Longmont, Boulder water quality good, but advocacy group says room for improvement

Database shows contaminant levels far below EPA health standards

Longmont, Boulder water quality good, but advocacy group says room for improvement
Longmont, Boulder water quality good, but advocacy group says room for improvement

The quality of Longmont and Boulder’s drinking water is good, but according to the Environmental Working Group, a national advocate specializing in toxic chemicals and drinking water pollutants, it could be better. Doing so, though, would take a significant investment.

As part of a new drinking water database compiled using data from state water utilities and the Environmental Protection Agency, the Environmental Working Group found trace amounts of chromium, radium, and trihalomethanes in Longmont’s drinking water — all three of which can increase the risk of cancer if consumed in high quantities.

The database also showed trace amounts of chromium and trihalomethanes in Boulder’s drinking water.

While all of the levels are significantly below the EPA’s health standards, and represent some of the lowest concentrations in the state, the Environmental Working Group proposed those levels should be reduced as detection and disinfection technology improves.

“More than half of what we’re able to detect in our drinking water these days don’t even have federal standards and there have been no new federal drinking water regulations passed in nearly 20 years, so we’re not really keeping up with current science,” said Tasha Stoiber, the Environmental Working Groups senior scientist. “We can definitely do better.”

For example, Longmont’s drinking water contains chromium and radium, two naturally occurring metallic elements, at levels two and four times higher than the public health goals set forth by California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

Levels of trihalomethanes, which consists of four chemicals — chloroform, bromodichloromethane, dibromochloromethane, and bromoform — that form when chlorine reacts with organic material during the disinfection process, were nearly 200 times higher than California’s health goals.

In Boulder, chromium levels were seven times higher than California’s public health goals and trihalomethanes were 270 times higher.

“These health guidelines are the gold standard,” Stoiber said of California’s benchmarks. “It’s what the level would be to pose no health risks, or below 1 in 1 million cancer risk. The good news about (the levels of contaminants in Boulder and Longmont’s water), is that they can be removed with filters.”

For either city to entirely remove chromium, radium, and trihalomethanes from drinking water, Bob Allen, director of operations for Longmont Public Works and Natural Resources, said it would require a new membrane facility, capable of filtering out contaminants at a molecular level, but he estimated it would cost five times more than the city’s $43 million Nelson-Flanders Water Treatment Plant.

With water quality already so high, he said, it would likely not be worth the investment.

He also noted that while home filtration system can be useful, if not operated properly or if the filter is not regularly changed, it can result in a build up of contaminants that, when eventually released, actually pose a far greater health risk than if one simply drank the city’s tap water.

“I always put it like this,” he said. “In the 1800s the average lifespan was about 38. By 1900 it was 48. By 2000 it was almost 80. Most of those advances came as a result of improvements in food production and water quality. However, most believe the average lifespan will max out at 100 years in ideal conditions, so you get to a point where there are diminishing returns in treating water. The reason life expectancy isn’t at 100 by now is largely due to diet, obesity and drug use, not these really tiny contaminants that remain in drinking water.”

While Allen said it’s always a good idea to review health standards and adjust accordingly, he said the Environmental Protection Agency has rightly focused its resources on improving other health standards, like air quality, that could have a larger impact.

That being said, Allen noted that as technologies improve and become more affordable, cities could look to use membrane treatments, like many European cities do, which leave only H2O behind.

“I’ve been in the water industry since 1980 and I love that we’re continually trying to improve quality,” he said. “I’m really proud of the work we’ve done over the years, but there’s not a whole lot more we can do with it.”