Water, water, everywhere, but is it safe to drink?

Dorchester Banner/Gloria Rojas Dr. Chris Wiant, Dr. Bruce Bernard, Stephen Hubbs, Robert Vincent, Barbara Soule, Dr. Robert Morris, Fred Reiff, and Linda Goldner, members of the Water Quality and Health Council met in Cambridge to discuss water quality issues.

Dorchester Banner/Gloria Rojas
Dr. Chris Wiant, Dr. Bruce Bernard, Stephen Hubbs, Robert Vincent, Barbara Soule, Dr. Robert Morris, Fred Reiff, and Linda Goldner, members of the Water Quality and Health Council met in Cambridge to discuss water quality issues.


CAMBRIDGE — If you open the tap for a drink of water in Cambridge, you are very fortunate. The 1.5 million gallons of water distributed by our Municipal Authority is sampled and checked daily by qualified, licensed workers — July 4 and Christmas included. Your tap water comes, not from surface water like lakes, rivers, and streams, which can be contaminated by human and animal waste, or by washing, and agricultural runoff, instead the water is drawn from three deep wells, hundreds of feet below sea level. Its only additive is chlorine. The chlorine is added to ensure the clean aquifer water remains clean as it passes through the long distribution system. Everyone is not so lucky.

Researchers say every day, in many countries, scores of children die from water-related illnesses. Even schools and clinics can lack clean water. And every day, in these countries, women and children spend millions of hours hauling the family’s water. The recent crisis in Flint, Mich. illustrates that even in the United States, public water supplies need monitoring.

Just last week, a research and advisory group, the Water Quality and Health Council, (WQHC) met here in Cambridge, not to study Cambridge’s plentiful, sparkling water, but to examine some worldwide situations that require fixing. For many people, the water supply is the nearest river or lake, what scientists are calling “the multipurpose waterbody.”
(See picture.) They have analyzed the water and know that despite fecal contamination, it serves as drinking, bathing, and washing water as well as the source of water to care for crops. One of the stated goals of WQHC is to ensure available and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, a monumental task.

The WQHC is one of the nine teams that make up the Global Water Pathogen Project, described as the largest coordinated effort of scientists to work on a global program for the United Nations. Their research and opinions also serve industry, public health officials, media, and the general public. The WQHC webpage is also a source for information closer to home — like the health effect of bird droppings in pools, or protecting yourself from the Zika virus with mosquito control.

Who are these people who descended on Cambridge, lugging their extensive expertise and relevant skills? Dr. Chris Wiant, a CEO in the public health field, chairs the group. He led the discussion on solutions for Flint, Mich., and its current crisis with a lead-contaminated water supply. Experts agree the lead poisoning issue was mismanaged, but the task of finding blame is not a concern for this council as much as considering not only the efficacy of several options, but also the expense of solutions.

Dr. Bruce Bernard, resident of Cambridge and host of the conference, is a prominent toxicologist in animal and human health, plus environmental science. Stephen Hubbs is a civil engineer, experienced in building clean water supply systems. He reported on his recent work in Honduras where some areas are seeing improvements, like reduced numbers of mosquito-borne illnesses and diarrhea because of chlorination in the wells of three villages. The plan is to extend the help to additional villages that need it.

Robert Vincent, environmental administrator of Florida Department of Health, is on top of the Zika virus threat. Public Health nurse Barbara Soule is an epidemiologist from Washington State and a member of the Joint Commission. Dr. Robert Morris has worked for both federal and state agencies in public health. Fred Reiff, past director of the Pan American Health Organization has been at this water challenge for a long time. He was an instrumental part of setting the international standards of water quality. Linda Goldner brings in a different skill and viewpoint. She is a consumer advocate and past president of the National Consumers League.

It was fortunate the group met on a lovely day at a lovely spot … where the Choptank River and the Chesapeake come together. Such a beautiful expanse of water can make even a panel of experts forget about pathogens and contaminations, if only for a little while.

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