapse took more than $50 million and 10 months to fix, and this sinkhole is just outside that repair zone. According to a lawsuit filed against the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department by area residents following the 2004 sinkhole, the same line collapsed in the same location in 1978, only six years after construction was completed.

Repeated catastrophic sewer line failures involving pipes within their operational life span is usually caused by one or more of the following three things: poor construction, poor engineering and design, or a lack of maintenance. Macomb public works officials will have to determine why, specifically, the latest sinkhole occurred.

The sewer lines move about 70 million gallons a day of wastewater from the suburban Macomb and Oakland counties to the Detroit wastewater treatment plant. The city of Detroit owned the sewer line system that included the 15 Mile Interceptor until 2009, when Oakland and Macomb counties each took over ownership of their respective sewer infrastructure. Inspections following the 2004 sinkhole revealed several miles of sewer lines in need of significant repair, and  transferred the piping system to the counties, which had better bond ratings than Detroit. This allowed the sewer system to borrow the money at a lower rate making the work more affordable.

However, Detroit managed the work and former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick is now serving 28 years in federal prison for multiple crimes including contract-fixing on the $54.3-million contract for the repair of the 2004 sinkhole on 15 Mile Road in Sterling Heights. In court documents, Mayor Kilpatrick has denied any wrongdoing in the sinkhole repair and has argued that the Detroit water department was “completely responsible for every administrative decision" that was made during the job.

Right now the raw sewage is being diverted to the Clinton River due to the wet weather. Officials say there should be no problems with dry weather sanitary sewer flows, as these flows are still being routed through the collapsed interceptor pipe. Rainfall or snowmelt, however, will overtax the system as occurred during recent rains and snowmelt over the holiday weekend. Temporary measures to mitigate the environmental impact from the sewage release are being investigated. The underlying cause why this particular area is experiencing multiple sinkholes when similarly old and neglected sewer pipelines have not remains unanswered.

Monday, December 26, 2016

EPA Bans TCE at Dry Cleaners

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced this month that it is proposing to ban trichloroethylene (TCE) due to health risks when used as a degreaser and a spot remover in dry cleaning. Specifically, EPA is proposing to prohibit manufacture or import, processing, and distribution of TCE for use in aerosol degreasing and for use in spot cleaning in dry cleaning facilities. The ban will go into effect in 60 days. The Administrative Procedure Act requires that agencies issue a notice of proposed rulemaking , provide an opportunity for public comments, issue a final rule with a concise statement of its basis and purpose, and make the final rule effective a minimum of 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.

TCE is a volatile organic compound (VOC). It is a clear, colorless liquid that has a sweet odor and evaporates quickly. It is a dense non aqueous phase liquid that can pass rapidly through cracks and imperfections in concrete and asphalt and through the materials themselves and can travel great distances in groundwater. EPA estimates that 250 million pounds of TCE are used each year in the United States.

TCE is a toxic chemical with human health concerns. EPA identified serious health risks to workers and consumers associated with TCE in a 2014 assessment that concluded that the chemical can cause a range of adverse health effects, including cancer, development and neurotoxicological effects, and toxicity to the liver.

In 1930, trichloroethylene (TCE) was introduced as a dry cleaning solvent in the United States. TCE was found to cause the bleeding of some acetate dyes at temperatures above 75 degrees Fahrenheit, so it was never widely used in this country as a primary dry cleaning solvent. TCE is; however, still widely used as a dry-side pre-cleaning or spotting agent and in water repellent agents. Nothing removes lipstick from silk like TCE and it is the principle ingredient in Fast PR, 2-1 Formula, Picrin, Puro, SemiWet Spotter, Spra-Dri and Volatile Dry spotter (V.D.S.).

The majority (about 84 %) of TCE is used in a closed system as an intermediate chemical for manufacturing refrigerant chemicals. Much of the remainder (about 15 %) is used as a solvent for metals degreasing, leaving a small percentage to account for other uses, including use as a spotting agent in dry cleaning and in consumer products. This rule follows a July 2015 agreement that EPA reached with manufacturers to voluntarily phase-out the use of TCE in its aerosol arts and crafts spray fixative product and ensure that EPA will have the opportunity to review any effort to resume or begin new consumer uses of TCE.

EPA also found risks associated with TCE use in vapor degreasing, and the agency is developing a separate proposed regulatory action to address those risks. Last week, EPA announced the inclusion of TCE on the list of the first ten chemicals to be evaluated for risk under TSCA. That action will allow EPA will evaluate the other remaining uses of the chemical. This month’s action only proposes to ban use as a degreaser and spot remover in dry cleaning.