Clean water is one of the main necessities of life, but many big corporations as well as some local governments have been disregarding any long-term health consequences in the name of money.
The recent Flint water crisis that poisoned up to 12,000 children with lead opened people’s eyes about the need of safe drinking water. But while Flint experiences one of the biggest cases of water contamination, it is not a singular case. Water contamination happens all the time all over Michigan, and all over the country.
Some stories make it into the press, while others stay hidden.
At this moment, a community in Northern Michigan is trying to deal with a giant contaminated plume that has been affecting them for 50 years. Many of them had no idea this was happening.
“My heart and most of my life has been spent here in Antrim County. And I knew nothing of its environmental problems,” said resident Gary Knapp.
The issue was not uncovered until 15 years ago when local officials were cleaning up metal contamination from ground water and stumbled upon something else: one of the nation’s largest plumes.
“There’s no silver bullet to take care of this thing. It’s just a monster,” said Scott Kendzierski, of the Health Department of Northwest Michigan.
Affecting roughly a 6-mile stretch around Mancelona, Michigan, an estimated 13 trillions gallons of groundwater have been contaminated with TCE (trichloroethylene), a known carcinogen. The responsible party is Wickes Manufacturing, also known as Mount Clemens Industries Inc. This maker of auto parts used TCE in their manufacturing process…and dumped TCE contaminated water waste straight on the ground between 1947 and 1967.
The toxin eventually seeped through the soil and contaminated the groundwater that many residents use on a daily basis through their wells. By the time the locals noticed the contamination, Wickes was long out of business and could not be held responsible for the damages.
The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has spent $27 million to try and fix the situation: monitor the plume and hook the local residents up to another water source. But more and more homes are at risk each year as the plume is growing, and the money allocated for this problem is running out.
Not only is there not enough money to fix the problem, there also have been zero plans on cleaning up the plume; all the government is doing is watching it to try to help the affected families.
Michigan Radio interviewed one household, the Hawkins family, that bought a home thinking they were not in the plume’s path. Recently the plume made an unexpected turn to the west and 13 years after buying the house the Hawkins family ended up just 675 feet away from it.
“At this point there’s nothing really to be done about it. It’s going to hit us,” Bethany Hawkins said.
“I’s nice the DEQ is going to pay for getting me hooked up to public water, but what if somebody says ‘oh, we’re not going to fund that anymore’? You know, and with the state of the government at this point, it’s just not very comforting to me to accept that assurance,” she added.
The Hawkins and other affected families have good reasons to be concerned – TCE is nothing to joke about.
Sources and Risks of TCE Contamination
TCE is a liquid often used as an ingredient in solvents, adhesives, paint and spot remover, and typewriter correction fluids. It is used often, even though it is known how toxic it is.
Trichloroethylene or TCE has been classified as a human carcinogen by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and the National Toxicology Program (NTP). There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that this chemical causes cancer; especially likely are kidney cancer, liver cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and various tumors. Other cancers it is linked to are bladder, prostate, breast, and leukemia.
It also has other severe effects on the human body. It can harm the liver and kidneys, the immune system, and the central nervous system. It can affect fetal development during pregnancy; and it also may cause a fetal heart defect.
Long term exposure to high levels of TCE can lead to problems with vision, muscle control, mental function, hearing, and nerve function.
There most common ways people can get exposed to TCE are from drinking water and indoor air.
The drinking water can be contaminated when TCE along with other manufacturing waste is disposed and has affected underground and surface water.
It can leak into indoor air from indoor TCE-containing products: glues, adhesives, metal cleaners, and paint removers. The TCE exposure via indoor air is the most common.
As an occupational worker people can be exposed to TCE when working as:
- dry cleaners
- oil processors
- resin workers
- rubber cementers
- textile and fabric cleaners
- varnish workers
- workers reducing nicotine in tobacco
As a consumer, the most likely TCE exposures are from:
- cleaning fluids for rugs
- paint removers/strippers
- spot removers
- typewriter correction fluids
Testing and Filtering Your Drinking Water
While indoor air pollution is a bit more tricky, testing for contaminants in your drinking water and getting a filter to make sure your water is safe is vital for health these days.
There are annual water quality reports available from the EPA, in accordance with Safe Water Drinking Act. These reports are useful for those who use tap water from a public water system.
If you use well water, you can test it in a state certified lab.
No testing is without limits, however, so even if the test results show water as safe to drink it is best to install a home water filtration system, or purchase a water pitcher with filter like Clearly Filtered.
These will not only take care of contaminants, but will also filter out arsenic, chloride, fluoride, heavy metals, bacteria, and viruses.
At-risk groups such as pregnant women, children, and the elderly need guaranteed safe water more than everyone else.
But with all of the water contamination stories coming out, it is best for all of us to filter our water.
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