Q+A: Understanding a Water Contamination Scare

Delaware River

An emergency alert notification had Philadelphians rushing to buy bottled water on Sunday, March 26, in the aftermath of a chemical leak that might have contaminated the Delaware River, one of the city’s main water sources. Though the chemicals ultimately did not affect the city’s water supply, the alert initially noted that tap water was safe to drink and use until 2 p.m. Sunday — yet recommended using bottled water “until further notice.” Subsequent communications about the possible contamination were met with confusion and frustration from citizens as the situation unfolded throughout the week.

A number of Drexel University researchers helped the public better understand what happened and the city’s response during the week – shedding light on health risks associated with the chemical that leaked from a latex plant in Bucks County into a tributary of the Delaware; Philadelphia’s water testing and treatment process; and the city’s emergency response procedures.

The Drexel News Blog compiled responses to some key questions fielded in media reports this week by Drexel experts Arthur Frank, MD, PhD, a professor in the Dornsife School of Public Health; Mathy Stanislaus, Esq., vice provost and executive director of The Environmental Collaboratory, Charles Haas, PhD, LD Betz professor of Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering; and Michelle Gannon, PhD, a post-doctoral researcher in the Academy of Natural Sciences and College of Arts and Sciences.

Why is Philadelphia concerned with a chemical spill in Montgomery County?

“The Baxter water treatment plant in Philadelphia draws its supply from the Delaware River. So anything that flows into the Delaware, whether it’s nearby or far away, will ultimately find its way past the intake for that supply,” Haas told NBC-10 in a March 27 story.

“We’re at the bottom of a large river with a lot of activity above us, so we need to be continually vigilant about what’s going on,” he explained on FOX-29’s “Good Day,” on March 28.

How harmful are the chemicals that leaked into the water?

“Even if the city detected a small amount that’s been diluted, there won’t be any expected toxic effects to anybody who might drink this,” Frank said in a March 27 Philadelphia Inquirer story. “I got asked earlier if I would drink Philly tap water today, and the answer I gave was, ‘Yes.’”

Would boiling the water Help, just to be safe?

“Boiling is not going to do anything for the chemicals concerned in this particular instance,” Haas said on FOX-29. “It’s boiling when you have some sort of microbiological contamination, but it doesn’t work for most chemical contaminations. In this particular case boiling is not going to do anything — boiling helps if it’s bacteria.”

Is there enough water in the Delaware River to dilute the chemicals?

“The spill was about 8,000 gallons and the lowest flow in the Delaware over the last week was about 4.5 million gallons per minute. So that’s a tremendous amount of dilution, which is why the city is still not finding anything above the detection limit,” Haas explained to FOX-29.

What happens at the Baxter Water Treatment Plant serving Philadelphia?

“[The Baxter Water Treatment Plant] has a raw water storage reservoir that pulls water from the Delaware. It sits in the reservoir for about a day; then it goes into a system where they add chemicals to settle out the solids; then it goes through a filtration process; then it’s chlorinated and put into the distribution system,” Haas told NBC-10. “Fortunately, the treatment plant has this storage basin — like a big bathtub — that can hold maybe one or two days of water, so if an incident occurs in the river [the plant] can shut off intake from the river and draw down what’s in the reservoir. So that’s what they’ve been using since they became aware of the chemical leak. The city has three water treatment plants, the Baxter plant on the Delaware and two on the Schuylkill River.”

The spill happened Friday night; should the public have been made aware, at the very least, that there was a chemical spill and appropriate agencies are going to be assessing the safety of the city’s drinking water?

“Yes – emergency ‘response 101’ is overcommunicate,” Stainslaus told NBC-10.

“The risk communication here has been very poorly played,” Haas said in a March 28 WHYY “Studio 2” interview. “When risk needs to be communicated, it should be communicated by people with the expertise.”

“There’s a tremendous amount of expertise in how to do risk communication correctly – you need to be up-front with knowledgeable people who tell the public what they know, what they’d don’t know and when they will get more information,” Haas said.

Sunday, the city first informed citizens that their tap water was safe to drink until 2 p.m. on Sunday, and then hours later, updated that time to 11:59 p.m. and then 3:30 p.m. on Monday — how are these safety deadlines set and what do they mean?

“The times are based on testing and taking water into the reservoir from the Delaware, and they know the water they are processing until then is safe,” Haas told NBC-10. “And based on the updated testing they will decide whether or not they continue to pull water in from the Delaware. The city has about a one-day storage of water they’re able to draw down from.

“They have a detailed model for how contaminants in the system behave and they are confirming that with laboratory testing results, so the time updates are their latest projections.”

“I’m a public health professional, and I was confused when they said, ‘Go get bottled water,’ and then hours later said, ‘No, no, there’s no real urgency to go do that,’” Frank told WHYY. “You’d like to think that they might have taken a little more time ahead of time, thought this through, looked at your options, and then put out an announcement — rather than putting one out and then changing it.”

What are some lessons we can learn from this situation to prevent it from happening again?

“These are preventable acts and there’s an underinvestment in prevention to prevent the worst-case scenario,” Stainslaus said to NBC-10. “Officials should pursue a root cause analysis of what went wrong and what measures are necessary to monitor and prevent seepage from an independent investigator.” “There should be public disclosure of the analysis results and a commitment from officials to implement the recommended prevention requirements for all facilities adjacent to water sources.”

“I really want to harp on the fact that we need to have consistent environmental monitoring because we won’t be able to tell if there was some kind of impact from a spill or something else like this without knowing what the baseline was,” Gannon told WHYY.

“We have a woefully unsupported infrastructure system on the water side and we have companies that had a problem that was likely preventable,” Frank said in a March 28 Vox story.

“The problem with the legal structure we have for water pollution is that it’s traditionally focused on point discharges – actual pipes that discharge wastewater – and this is an example of a non-point discharge that we haven’t regulated very strongly and is governed more by land-use codes than anything else,” Haas said on WHYY. “We should stop to consider, whether or not — especially with climate change — it does make sense to have noxious activities so close to the waterfront. But when you get to land-use controls [regulation] is even more decentralized down to the city, town and borough.”

Media interested in talking to Frank should contact Greg Richter, assistant director, News and Media Relations, at gdr33@drexel.edu or 215.895.2614.

Media interested in talking to Haas should contact Britt Faulstick, executive director, News and Media Relations, at bef29@drexel.edu or 215.895.2617

Media interested in speaking with Stanislaus or Gannon should contact Emily Storz, Associate Director of News and Media Relations at els332@drexel.edu or 215-895-2705.