Wednesday, February 2, 2011


Safe Drinking Water Technology--A Century of Innovation

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Subject: [ENVIRO-NEWS] Safe Drinking Water Technology--A Century of Innovation
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Safe Drinking Water Technology--A Century of Innovation

The early decades of the 20th century marked the birth of legislative protection of U.S. drinking water, including new federal laws to protect forest lands as public water resources (1911) and the funding of public health research on "human diseases related to sewage and the pollution of streams and lakes" (1912). In the years since then, under Presidents ranging from William Howard Taft to Barack Obama, innovative federal research and engineering technologies have provided Americans with the highest drinking water standards in human history.

Early Days

Under the 1912 Congressional directive, officers of the Public Health Service (PHS) set up headquarters in the new Stream Pollution Investigation Station, located on the banks of the Ohio River in Cincinnati, Ohio, the nation's tenth largest city. There, a team of physicians, sanitary engineers, chemists, biologists and bacteriologists, working with the primitive laboratory equipment of the day, began the first comprehensive study of river pollution and natural stream restoration. Since very little was known about the chemistry, biology and physics of polluted streams, they developed methods and techniques as they went along.

By 1920, the investigative team had developed applications of two fundamental measures of water pollution still in use today: the Coliform Bacteria Index (How much bacteria in drinking water is too much?) and the Biochemical Oxygen Demand Test (How much oxygen is needed to restore depleted source waters?). This early research laid the groundwork for improved design and operation of U.S. drinking water and sewage treatment plants.

Over the next 20 years, scientists at the PHS station established criteria for determining the safety of streams and lakes as public drinking water sources, established pollution control requirements for the entire Ohio River system, and identified protections for fish and aquatic life habitats.

The War Years and Beyond

During World War II, the station's research staff made important contributions to the war effort, including the treatment and disposal of munitions and the testing of the effects of munitions waste in streams. They also studied the effects of military use of DDT for malarial control and developed water disinfection techniques for military field operations.

With the passage of the 1948 Water Pollution Act, the PHS station was renamed the Cincinnati Environmental Health Center and was moved into new state-of-the-art laboratories at the nearby Taft Sanitary Engineering Center. There, over the next 20 years, water specialists earned national and international recognition for their work in water pollution control and drinking water research.

During the 1950s, Taft microbiologists invented the Millipore filter and began pioneering studies in viral pollution. The emerging U.S. chemical and plastics industries that were expanding to serve a booming post-war economy posed new challenges for drinking water safety. Taft researchers sought to establish safe levels for chemicals in drinking water, along with methods for removing chemicals, bacteria and viruses from drinking water supplies. Traditional primary wastewater treatment was found to be inadequate, and new waste treatment technologies were developed to deal with the more complex waste streams threatening U.S. water resources. In 1962, new Drinking Water Standards, based on PHS research, were established to regulate 28 pathogens and chemical substances in all 50 states, a first for federal oversight.

The Public Takes Notice

By 1970, as the American public involvement in quality-of-life issues grew, the government had merged the environmental activities of more than a dozen federal agencies into the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The new agency chose the Cincinnati area as the site of its primary water research programs, in part because of the area's historic accomplishments in that field. A new $28 million research laboratory, the EPA Environmental Research Center, was completed in 1975, following the passage of the landmark 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act. When EPA launched a multi-million dollar program of construction grants for new water treatment facilities to replace inadequate treatment plants, the Environmental Research Center researchers and engineers refined treatment methods to help communities meet new water safety standards.

Restoration and Protection

The growing sophistication of research tools in the 1980s, including innovative molecular tracking technologies, identified new levels of health risks from microbes and chemicals in drinking water supplies. Supported by ongoing research programs, EPA regulations sought to balance the risks from all sources.

* Amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1986 banned lead solders, flux and pipes in public water supply systems.

* The 1989 Surface Water Treatment Rule recognized the risk of bacteria, viruses and other microbial pathogens in source waters, such as rivers, lakes or ground water aquifers, arising from leaking sewerage or runoff from large animal feedlots.

* In the 1990s, outbreaks of Cryptosporidium in community drinking water supplies revealed that traditional disinfectants such as chlorine were not effective against certain microbial pathogens, and researchers developed newer, safer disinfection practices.

* New challenges arose with the discovery that disinfectants could react to naturally occurring materials in water to form unwanted chemical compounds such as chloroform, posing potential new health risks.

* In the 1990s and 2000s, drinking water regulations set new minimum standards in public drinking water systems of 15 parts per billion for lead and 10 parts per billion for arsenic, reflecting the growing power of research to identify risks overlooked by older technologies.

* New threats from terrorist attacks against the U.S. prompted the growth of disinfection studies on emerging waterborne pathogens such as anthrax and other bio-threat and bio-warfare agents.

Looking Ahead

EPA's Office of Research and Development is currently working with internal and external partners to enhance water research programs for the nation's future needs. The final directions will evolve from current themes now under review:

* Ensure the holistic protection and restoration of watersheds to provide safe and sustainable water quality necessary for human and ecosystem health.

* Ensure sustainable water quality and availability to support the needs of healthy humans, ecosystems and economies.

* Ensure that water infrastructure is capable of the sustained delivery of safe drinking water; that the removal and treatment of wastewater is consistent with its sustainable and safe re-use; and that stormwater is managed in a sustainable manner while valuing the stormwater as a component of a sustainable water resource.

This wide-ranging mission is the natural outgrowth of the water safety research that had its beginnings a century ago. The efforts of research pioneers and visionaries over the years have set the scientific standards for the passage of legislation that continues to improve water safety for humans and the environment everywhere.

Media Contact: Steve Doub, 513-569-7503

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