Investigation: Dayton says its drinking water is safe, but more residents are raising doubts

The city of Dayton says its drinking water is clean and safe, but a growing number of residents lack confidence in the purity of the city’s tap water.

Fears about water contamination spread when the city of Dayton shut down some production wells last year after potentially hazardous chemicals were detected in the groundwater.

The chemicals, polyfluoralkyl substances (PFAS), then were found in Dayton’s treated drinking water earlier this year. Testing in June and July confirmed the man-made chemicals were still present and in increasing numbers.

"We know it's in treated drinking water, and it goes to show, at least to me, that our wellfields are fragile and there's a lot of risk to our drinking water," said Matthew Currie, managing attorney for Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, which several years ago worked with citizens who opposed changes to Dayton's Source Water Protection Program.

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Dayton’s abundant source of underground water is one of the region’s best assets but susceptible to contamination threats like chemical spills, aging infrastructure and agricultural pollution.

Water system regulators and environmental professionals, however, praised Dayton for its efforts on PFAS and recognized the city for closely monitoring water quality, working with businesses and potential polluters to reduce contamination risks, and taking swift action to try to correct issues.

“Ohio EPA understands the concerns people in the Dayton region may have about drinking water considering recent headlines about the PFAS in Dayton,” said Dina Pierce, spokeswoman with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. “ … Drinking water quality in the Dayton region – and throughout Ohio – is excellent.”

Worries about chemicals

Three months ago, the city said for the first time that treated water leaving its Ottawa Water Treatment Plant in March had PFAS at a level of 7 to 13 parts per trillion (ppt).

The city reported that its treated water had PFAS levels of 10.61 ppt in June and 14.7 ppt in July.

The water remains in compliance with federal and state drinking water regulations, and the reported levels are well below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s current health advisory level of 70 ppt, a city of Dayton spokeswoman said.

“Public water systems are highly regulated,” said Pierce, with the Ohio EPA. “Drinking water undergoes thorough treatment, and routine monitoring is conducted by water system operators to ensure water they produce is safe.”

But some national experts believe the advisory level should be lowered to better protect the public from exposure to the chemicals.

A draft study from the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry lowers the "minimum risk levels" of PFAS to about 7 ppt and 11 ppt for two compounds.

The chemicals reportedly were part of the fire-suppression foam used at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and Dayton’s firefighting training center, which some believe are the likely source of contaminants.

Most people have been exposed to PFAS, which are found in a wide range of consumer products, like pizza boxes, cookware and stain repellents, according to the EPA. Millions of Americans drink water from systems that contain PFAS, according to research.

"A recent review from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlines a host of health effects associated with PFAS exposure, including cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease," according to a post on Harvard University's School of Public Health.

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Dayton takes action

City officials say they can reduce and stop the migration of PFAS-tainted groundwater, and the city has hired a consultant to figure out the best way to address the issue.

The city also wants people to know that it has an early warning monitoring system in place to identify potential risks to the aquifer, which serves 3 million people.

The city has added about 134 new wells to its Source Water Protection Program, said a city spokeswoman.

PFAS were initially detected in groundwater at Dayton’s Tait Hills wellfield in early 2016, which led to the closure of multiple drinking water wells. Also in early 2016, the city stopped pumping drinking water from seven wells at the Huffman Dam wellfield as a precaution because of the proximity to potential PFAS sources.

Dayton’s extensive monitoring well program goes beyond state requirements by monitoring for unregulated contaminants like PFAS, according to the Ohio EPA.

Right now, no federal limit exists for PFAS in drinking water as the chemicals are what’s described as emerging contaminants – for which additional research is required before federal standards and requirements can be established, said the Ohio EPA. The EPA health advisory levels provide a margin of protection for lifetime exposure.

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Faith in the water

About 58 percent of Dayton residents trust the city’s tap water, down from 60 percent in 2016, saying they are somewhat or very confident in the purity and cleanliness of the city’s tap water, according to the 2018 citywide survey released this month.

About one in five residents feel neutral about the public drinking water.

A lack of confidence in the tap water has increased from the previous survey, with 23 percent of residents now saying they are not so confident or not at all confident in the quality of Dayton’s water vs. 21 percent before.

The survey began in mid-May,  before the the city of Dayton and Montgomery County notified thousands of customers that PFAS were detected in the treated drinking water. The city supplies water to about 400,000 people in the county.

