Advocates question Plano water quality, but much of the science remains unknown

Environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who has been critical of North Texas water treatment methods, speaks on April 5 in Frisco.

Environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who has been critical of North Texas water treatment methods, speaks on April 5 in Frisco.

Image description
Water quality questioned, but much remains unknown
Image description
Water quality questioned, but much remains unknown
Image description
Water quality questioned, but much remains unknown
It began with a glass of water that did not taste quite right, or a hot shower that filled a home with the distinct smell of chlorine. Starting in late February, some Plano residents took to Facebook, wondering if their skin rashes or other irritations could have been caused by the odd-smelling water.

Then Erin Brockovich, a well-known environmental activist, weighed in on social media and ignited a larger public discussion on the practices the North Texas Municipal Water District uses to disinfect its water. She warned residents the issues extended beyond taste or irritation to more concerning effects of byproducts of the district’s disinfection process.

“We’re not here because something just happened and we’re all a little magically crazy,” Brockovich told a crowd of concerned North Texas residents April 5 in Frisco. “Something has gone wrong on how they are treating the water that has led to this situation.”

But some of the specific claims Brockovich and her supporters have made about the water—including a referral to a study suggesting regulation-compliant water could heighten the risk of miscarriages in pregnant women—have yet to be widely accepted by the scientific and regulatory communities, according to government reviews of recent studies and Community Impact Newspaper interviews with toxicology and disinfection experts.

The water district has maintained the water is safe to drink, and meets all state and federal regulatory standards for chlorine and disinfection byproduct levels. But much about these chemicals’ effects on humans remains unknown.

Health concerns and social media


Toxicology expert Richard Bull, Ph.D., said online reports of rashes and other symptoms are not necessarily telling of an actual increase in the number of these symptoms.

Bull, who once led a scientific committee advising the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on drinking water regulations, said social media often does not give a representative picture of the greater population, amplifying concerns that may or may not be widespread and promoting explanations that may not have a high degree of scientific backing.

“Their [health]  concerns are probably valid, but social media is a real amplification system, too,” Bull said of the area residents reporting skin issues. “And so you really need to get good statistics.”

However, reliable statistics have been largely absent from the North Texas water discussion.

Between Feb. 26 and April 10, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state agency that regulates local water districts, received roughly 250 complaints from residents served by the North Texas district’s Wylie treatment plant.

The residents who filed complaints with the TCEQ noted a variety of perceived symptoms, including strong chlorine odor and taste; skin dryness, itchiness or rashes; eye irritation; unsafe levels of chlorine; headaches after showering; hair loss; and general health concerns regarding the use of chlorine or chloramine in the water.

Investigations into the complaints were expected to last into late May, TCEQ spokesperson Marty Otero wrote on Thursday in an email.

While authorities cannot rule out the idea that the rashes are caused by something in the water, disinfection expert Bill Becker, Ph.D., said the scientific literature on chlorine’s link to rashes or other forms of skin irritation is less than convincing.

“This is the first time I’ve heard anything about rashes during a chlorine conversion [from chloramines],” said Becker, who has consulted for water utilities across the U.S.

Long-term effects


North Texas water district officials say March’s distinctive chlorine taste—and corresponding, temporary increases in the amount of toxic byproducts in the water—are part of a preventive maintenance process to fight nitrification in the water system.

The district normally treats its water up front with ozone and then runs a combination of chlorine and ammonia—known as chloramines—through the pipelines to protect residents from potential pathogens throughout the distribution system, said Mike Rickman, the district’s deputy director of operations and maintenance. Starting in late February and lasting until late March, the district turned off its ammonia but left the chlorine on, in what it calls “free chlorine” maintenance.

This free chlorine process produces a higher level of toxic byproducts, including a class of chemicals called trihalomethanes that are regulated by the federal government for their known links to cancer and other health problems in animals.

The EPA requires water districts to maintain an annual average trihalomethane level below 80 parts per billion. The purpose of these regulations is to balance the need for chemical disinfectants with the known health risks associated with their toxic byproducts, according to the agency.

The agency’s regulations are largely informed by animal studies. Human studies were often less conclusive.

Every six years, federal regulators review new studies and consider whether updates to the regulations are warranted. In a document summarizing more recent studies of disinfectants and their byproducts, the agency listed trihalomethanes as one possible compound whose federal limit could be revisited.

According to the EPA’s review of 40 studies conducted since the agency last updated the trihalomethane limit, the science still supports the idea there is “a potential health concern” regarding the chemicals’ effect on reproductive health, although not enough information exists to support a quantified risk assessment in humans. However, toxicological studies of mixtures of trihalomethanes reviewed in the same report “show diminished concern” for reproductive issues.

