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Saturday, February 02, 2013

Is Your Drinking Water Contaminated by Utility Poles?

These days, many people purchase bottled spring water, bottled filtered water, and/or have their own water filtration system attached to their faucet. This is partly due to improved taste perceptions but is also often due to fears of water contamination. While public water is usually safe to drink there are always exceptions. The risks are increased with private well water.

In the most recent issue of the American Journal of Public Health, researchers described two scenarios of private drinking water being contaminated from utility poles treated with pentachlorophenol (PCP). PCP is a chemical that is used as a wood preservative to coat utility poles in the U.S. This helps utility poles last for 35 years as opposed to 7 years when untreated. PCP is also used as a pesticide and disinfectant and is also used as a wood coating for railroad ties.

PCP is known to be highly toxic and can degrade slowly in the environment (taking up to 5 years depending on the bacteria present in the soil). It can cause harm to the body by short-term exposure to high levels or from long-term exposure to low levels. PCP can damage multiple organs and body systems such as the brain, kidneys, and liver. It can also poison the blood and is known to be carcinogenic (cancer causing).

In the U.S., PCP levels in the water supply must be measured by water companies and disclosed to the public if it exceeds a certain level (0.001 milligrams per liter). A milligram is one thousandth of a gram so only a very small amount of PCP is allowed in water.

In the study in the American Journal of Public Health, two scenarios in Vermont were described in which private drinking water was contaminated by PCP from utility poles. Specifically, two people called the Vermont Health Department due to chemical-like (e.g., gasoline smell) smell in their drinking water, one from a shallow dug well and another from a private spring. In the first case, the cause was determined to be a utility pole coated with PCP that was likely in contact with the water table. In the second case, the cause was three new utility poles placed by a private spring. Both people were advised to avoid contact with the water.

When the water was tested, the PCP level was 2.06 milligrams per liter in the first case (2000 times the accepted level) and 0.007 milligrams per liter in the second case. In both cases, the utility company replaced the PCP poles with non-treated cedar poles. In the first case, a new well was dug. In the second case, a filtration system was put in place. The water then tested negative for PCP in each case.

Interestingly, the authors note that environmental regulations do not apply to PCP treated poles. For example, while the Environmental Protection Agency can regulate the sale and use of pesticides, there is an exemption if pesticides are used as a protective treatment. The authors recommended better utility pole placement guidelines (e.g., not near wells), using non-treated poles, cement/metal poles, or less toxic wood treatments, and removing legal exemptions for utility poles.

Suggested reading: The Drinking Water Book: How to Eliminate Harmful Toxins from Your Water

Reference: Karlsson L, Cragin L, Center G, Giguere C, Comstock J, Boccuzzo L, Sumner A. Am J Public Health. (2013). Pentachlorophenol Contamination of Private Drinking Water From Treated Utility Poles. 103(2):276-277.

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