Residents of Central Florida consider clean and affordable water to be their birthright. And so it has been for generations. The vast underground aquifers that provide almost all of Florida’s drinking water do a wonderful job of filtering pollutants from the roads, farm fields, lawns, and parking lots that cover more of Florida’s surface every day. But there are clear signs of great trouble – for example, a sharp die-off of algae in the Indian River lagoon; algal blooms or thick layers of manure in areas where they have never been seen before, and a growing number of springs in Florida reporting unsafe levels of bacteria.
These are just the threats we see. As the Sentinel has reported over the past two weeks in its Toxic Secret series, local water sources have been contaminated with finer chemicals that are hard to detect and even harder—sometimes impossible—to remove.
This creates a real dilemma for responsible water utilities. Water utilities in Central Florida report that the water they supply is clean and safe to drink, even in areas covered by the Toxic Secret investigation. But across the country, many utilities have seen reports indicating their own water sources have been contaminated with substances linked to cancer, hormonal imbalances, birth defects and other devastating health conditions. What they lack in many cases is reliable data on how much pollution is too much. They know that the cost of modern filtration systems can drive up utility bills so much that clean water becomes a luxury.
There are no easy answers. We want them to be.
The Sentinel series focuses on one particular contaminant, a compound known as 1,4-dioxane, found in three Seminole County water supplies. In the third installment of the series, writer Kevin Speer calls the chemical 1,4-dioxane “sinister” because of its elusive properties: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has yet to place limits on it, but in quantities considered carcinogenic—just 10 parts per million—it is completely undetectable by humans. While it can break down quickly in the air, it is considered a “perpetual chemical” in Florida’s underground aquifer system that does not disappear. Conventional water treatment plants and household filtration systems do not remove it from the water supply. And the cancer it’s most often associated with won’t show up right away.
But the really ominous thing is this: 1,4-dioxane is just one of many “perennial chemicals” that can enter the water supply or enter our bodies. Many of these have been introduced through careless handling by manufacturers, but some can be found in products that homeowners use themselves, such as shampoos, household cleaners, and home improvement items.
Here’s just one example, albeit a massive one: if you’ve ever sprayed bugs on cockroaches in your shower or washed an old non-stick pan that was peeling, you may have released one of the thousands of chemicals grouped under the heading “per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances” or PFAS into the water. Some of the chemicals in this group have already been phased out due to a clear link to cancer and other health problems, but they are still widely used – they can be found in clothing, furniture, and even on fast food packaging. They have been found in hundreds of water sources throughout the country. Like 1,4-dioxane, most of these substances are not usually tested or filtered.
What’s more, these chemicals can be dangerous at incredibly low concentrations, especially when consumed over a long period of time. To understand what one part per million is, we’ll take an example from a TED video by science professor Kim Preshoff: in a truck loaded with 1,250 ears of corn, 1 part per million would be close to the weight of one grain.
If you’re not already worried, think about it: most research on these micro-pollutants isolates and studies one compound at a time. There is even less evidence of health effects when people consume small amounts of several toxins.
From openness to advocacy
Last week we criticized local water utilities in Lake Mary, Sanford and Seminole County for not doing enough to tell their customers when 1,4-dioxane was first detected in their water; very few people contacted by the Sentinel for comment have heard of it, including some elected officials and clean water advocates in affected communities.
This may well be the key that opens the door to a solution: Receiving notification that a toxin has been detected, in plain language that most water customers can understand, could spur Americans to demand a more thorough national response to hazardous chemicals. More research, more stringent testing, tighter regulation of industries using these chemicals in manufacturing and consumer products, and funding for advanced municipal water treatment systems.
All of this would be beyond the financial means of one city, one county, or even one state. However, it is worthy of increased national investment.
This will not happen as long as these poisonous secrets remain secret.
The editorial board of the Florida Today News is made up of Opinion Editor Chris Flucker, Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson, and Viewpoints Editor Jay Reddick. Contact us at: [email protected]