Louisiana’s tap water experiences a significant increase in harmful chemicals, leading to concern over the alarming levels.
Recent water tests conducted by the state of Louisiana have revealed a notable rise in disinfection byproducts, which are harmful contaminants, in the water supply for a community along the Gulf coast. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns that prolonged exposure to these substances can lead to a higher risk of cancer.
The results have come to light as numerous inhabitants of Louisiana’s southern coast have experienced the infiltration of saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico.
During the beginning of summer, the occurrence of drought and increased sea levels has caused the movement of salty seawater into the Mississippi River. This influx of saltwater has rendered a significant portion of the area’s water unfit for consumption. However, concerns have been raised by health professionals regarding the potential long-term effects of saltwater intrusion on the region’s aging water systems, including the possibility of corrosion, contamination with heavy metals, and other related issues.
Recent state testing in the lower Plaquemines parish has revealed an increase in two sets of substances that are produced during the process of water disinfection. According to the EPA, prolonged exposure to these chemical groups raises the likelihood of developing cancer.
The increase was deemed surprising by professionals interviewed by the Guardian.
“Wow,” exclaimed Dr. Susan Richardson, a professor of chemistry at the University of South Carolina, after reviewing the results. “These concentrations are extremely high.”
In many areas, drinking water from the tap has been treated with substances that eliminate bacteria and viruses. This method of treatment produces chemicals that can be safe in small amounts. However, when seawater is introduced into a water treatment facility, it needs a higher level of disinfection. The chemicals created from disinfecting seawater are particularly harmful.
Since 2021, the Port Sulphur water district has experienced elevated levels of two types of disinfection byproducts, namely trihalomethanes (THMs) and haloacetic acids (HAA5s). These substances have been identified by the EPA as potential causes of cancer.
In August, the water department issued a statement informing the public that the amount of total THMs exceeded the 80ppb limit set by the EPA. According to the notice, recent tests found levels of total THMs at 135ppb and 128ppb.
The statement clarifies that both the Louisiana state health department and EPA do not believe this violation will have any significant negative impact on human health from brief exposure. The notice emphasizes that this is not an urgent matter and if it were, you would have been promptly informed.
However, a recent examination conducted by the state health department on September 5th revealed that the overall level of THMs in the Port Sulphur water district, which provides water to 9,000 individuals, had significantly increased to 761 parts per billion (ppb). This is nearly 10 times higher than the maximum limit set by EPA regulations. Richardson stated that these were the highest recorded levels she has encountered in her professional experience.
On the same day, a second sampling location in the Port Sulphur water district found 676 parts per billion of total THMs. Two weeks later, on September 18, additional testing revealed similarly elevated levels at both sampling sites. In one test, the HAA5 levels had risen to 149 parts per billion.
The tests revealed elevated levels of a toxic substance called bromoform, which is produced when bromide, a naturally occurring compound in seawater, is disinfected. According to Richardson, the levels of bromoform were over 100 times higher than the standard for safe drinking water, causing great concern. The EPA has classified bromoform as a likely carcinogen for humans.
After being asked for a statement, Jeff DiMarco, the director of public service in Plaquemines parish, reassured that the water in the parish is safe to drink and use for bathing. When questioned about higher levels of THMs, DiMarco expressed no worries. However, the state department of health has started to closely monitor disinfection byproducts.
On October 19th, the church lifted a warning about the drinking water in the lower areas, which had been without safe water for almost four months. However, shortly after, they had to issue a new warning to boil the water due to a decrease in pressure.
During a recent interview with the Guardian, Plaquemines parish president Keith Hinkley claimed that the water was safe for consumption despite concerns about saltwater intrusion.
Specialists came to a consensus that the recent increase in disinfection byproducts was likely caused by the intrusion of saltwater.
According to Treavor Boyer, a water systems engineer at Arizona State University, the main factor influencing this is the level of bromide in the seawater. Boyer has conducted experiments that mimic the intrusion of seawater from the Gulf of Mexico. While freshwater has low levels of bromide, it is naturally found in high amounts in seawater and seaweed.