Specific measures


Bob Bowcock, an engineer and water expert who accompanied Brockovich to Frisco in April, articulated two specific suggestions for the North Texas water district: cut down on the amount of chlorine in the water, and pursue more aggressive methods of reducing nitrification in the water to reduce the system’s reliance on free chlorine maintenance.

Among the improvements Bowcock would like to see the district pursue more quickly is the planned installation of biologically active filtration at its treatment plants, a measure that is expected to cut down on the amount of contaminants throughout the system and possibly reduce the amount of residual disinfectant required. The new technology is expected to be installed by 2020, said Rickman, the water district official.

As for Bowcock’s request that the district cut down on its chlorine usage, the water district’s Assistant Deputy Director Billy George said the amounts of chlorine used are calculated to account for a number of factors, including how much disinfectant is needed to ensure it makes its way through the district’s lengthy distribution network.
By Daniel Houston
Daniel Houston covers Plano city government, transportation, business and education for Community Impact Newspaper. A Fort Worth native and Baylor University graduate, Daniel reported previously for The Associated Press in Oklahoma City and The Dallas Morning News.


MOST RECENT

Drivers on April 8 parked outside Medical City Plano and honked, flashed lights and cheered for health care workers as confirmed cases of the new coronavirus continued their climb in the region. (Courtesy Medical City Plano)
Medical City Plano holds rallies to support health workers

Drivers parked outside the hospital and honked, flashed lights and cheered for the health care workers at Medical City Plano.

Texas Central claims the $12 billion construction process would be privately funded, and the train would transport 6 million annual riders by 2029. (Courtesy Texas Central Partners/Community Impact Newspaper)
State legislators request federal officials halt activity on Texas Central's high-speed rail project

Dozens of elected officials representing Texas requested the U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao put an end to activity related to Texas Central’s high-speed rail project between Dallas and Houston.

Venue Verona Villa is located on Dallas Parkway. (Courtesy Verona Villa)
ROUNDUP: DFW businesses, ISDs respond to outbreak

Here are five stories on how business and school districts in the metroplex are adapting during the coronavirus pandemic.

Superintendent Sara Bonser has asked for new authority to make quicker decisions as Plano ISD navigates student needs during the coronavirus closures. (Liesbeth Powers/Community Impact Newspaper)
Plano ISD empowers superintendent to make purchases, take other steps in swift response to remote learning needs

Plano ISD trustees have granted the administration new authority as it navigates the COVID-19 shutdowns.

Area chief appraisers struggle to meet tax calendar deadlines under stay-at-home orders

Property owners typically begin receiving assessed value notices in the mail around this time each year. Already, the region’s largest districts have announced the delay of those letters until the end of April or middle of May.

Plano ISD trustees on March 15 agreed to continue paying district employees as schools close in response to new coronavirus outbreaks across the country. (Daniel Houston/Community Impact Newspaper)
5 of the latest coronavirus updates from the DFW area

Catch up on some of the latest coronavirus-related developments in the Dallas-Fort Worth area below.

Bendt Distilling Co. is making free hand sanitizer for the community and first responders. (Courtesy Bendt Distilling Co.)
Masks and sanitizer: DFW businesses contribute to community health care

Here are nine stories about how metroplex establishments are stepping up to support health care workers and community members amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Abbott's order closes all state parks and historical sites effective 5 p.m. April 7. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Gov. Abbott closes state parks, historical sites due to coronavirus concerns

Abbott said the closure is to help prevent large gatherings and strengthen social distancing.

VIDEO: Texas Tribune interview with Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar about the coronavirus's effects on the state economy

At 8 a.m. April 7, The Texas Tribune will host a live interview with Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar, conducted by Texas Tribune Executive Editor Ross Ramsey.

Plano ISD trustees on March 15 agreed to continue paying district employees as schools close in response to new coronavirus outbreaks across the country. (Daniel Houston/Community Impact Newspaper)
Update: Plano ISD cancels comprehensive exams, adopts new grading rules during coronavirus closures

Plano ISD schools will cancel comprehensive exams for most classes at all grade levels as part of a new series of grading guidelines adopted this week.

Follow the latest news in Plano regarding the coronavirus. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Latest in Plano: Fifth Collin County death, dozens of new cases confirmed to be linked to coronavirus

Read our ongoing coverage of the new coronavirus and how it is affecting Plano.