With advancements in technologies, such as analytical testing methods, more and more emerging contaminants (ECs) are discovered in water sources that previously have not, or could not, be detected before. EPA monitors these ECs, generally referred to as “contaminants of emerging concern,” or CECs, at parts per billion (ppb), parts per trillion (ppt) and lower concentrations with Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rules (UCMR).
While more and more contaminants emerge, water industry professionals need to watch the regulation processes unfold, as proper awareness of ECs is a crucial aspect of staying ahead in cutting-edge water treatment technologies and trends, providing the opportunity to boost profitability while advancing end users’ understanding of the latest contaminants threatening the quality of water.
A closer look at the contaminant regulating processes
In the UCMRs, EPA identifies a list of potential contaminants every five years to be analyzed by thousands of public water systems in search of candidates for future water regulation.
In the Contaminant of the Month of Water Technology’s September 2014 issue, our Technical Editor Dr. Joseph Cotruvo discusses UCMR 4, which is currently being considered, and explains how EPA employs a screening process based on three conditions specified by the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), to select EC candidates for prospective regulation. These terms include: Substances occur in public water systems with a frequency and at levels of public health concern, substances may have an adverse effect on public health and where regulation presents an opportunity for reducing health risks.
The data collected from the UCMRs is stored in the National Contaminant Occurrence Database (NCOD) and assists in guiding the selection process for the Contaminant Candidate List (CCL). CCLs are comprised of a selection of substances not currently regulated for water treatment that are being considered for future regulation. If health risks are determined from contaminants listed in the CCL, they will then be considered for regulation and possible Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCL), which establish the highest level of a contaminant allowed to be present in drinking water.
The process from observing ECs, CECs and other substances to MCL regulation is a long, complicated and often expensive route.
The pros and cons of water technology advancements
With advancements in technologies, especially analytical testing, more substances are being detected than ever before in drinking water.
Analytical testing is now able to almost routinely detect chemicals at ppt. These detection levels will continuously become lower and lover over time, uncovering even more trace contaminants.
The more contaminants that are revealed the more research is needed to ensure optimal water quality — free of pollutants that can cause risks to consumers; but the lesser probability they are significant risks at the very low concentrations being measured. More research equals more expenses; and with many of the contaminants observed for UCMRs being detected at probably insignificant frequencies and concentrations pertaining to possible heath/environmental risks, some of those expenses are ultimately unproductive.
“It is just one of those things were technology is leaping well beyond our ability to actually understand the consequences of what is being found. And, it does focus a lot of interest on drinking water as a result, but probably often misdirected interest,” explains Cotruvo, regarding advanced analytical testing technologies. “For example, take an orange and do the same analysis on the orange. You will find lots of things there that sound a little scary. You could find traces of benzene and certainly some alcohols, methanol and some others and they are naturally present. So it brings to question, are we focusing unnecessarily on these very minimal trace amount substances?”
A balancing act between the advancements in water technologies and EC research is needed. Investigating possible harmful pollutants, being discovered as of a result of these state-of-the-art analytical testing methods, helps ensure an optimal quality of water; however to help safeguard against wasted expenses, those testing the water for ECs need to keep in mind the associated costs of research and water treatment and carefully determine if there is an actual likelihood of these contaminants to produce health risks.
Despite the potential for unproductive expenses, these innovations in water technologies, especially pertaining to analytical testing, not only help pave the way to safe, high quality drinking water, but also can have an indirect effect on source water supplies, leading to additional wastewater/discharge restrictions.
“Some of those contaminants are coming from the source water,” states Cotruvo. “Those contaminants are coming from the rivers via industrial discharges or runoff from the land. So there is kind of a backup effect that occurs that may also lead to more restrictions on wastewater discharge quality and more pretreatment regulations from industrial dischargers.”
Cotruvo continues by adding another positive scenario in which a company ceased its use of dioxane to a chemical of less concern, after detection in drinking water and a recalculated analysis of dioxane showed a higher level of risk.
The role of commercial products
A vast variety of ECs actually turn out to be pretty common in the environment — a lot of which stem from commercial products we use every day, such as toothpaste, cosmetics, personal care items and pharmaceuticals. For example, when we use toothpaste, the residue from brushing our teeth falls into the sink, washes away down the faucet into the wastewater and, sometimes, ultimately into the drinking water supply. In some toothpaste brands, triclosan, a common biocide used in lots of consumer products, can be present in high levels — around 300 parts per million, according to Cotruvo. A smaller percentage of this triclosan could end up in drinking water as a result. Fortunately, triclosan isn’t very toxic.
“There is a connection between what we eat and what we put on ourselves and what ultimately winds up in the environment and in the water,” says Cotruvo, adding that if consumers are concerned about the chemical levels in their drinking water, then they should also consider the quantity of these chemicals in the actual commercial products, which are often at much higher concentrations.
Cotruvo continues by explaining that the U.S. government can restrict companies from utilizing certain materials if they are a risk to public health. However, if the materials do not threaten public health, then the government isn’t at a position to tell the company to stop using these resources.
When trace amounts of these chemicals seep into water supplies, advanced technologies can help bring much needed restrictions to not only the output sectors like water treatment facilities, but also to the input sectors, such as the commercial home treatment product manufacturers.
The many facets to EC awareness
Awareness of the latest ECs threatening water supplies are important for anyone associated with the water treatment industry — whether you are a dealer, supplier, manufacturer, certifying organization or even a water treatment consumer — because not one single water treatment technology can treat every contaminant affecting water sources.
With more ECs being discovered, more regulations and restrictions may be implemented. These new rules could create the need for certifying agencies to develop new product certifications and standards, as well as for manufacturers to produce new products, technologies and services. As a result, ECs consequently impact the final product/service being provided to end users.
End user knowledge of the latest ECs may be minimal. Most consumers do not consider what lurks within their water source until a public issue arises. Providing consumers with this information not only helps increase their understanding of potential health risks, but also instills a level of trust that can lead to overall enhanced business productivity and profitability for the water treatment professional.
Due to the gap between detection and potential standards, paying attention to UCMRs may be a little premature. However, monitoring CCLs is a good time to start taking interest in possible water contaminants, as the ECs have been dwindled down to pollutants with higher potential of regulation. MCLs are crucial to know as they are actual regulated contaminants that are unsafe for excess consumption. It is relatively easy for the public to gain access to the MCLs because public water supplies are required to notify citizens of their procedures regarding MCL regulations and many of them publish mandatory Consumer Confidence Reports online.
In summary, EC knowledge is beneficial to professionals within the water treatment industry. Once an EC is detected, water regulators and suppliers need to evaluate if these contaminants are potentially harmful before taking the steps to treat the pollutants and educate end users.
“It doesn’t do the public a service to just tell them something is in the water unless you tell them what it means,” says Cotruvo. “Is [the EC] a problem or is it not a problem? And, of course, if you are a water treatment company, that is your business to tell people [the contaminant] is there and that [you] can take it out.”
Cotruvo continues by explaining how this might not improve public health, but it may offer consumers a focus on quality and some comfort if they know they have a treatment solution that is taking out the trace levels of contaminants.
Regarding the knowledge of ECs, Cotruvo adds, “It is a combination of public perception, potential risk, treatment technology and regulatory policy. It is a mix of all of those elements that leads to a final decision and any one factor is not necessarily dominant. Ultimately, regulations should be risk-based rather than detection-based.”