Richardson, who studies the presence of disinfection byproducts in drinking water, was surprised by the test results and made sure to check for any potential errors in the figures.
According to Boyer, the water test results in Port Sulphur are in line with expectations for seawater entering a water system. He also stated that the temporary solution being used by the parish, which involves mixing in fresh river water with the seawater, is causing favorable conditions for higher levels of disinfection byproducts.
‘I wouldn’t recommend drinking that water.’
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates disinfection byproducts in drinking water to maintain low levels. Studies have shown that extended exposure to these byproducts can cause cancer and reproductive issues in laboratory animals.
According to Dr. Rena Jones from the National Cancer Institute, THMs have consistently been associated with a higher risk of bladder cancer. A study found that 5% of bladder cancer cases in the European Union can be attributed to THMs. Jones also mentioned there is some evidence indicating that THMs and HAA5s may increase the risk for colorectal, breast, and uterine cancers.
There are indications that elevated THM levels may have negative effects in the immediate future. Jones mentioned that studies involving animals have linked brief exposure to certain disinfection byproducts with potential harm to the liver, kidneys, and nervous system.
Although the research is limited, Richardson stated, “I would advise against drinking that water at this time.”
A significant number of individuals living in the Port Sulphur area have refrained from consuming tap water since June due to its high salt content. However, it should be noted that THMs can also be absorbed through the skin and inhaled as steam during hot showers. Some experts estimate that taking a 10-minute shower can result in exposure equivalent to drinking 2.5 liters (0.66 gallons) of water.
According to Erik Olson, a representative of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the state test scores are “highly troubling.”
A chemical smell
Decreasing the level of organic material in water can decrease the presence of disinfection byproducts, which can be achieved through methods like implementing a carbon filter or reverse osmosis system. The Port Sulphur water treatment facility has recently acquired reverse osmosis and microfiltration equipment. However, laboratory findings on the effectiveness of reverse osmosis in purifying Port Sulphur water are currently unavailable.
In the interim, various individuals living in the area have expressed a lack of knowledge regarding the problems with the water.
Katie Mazarac, a resident, stated that she was not aware of the ongoing issue of high levels of disinfection byproducts.
Residents in this area have been expressing worries about their water for several months. Mazarac has been particularly worried about the water since the spring and has taken measures such as performing water tests at home and taking her child to a pediatrician to check for heavy metals.
Throughout the summer months, citizens were concerned about the state of the water. Catherine Vodopija, a lifelong resident of lower Plaquemines, expressed her worries by stating, “Our water would often emit a sewage-like odor. It would also discolor our clothing and appear cloudy, with fumes rising from the glass. The scent was reminiscent of chemicals, like gasoline and diesel. It was truly terrifying.”
The state mandates that Plaquemines’ sole local newspaper publish public notifications of increased THMs every three months. In addition, notices were sent to residents through mail.
However, the notification was written in English, and the lower Plaquemines parish has a significant number of Vietnamese immigrants who are employed in the shrimp industry. Sandy Nguyen, from Coastal Communities Consulting, which focuses on promoting language accessibility for coastal fishermen, approximates that approximately 15% of adults in lower Plaquemines are not proficient in English. Additionally, Plaquemines is also the residence of Indigenous members from the United Houma Nation and the Grand Bayou Indian Village.
This area contains one of the biggest seafood ports in the country, where numerous boats dock and unload shrimp, redfish, and oysters.
Long Ly, a Vietnamese immigrant, has limited proficiency in English. She has been managing the shrimp dock on Tiger Pass Road since 1997, which was one of the areas where an increase in total THM levels was identified last month.
Ly was unconcerned when questioned about her water supply. She promptly scooped water into her hands and took a drink from the dock’s tap.
“It’s fine,” she stated, drying her hands by shaking them. “Just a bit of salt.”