Water quality: A closer look into campus drinking fountains

Illustration by Andrei Vassiliev

Clean water. It’s a luxury we are lucky to have immediate access to, in comparison to other countries where people may have to travel miles to get the vital resource. But just how clean is the water we drink every day? The UWT campus, like most of Tacoma, is supplied water from Tacoma Public Utilities. This is water derived primarily from the Green River, a 231 square mile area that collects snow and seasonal rainfall from a part of the Cascade Mountains. Tacoma also gets water in times of high demand from 13 groundwater wells in South Tacoma.

TPU’s downtown treatment facility uses additives to make the water drinkable. Chlorine is added to kill hazardous microorganisms, but also reacts to organic material naturally found in lakes and streams which create disinfectant “byproducts,” so the amount of chlorine in proportion to the water is critical in creating as few of these as possible. In the late 1980’s, Tacoma residents voted to add fluoride to the drinking water to improve dental health, which is currently fluoridated at .8 ppm (parts per million parts of water). However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), warns that fluoridation of water can cause bone disease and “mottled teeth” in children. TPU began injecting Ozone into water in late 2007. It’s created when pure oxygen gas gets exposed to electricity in an ozone generator. It is injected into the water and lasts only a few minutes before dissipating. The last prevention method used is caustic soda, which raises water’s pH, making it less eroding to pipes and plumbing, which will in turn lower lead and copper levels at the faucet.

Elements deemed dangerous that are commonly found in drinking water such as Giardia lamblia and cryptosporidium are, for the most part, killed during TPU’s disinfecting process. The 2011 water quality report revealed that, although several harmful contaminants are present in the drinking water, they are at much lower levels than the limits federal requirements have set. Arsenic, found by the EPA to cause circulatory system damage, was present at 1 ppb (parts per billion), and up to 10 ppb is allowable. Nitrate is federally accepted as safe up to 10 ppm, but Tacoma’s water contained 4.55 ppm as of the 2011 findings. Nickel was tested at 3 ppb: substantially lower than the allowed 100 ppb. Barium, found to raise blood pressure, was tested to be at .004 ppm, well under the accepted 2 ppm. Chloroform is not regulated, but was found at .99 ppb.

Byproducts created by chlorine disinfectants such as Trihalomethane were at 29.7 ppb, inside the limit of 80, and Haloaceticacid is allowed until 60 ppb, but was lower at 38.7. These byproducts are related to disease of the kidney and liver, and problems with the central nervous system as well as increased levels of cancer. Data of lead inside resident’s tap water was less comforting: 14 ppb when 15 is the limit. The 2011 report excluded more than 100 volatile organic and synthetic chemicals that were tested for and not found.

Other forms of water contaminants are called ‘Total Dissolved Solids’. The World Health organization (WHO) defines TDS as “inorganic salts and small amounts of organic matter present in solution in water. The principal constituents are usually calcium, magnesium, sodium, and potassium cations and carbonate, hydrogencarbonate, chloride, sulfate, and nitrate anions.” Reports of the negative health benefits of TDS are not currently available, although an Australian study found that death rates from “ischaemic heart disease” and heart attacks were increased in areas with higher levels of dissolved solids in their drinking water. Components of TDS have been known to corrode the inside of “water pipes, water heaters, boilers, and household appliances such as kettles and steam irons” which cut the appliance’s lifespan.”

While current levels of pathogens in UWT’s drinking water were not available, testing for TDS is a simple process. A digital TDS meter is a cheap and quick way to determine the levels of TDS in any given water amount, and can be bought online for under $20. 0-50 ppm is ideal drinking water, and 500 is the EPA’s maximum contamination limit. The drinking fountains throughout UWT’s campus were all found be between 23-30 ppm. Interestingly, the filtered water bottle filling stations attached to some of the fountains were all 2-3 ppm higher in TDS than the water fountain itself.

These encouragingly clean results from the fountains are not surprising: UWT is a campus doing all it can to be at the forefront of clean water innovation. Last April, Governor Christine Gregoire approved $2 million in funding for the “Clean Water Innovation Development and Technology Transfer Laboratory,” and $800,000 for equipment to improve commercial development of water disinfecting technology at the Centre for Urban Waters in Downtown Tacoma. In partnership with WSU Puyallup, UWT science and engineering students work to solve pressing issues in today’s society.

Clean water is a luxury, and having the funding to improve research and technology to achieve it is an even greater one.