Thirsty for more

Water quality reports are misleading, cryptic and incomplete

May 20, 2015
In Hickory, North Carolina, the water tastes like chemicals, but the official quality report says everything is fine. [Image credit: Wikimedia Commons user Ángelo González

I’m thirsty. My throat is dry, my mouth is a cavern, and my tarred and feathered tongue feels cemented in place. My eyeballs are two spherical deserts, desperate to soak up any remaining moisture in my body. The panic sets in. I am so thirsty.

I wake up like this every morning I spend at my parents’ place in Hickory, a typical suburban town in the foothills of North Carolina. People navigate Hickory in cars down three main roads: Highway 321, Highway 70 and Highway 127. Drinking water comes from Lake Hickory — a dammed up portion of the Catawba River. According to Hickory’s 2013 Annual Drinking Water Report, Lake Hickory has a high “susceptibility rating,” meaning there’s a “potential for contamination due to vehicles, road runoff and development.”

Our house is an hour from the Blue Ridge Parkway, an hour from Charlotte, and about five minutes from the appropriately named PU Water Treatment Plant.

Hickory drinking water smells like chlorine and tastes like I’d imagine water would if it sat for a week inside an old tire during a heat wave.  I don’t drink it. I don’t know anyone who does, except maybe my dad, but he eats rotting meat and dog food, too. I don’t think anything could survive in that water.

According to the report, nothing does. The number of microbial contaminants found in the water is zero. With treatment, it’s no wonder. This chemical cocktail contains trace levels of disinfectants such as chlorine and two cancer-causing byproducts. Despite being noticeably unpalatable, Hickory water complies completely with the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).

When Congress passed the SDWA in 1974, the goal was to protect the health of Americans by setting and regulating drinking water standards. This law ensures that disinfectants kill bad bugs, not you. Thanks to SDWA, water disinfection stopped cholera and typhoid. But in the past 20 years, bugs like cryptosporidium — a parasite that can cause dangerous diarrhea — grew stronger, and the disinfectant process grew harsher. As part of a 1996 amendment to the law, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires that public water suppliers provide Consumer Confidence Reports. The intention is good: it’s the public’s right to know what’s in their water.

But the problem is that a lot of us don’t know these documents exist. I wouldn’t have known about Hickory’s report without extensive Googling. And if I hadn’t just learned that these reports have been released every July since the late 1990s, I would have thought 2013 was the only one. This ignorance is only the beginning of my frustrations. After more than 16 hours spelunking the Internet to understand the contents of this report, I’m as confused as ever. The reports are not only misleading, but also cryptic and incomplete. Almost 20 years since the last revision, the SDWA is due a revisit.

According to the most recent report, Hickory’s water is fine: No bad microbes to make us sick, and no radioactive radon either. (This is good news, because if radon, which occurs naturally underground and in air, gets into our water system, it increases the risk of stomach cancer). And although there were traces of heavy metals and cancer-causing byproducts of the disinfectant process — at levels high enough to detect with my nose and taste buds — the amounts were within EPA guidelines.

The report leaves some people high and dry, though. For pregnant women and young children, the report makes a suggestion about lead: flush pipes for up to two minutes. Test your own water. Call the EPA hotline. The same thing goes for others with compromised immune systems: transplant recipients, chemotherapy patients, HIV/AIDS patients, infants and the elderly.

It might be better phrased: If you ever see this report, call your healthcare provider and ask if you should actually be drinking our water.

I’m no Indiana Jones, but using the special key provided and a few clicks of the keyboard, I finally decoded the acronym-filled report. I’ll save you the letters, and just give you the translations. I learned that disinfectants chemically react with total organic carbons, such as decaying plants, and form byproducts like the cancer-causing compounds known as haloacetic acids and trihalomethanes.

According to the EPA, about four out of five Americans are exposed to disinfectant byproducts in their daily drinking water. In Hickory, large-but-legal levels of decaying plant matter means a lot of disinfecting, and a lot of disinfecting means a lot of byproducts. To get rid of those byproducts, Hickory’s plant bathes the water in extra chemicals.

The EPA requires treatment facilities to monitor these total organic carbons and disinfectant byproducts daily, but facilities are only required to report averages and ranges (in a year, contamination levels as a whole might stay below average, but range from 0 to 100 percent). Unknown and unregulated disinfectant byproducts don’t have to be measured or reported. The EPA allows no more than the maximum contaminant levels, based on normal adult metabolisms, which aren’t mentioned in the report.

In Hickory’s 2013 report, the average trihalomethane levels were below the maximum allowed, but the highest level reached was quite close to maxing out. Although the report clearly states that years of exposure to trihalomethane levels above the maximum can lead to serious health problems, it fails to mention that levels of trihalomethanes and other byproducts in the water can change from day to day depending on the time of year, water temperature, disinfectant dose and the amount of plant material in the water.  While averages are helpful, it’d be nice to know what days to avoid the tap.

With more decoding, I learned that the EPA has some nice ideas that aren’t really working. Maximum contaminant level goals aim to decrease contaminants to safe levels, but Hickory didn’t report a lot of these goals because they either weren’t established or required by the Safe Drinking Water Act.

So should you drink Hickory water? The report says you should — if you’re not too old, too young, too pregnant or too sick. I’m none of those, but I’d rather be so parched that my face becomes a desert.

What the Consumer Confidence Report needs is more confidence. Use charts if necessary, and even better, include daily numbers. It’s 2015; would it be a stretch to publish these numbers on the web in real time? Involve the community more. Do the same with drinking water as what’s being done with air quality reports. Oh and please, tell us what’s being dumped in the water when and why. Be blatant. Explain. Give us some context.

About the Author

JoAnna Klein

JoAnna Klein is a scientist and writer from North Carolina, currently based in Brooklyn. She has a master’s in Psychology from Appalachian State University and worked four years in Dr. Joseph LeDoux’s world-renowned neuroscience lab. JoAnna helped launch Ochre, a new blog for visual storytelling with Blue Chalk Media in the summer of 2014. JoAnna is enthusiastic about compelling imagery, solid storyline and immersive multimedia experiences.



Very interesting article about our Hickory water. You accurately described my own waking moments every morning. Even this very moment, come to think about it. I usually drink only filtered water, but out of laziness and desperation, I have recently succombed to serving up the tap water from our PU Waterworks, just down the street. Thanks for reminding me to go back to filtered water. As you know, I avoid rotten meat and dog biscuits. I don’t need to risk consuming the local tap water, either.

Sara Rowe says:

Im pretty sure our water has a high amount of unsafe chemicals due to our skin itching n burnin each time we bathe and kidney problems and tooth issues. The water taste like pool water and dosent quench your thirst.. wish I knew what to do….

beata sims says:

Thank you so much for all your research. I know it took more than 16 hours. I was considering moving to Hickory. I am 50 yo and want to spend the rest of my life in a most possible healthy environment. You just ruled out Hickory for me.

Don Newsome says:

My family has lived here in the Mt.View community just outside of Hickory since 1968. The information regarding our Hickory city water that is piped here is not surprising but is horrifying. My father, mother, and three dogs all died of cancer. I don’t drink the water but there’s no getting away from showering, washing clothes and dishes with this city water. I can’t say that I rejoice in reading of water problems described in the other posts however at least it does give an affirmation to my suspicions. I too wish I knew what to do!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


The Scienceline Newsletter

Sign up for regular updates.