Confidence in the city’s tap water has remained consistent over the years, considering all the of the news about drinking water, said Steve Raabe, the founder and president of OpinionWorks, the firm that surveyed residents.

“We really have not experienced any kind of significant decline,” he said.

Drinking water safety gained national attention after the crisis in Flint, Mich., when lead-tainted water sickened residents.

Flint’s public safety emergency prompted some local water systems to assure their customers that they do not face similar risks.

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PFAS and other contaminants

PFAS are found all in all types of household products and their pervasiveness makes it challenging to fully remove them from the environment, said Kathy Arnett, vice chair of Dayton’s Environmental Advisory Board.

But Arnett said the current PFAS concentration levels are low.

“I have a lot of confidence in the city of Dayton’s water department,” she said. “I’m not panicked and I’m not that concerned (about the PFAS levels) … I think it’s being handled, though I think it does need to be watched.”

Some citizens and citizens groups think the city can do more to remove the risk of contamination from around the wellfields.

The contamination of the wellfield at Wright-Patt is very troubling, especially since there are so many other well contaminations, said Teri Schoch, a member of the Dayton Citizens’ Water Brigade, a grass-roots group that opposed changes to the Source Water Protection program.

The Ohio EPA has 15 actively listed brownfields registered in Dayton, which are abandoned or underutilized commercial, industrial or institutional properties that may have hazardous substances or petroleum on site.

Runoff from the streets is another source of pollution, and some people rinse paint thinners down the drain, pour oil where it doesn’t belong or flush medicines in their toilets, Schoch said.

Auto, tanker and rail car crashes and spills are another threat. This newspaper found that between January 2012 and mid-2017, the Ohio EPA received more than 440 emergency response calls about spills in Montgomery County, many of which were related to auto collisions.

The city has a limited budget, but it would be helpful to make compliance with environmental waste disposal regulations easier by having neighborhood waste stations more readily available, Schoch said.

“Periodic waste collections are great, but having to save up hazardous chemicals until a collection date where we need to have a vehicle to transport these products means that even well-informed and caring citizens will be tempted to cheat the system and dispose of contaminating chemicals improperly,” she said.

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Heavy metal in the pipes

Most of Dayton’s drinking water is from groundwater sources, and pollutants in stormwater runoff and chemicals that leech from buried hazardous waste sites and old dumps are the most likely contaminants to groundwater, said Audrey McGowin, associate professor of chemistry with Wright State University.

The Dayton region is home to numerous old hazardous waste dumps, like paint dumps that contain lead, chromium and other heavy metals, she said. Lead can be harmful to human development and is especially dangerous to children and pregnant women.

Water leaving a properly operated water treatment facility should have no lead or extremely low levels, McGowin said, but unfortunately old pipes that contain lead still exist between treatment facilities and the taps in some places.

All older homes should be tested for lead, and local governments need to ensure water testing is available for low-income families, including rental properties, McGowin said.

Testing is the key

Cities need to do frequent and thorough screenings of their water to ensure it is safe, and consumers should familiarize themselves with drinking water safety tips and information, experts say.

“People can only know if their water is contaminated by observing an ‘off’ color or odor or learning about a past contamination from a municipal water quality report or by having their own well tested,” McGowin said.

In the case of lead dissolved in water, consumers cannot see, taste or smell it, which means that testing is the only way to ensure harmful levels are not present, the EPA said.

The city of Dayton offers free testing and says last year it analyzed 173 water samples and detected lead in 21 of them. This year, the city analyzed 56 samples through mid-August, and lead was found in two.

The levels of lead were far below the Ohio EPA’s maximum contaminant levels, which are concentrations that put people at risk of adverse health effects.

The city of Dayton Central Water Quality Laboratory analyzes water for pH, temperature, chlorine, total coliforms, metals and organics, said Michael Powell, Dayton’s water director.

Since 2016, the city has replaced more than 2,200 water service lines, which typically extend from the water main to the curb stop, officials said. Many are suspected to contain lead.

The entire community relies on clean water, and many groups are working together to prevent the water supply from becoming tainted, said Stephanie Keinath, director of public policy and economic development for the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce.

“While we understand that threats to this resource may come our way, are in the best position possible to address any threat immediately, and to act decisively to protect our community’s drinking water,” she said.

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