Taking a harsher view of pollution

Drinking water is safer than 25 years ago. But, writes Dan McCarthy, we should not rest on our laurels, and stricter rules on water pollution should be supported

A series of articles on pharmaceuticals in US drinking water is raising public awareness of an issue that has long concerned water industry leaders: contaminants that impact on drinking water.

The well researched articles by Associated Press were widely distributed and sparked interest across a wide sector of the public. And that is a step in the right direction.

Increased public interest and involvement in the debate on the environment in general and water quality in particular can only be beneficial. Well informed consumers who understand the complexity of the issues being presented can make better decisions about supporting the increased investment necessary to improve water supplies globally, not just in the US.

The water industry, political leaders and the media must work together to help the public become better informed and to bring these issues front and centre, while being careful not to over-simplify the problems or create undue anxiety.

To understand the debate fully and to decide on appropriate actions, we should encourage consumers to look beyond the basic suggestions being offered. These have included: “Don’t use your toilet as a trash can for pharmaceuticals,” and “Don’t drink tap water.”

A bit of history, a little science and a synopsis of the current status of the water industry globally may help set the stage for increased understanding and dialogue.

In 1854, Dr John Snow demonstrated that a cholera epidemic sweeping parts of London was associated with the wells from which Londoners drew their drinking water. By establishing the link between drinking water and disease, Dr Snow laid the foundation for today’s sanitation and water treatment practices.

As science has advanced, so has our understanding of how water treatment can better safeguard us. Over the last few centuries, the advent of man-made chemicals has introduced new compounds into our water. This is where much of the complexity arises – determining which compounds, in what concentrations and under what circumstances, may be harmful in our water.

Continued improvements in analytical technologies have allowed detection of progressively smaller concentrations of some contaminants in water and have made us more aware that the risk exists. But we still have more to learn. Additional studies on human health impacts are necessary before water utilities and water utility regulators can fully assess the risks and address treatment options.


Global water industry service companies, like Black & Veatch, have teamed with global research groups, universities, utilities, government agencies and other entities to advance understanding of the most effective water and wastewater treatment technologies to protect our communities and environment.

A number of studies have shown that existing water treatment processes already exhibit varying degrees of effectiveness in the removal of many endocrine disrupter compounds (EDCs) and pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs).

Questions remain, however, about the effects of unintended chronic exposure to sub-therapeutic doses of pharmaceuticals by consuming water.

Further, while the concentrations of individual pharmaceuticals have not been a problem, additional research is needed to determine if the combined effects of various pharmaceuticals could cause problems.

The global water industry is intensely focused on identifying and removing any chemical, physical or biological material from our drinking water that is or that may be detrimental to our health. Where uncertainty exists, regulators and utility executives tend to focus on solutions that minimise the risks consumers face.

Those efforts have been largely successful as demonstrated by the health and wellbeing of the billions of consumers who depend on reliable, safe drinking water.

Well informed consumers who push for better water safety and quality – and are willing to pay reasonable rates – are an important part of this process. There are some important steps we as industry leaders should take.

We should make sure consumers have access to what they need to become educated on water quality issues. They do not need to become water scientists in order to contribute to the debate. A great deal of excellent educational material is available on the web from research foundations, water agencies and many local water utilities.

We need to help consumers focus on the facts. In most cases cited in the recent series of articles, the drinking water tested met all current regulations. And water utilities are committed to and successful at providing safe water to consumers. There is little evidence so far to support the hypothesis that environmental EDCs at levels encountered by the general population have produced adverse endocrine effects in humans.

But only a limited number of laboratories are capable of conducting trace analyses of contaminants, and analytical methods have not yet been developed for all of the EDCs and PPCPs that may occur in source water or drinking water.

We should encourage consumers to engage in solutions rather than stand on the sidelines. They can support university and federal government funding to address these issues and enable further development and application of targeted analytical methods that can quantify concentrations below currently known toxic thresholds for human and aquatic life.

Then we need to encourage consumers to support legislation that includes source water protection measures to reduce the release of contaminants to the environment once they are identified.


So let’s add a dose of objectivity to the debate. We know the good news is that drinking water today is safer than it was 25 years ago. And 25 years ago it was far safer than 150 years ago, when D Snow started his important work.

Yet water utilities – and global water service companies such as Black & Veatch – are not resting on their laurels and are taking appropriate measures to ensure safe, high-quality water for future generations. We all need to do our part and support those efforts.

Dan McCarthy is president and CEO of Black & Veatch’s global water business.

T: 01737 774155

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie