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Your Water Isn’t as Pure as You May Have Thought

June 19, 1995

BOIL YOUR drinking water. That was the message last week from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency to Americans with weak immune systems.

The surprising message, couched in cautious official language, is aimed at people infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS; cancer patients on chemotherapy drugs; and organ-transplant recipients taking immunosuppressive drugs to prevent rejection. Those people _ who number about five million, according to the CDC _ risk death from tap-water contaminants.

That’s bad enough. But the unprecedented warning also points to gaps in water purity just when the country’s water-protection laws may be imperiled by another epidemic: the antiregulatory fever sweeping Washington.

It isn’t just one group sounding the alarm. For a change, all the players _ government agencies, environmental groups and the American Water Works Association, a water-utilities group _ are on the same side. Their advice: Boil your water, use well-tested bottled water or install filters that screen out particles as small as one micron, or a millionth of a meter.

How is it that U.S. tap water, long a source of national pride, now warrants a government warning of unprecedented scope?

The move follows seven outbreaks of cryptosporidium parvum in U.S. drinking water. Crypto is an elusive parasite excreted by cattle and other animals into watersheds. It isn’t filtered out there. It isn’t killed by chlorine treatment. And no drug can stop it from running its course, though azithromycin and paramomycin may lessen symptoms. In healthy humans, it causes a sort of home-grown turista. For those with fragile health, it can be lethal.

IN MILWAUKEE, an outbreak in 1993 sickened 403,000 people, or about half the city’s population, with stomach upsets and diarrhea. Texas, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Washington and Nevada also have suffered crypto outbreaks.

More than 100 citizens died in Milwaukee’s ``crypto crisis.″ Among them was Julie Drews, a 17-year-old cancer patient from Hartland, Wis., who contracted the intestinal bug. Her immunity weakened by chemotherapy, Julie suffered dehydration and wasting and died in October 1993.

Two years after Julie’s death, her mother is puzzled by expected moves to relax drinking-water standards. ``I’ve been waiting for them to toughen laws,″ Janet Drews says. ``Now they want to weaken them. Who are they protecting?″

The regulatory moratorium now being called for will delay water cleanup. Draft proposals circulating in Congress would effectively weaken standards, soften testing requirements and reduce public notification of water violations, environmentalists say. While one Senate proposal acknowledges the crypto threat, it adds procedural steps that would slow EPA action.

Many cities still use water-cleaning technology dating to World War I; the systems filter water through sand and alum and treat it with chlorine, the National Resources Defense Council says. None of that is guaranteed to trap tiny crypto.

The good news is that several cities are going the extra mile for water purity. Since the 1993 crisis, Milwaukee has begun an $89 million upgrade of its water system. Cincinnati and Seattle also get high marks for initiatives to enhance filtration plants and shield watersheds from pollutants. Seattle’s measures include keeping cattle from walking through watershed areas.

When politicians complain about the cost of such programs, be skeptical. The Milwaukee program costs $16.80 a year per customer. Cincinnati’s aggressive treatment of water from its Ohio River source costs $25 a year per household, says Erik Olson of the National Resources Defense Council. It’s more than we’re used to paying for tap water. It’s also less than a year’s supply of Evian or Poland Spring.

WHAT CAN consumers do? If you’re concerned about what’s on tap, and don’t wish to rely on the bottled, fizzy or French stuff, Mr. Olson of the NRDC advises several courses of action:

_ Get local utility or state water-testing results. Utilities are required by law to announce instances of water contamination. New York and California issue annual reports to consumers, but many other states and communities aren’t so forthcoming. If they refuse, contact the EPA.

_ Consider home testing for major contaminants such as lead. The tests are inexpensive, costing between $10 and $25. Screening for chlorine byproducts and bacteria costs between $50 and $100. If you’re in doubt, advice is available from the EPA hotline in Washington.

_ If you learn your tap water carries a particular contaminant, consider buying a home filter certified by the National Sanitation Foundation in Ann Arbor, Mich. These range from ceramic or carbon filters to reverse-osmosis or distillation treatments.

The full dimensions of waterborne illness have yet to be determined. Indeed, a study by University of Quebec researcher Pierre Payment suggests about a third of what’s called ``stomach flu″ may be attributable to tap-water systems that comply with current laws.

For now, a boil-water advisory will have to do until the U.S. can control crypto. But basing future water policy upon caveat emptor could seriously dilute American health.

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