Behind the Public Relations

What You Need To Know About Our Risk Of Contaminated Water

Updated 13 weeks ago David Stone
Do we have all the relevant facts about a history of possible contamination?
Do we have all the relevant facts about a history of possible contamination?

Because RIOC's either unwilling or unable - does it matter? - to tell the whole story, we'll try to fill the gaps of what you're not being told. Main question: Should you be worried? Yes, you should be. Here's the background.

Behind the lackluster, evasive RIOCsplanations, formal and informal, dispensed by the State so far lies a peculiar fact. The current administration at 591 Main Street has handled water quality issues better than its predecessors, acting decisively, shutting down public water fountains soon after alarms were sounded and hiring consultants for testing.

But it's no credit to RIOC that a citizen pointed out glaring hazards that the State should have recognized long ago. That's really their job, isn't it? Highly paid staff walked by dangerous conditions a thousand times and did nothing.

What You Need To Know About Our Risk Of Contaminated Water
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What did Frank Farance find? 

Alarmed by RIOC's still unexplained, wacky handling of an attempt to shut down the Southpoint Cat Sanctuary, spouting a rationale, after others failed, that their own tap served water unfit for human or animal consumption and had been doing so since Southpoint Park opened, Farance checked out other locations in RIOC parks and playgrounds.

What he found should alarm anyone, like me, who has consumed a fair amount of water from RIOC maintained water fountains, especially those with children who have also been exposed. 

Public water fountain immediately adjacent to irrigation system valve.
Public water fountain immediately adjacent to irrigation system valve.
Photo courtesy of Frank Farance

RIOC's erred in downplaying the hazards, maybe out of fear of liability.

Going all the way back to 2001, the federal Environmental Protection Agency in a paper, Potential Contamination Due to Cross-Connections and Backflow and the Associated Health Risks, wrote...

During incidents of backflow, these chemical and biological contaminants have caused illness and deaths, with contamination
affecting a number of service connections. The number of incidents actually reported is believed to be a
small percentage of the total number of backflow incidents in the United States. 

Hazards Farance discovered are two-fold while RIOC's so far willing to address only single, limited issue.

What is backflow? 

Backflow occurs when water contaminated by standard practices - like in-ground irrigation, although there are many others - leaks back into the public water supply.

To RIOC's credit, concerns about backflow contamination weren't widely acknowledged when its earliest parks and playgrounds were installed, probably without prevention devices. (That does not excuse hooking drinking fountains up to the irrigation systems, if that's what happened as Farance and others suspect.)

Current regulations, starting with the EPA and including authorities down through the City's Department of Environmental Protection, require users taping into the public water supply to have approved backflow prevention devices installed by certified experts and have them re-certified for effectiveness annually.

Evidence accumulated so far indicates that one or more of RIOC's locations lacks backflow prevention, and there's a strong likelihood that, even where devices are present, they do not benefit from the high level of maintenance required by law.

Are RIOC's irrigation systems leaking contaminants into the public water supply?
Are RIOC's irrigation systems leaking contaminants into the public water supply?

Galling though it is that RIOC may have sent irrigation system water - that is, water recognized as unfit for human or animal consumption - into public drinking fountains in playgrounds and parks, if the State has put public supplies at risk through absent or poorly maintained backflow devices, the risk of exposure far beyond the park is damning.

What are the risks of backflow contamination? 

While RIOC and its testing labs heaved a sigh of relief over the non-finding of E. Coli so far, actual dangers are far greater than that well-known but frequently harmless bacteria.

From backflow incident records collected by EPA, the most common microbial contaminants and their potential health effects are...

  • Shigella, a bacterium that causes gastroenteritis, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and convulsions. All species of Shigella are highly infectious in humans and are spread through ingestion of fecal contamination, a high risk from irrigation systems.
  • E. coli, a common biological contaminant where some strains are pathogenic and can cause internal disorders, the most common of which are watery diarrhea, fever and dysentery.
  • Salmonella are intestinal bacterial waterborne pathogens, health effects can include typhoid fever, gastroenteritis and septicemia.
  • Campylobacter jejuni is an avian gut bacteria that is the primary cause of bacterial diarrhea in the United States and has been implicated in waterborne disease outbreaks, can cause gastroenteritis with symptoms including bloody diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramping.
  • Cyanobacteria are photosynthetic free-living bacteria which produce algal blooms in fresh water that can result in elevated toxin levels and produce acute neurotoxicity, hepatotoxicity, gastroenteritis, respiratory ailments, skin irritation, and allergic reactions through contact or ingestion.
  • The Norwalk family of viruses is a cause of viral gastroenteritis with symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea and upper respiratory problems.
  • Giardia are intestinal parasites that exist in natural waters in a non-reproductive stage (cysts). They can cause diarrhea, as well as vomiting, cramps, and bloating.

That list does not chemical compounds, like pesticides, metals, synthetics and other volatile compounds indicated by EPA as hazards.

RIOC's statements so far are so vapid and incomplete, we know next to nothing about real risks that may go back as far as the 1980s and could be current.

How did we get in this mess and how do we get out?

Until recently, when the Department of Education came in to assist. succeeding RIOC administrations showed their disregard for the community by making a shambles of record keeping. 

Some files were dumped loose in plastic bags, others apparently discarded.

RIOC's trying to salvage what it can and do better going forward, but the dirty little truth about the current crisis is that the State simply doesn't know much of anything about the past, except for the most recent constructions. Records were not saved. A contractor is now scouring City archives under the assumption, perhaps optimistic, that RIOC filed appropriately with them.

To be clear, we don't really know how we got into this mess - or its true, historical extent - because critical records about installation and maintenance were not retained.

A more immediate issue - and a critical one - is that RIOC personnel and/or contractors serviced their fountains and irrigation systems, year in and year out, without ever alerting anyone to hazards Frank Farance found by simply walking into a park.

Conclusion

The most peculiar feature of all this is that, had RIOC not shown its hand while trying to cover the butts responsible for the Southpoint Cat Sanctuary fiasco, it might've been years before another incident or serendipity got someone asking questions. In spite of a large pool of personnel working on grounds, RIOC paid little attention to hazards to which the public's been exposed.

One potential upshot is that countless people were sickened because they trusted a public source of drinking water, assuming it was being monitored. RIOC has not yet showed a flicker of apology.

As RIOC continues to dodge transparency like it's a tourist bus chugging down Fifth Avenue when you're outside the crosswalk, it's unreasonable to expect them to come clean about the extent their testing and what they've found.

But we hope that's wrong. As a public entity, RIOC has a responsibility to let the public know about risks we all may have been exposed to in the past, not simply issue limited assurances about the present and future. 

There are stories that need to be told.

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