A refreshing sip of water from the school water fountain is deceptively simple. Drinking water, essential for life, may bring health risks when it contains toxic, radiologic, or infectious agents—whether man-made or naturally occurring. Consequently, federal, state, county and municipal governments closely regulate drinking water quality. The system is good but has flaws that warrant serious attention from local education associations.
Safe drinking water standards
Under federal and New Jersey Safe Drinking Water Acts, water quality standards, maximum contaminant levels (MCL) or treatment methods, exist for more than 70 contaminants at some minimum level necessary to maintain public health. By law, New Jersey must adopt all federal water quality standards. The state also established MCLs for 18 additional contaminants, and set lower MCLs for several of the federally mandated contaminants. For example, in New Jersey the MCL for benzene, a carcinogen, is fi ve times lower than the federal MCL, thus the N.J. MCL is more protective of health.
A full listing of standards titled
“Federal and N.J. State Primary and Secondary Drinking Water Standards” is available on the NJ Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) Division of Water Supply’s (DSW) website.
School water systems
NJDEP Division of Water Supply focuses on ensuring New Jerseyans consistent drinking water quality and quantity. Water system classifi cation involves size and population served. There are two types of systems serving schools:
- Community public water systems, owned either by municipal governments or for-profi t companies, serving most schools.
- Non-transient non-community (NTNC) public water systems serving over 130 schools with drinking water wells.
Similar requirements apply to both community and non-community systems with several distinctions pertinent for local associations. Water quality must be analyzed by certifi ed laboratories that report results directly to the DEP. Operations at all community and NTNC systems must be under the direct supervision of licensed operators. NTNC systems must meet standards that require paperwork fi lings, consumer notifi cations, and periodic monitoring for different classes of contaminants depending upon geographic location using various sampling procedures at various intervals from daily to yearly and longer.
Monitoring requirements can change depending upon prior results. County health departments may sometimes grant monitoring waivers to NTNC systems. While school NTNC systems usually meet requirements, violations have occurred.
The Clinton experience
Clinton Township Education Association President Kathleen J. Collins, health and safety committee chairperson Marygrace Flynn, UniServ fi eld representative, Bill Render, and Adrienne Markowitz, a N.J. Work Environment Council (WEC) industrial hygiene consultant, reviewed documents obtained through Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests.
Water system reports for the Clinton school, which uses an NTNC system, showed monitoring was not always performed within the prescribed intervals and for all contaminant classes. Radiologic contaminant reports were absent although the school is located in northwestern New Jersey, where naturally occurring uranium and
Independent water analysis in Clinton identifi ed two volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—a common solvent and a chemical discontinued from use in the U.S. in the mid-1990s. Neither toxic chemical is regulated under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, but they are under NJDEP’s Site Remediation Program.
Hazardous contaminants may be migrating to the well from an NJDEP Known Toxic Site in the vicinity. Groundwater contamination, vapor intrusion and inhalation exposure from VOCs present a serious health risk at affected buildings across the state and particularly for schools.
The water sample also contained high levels of radon, a leading cause of lung cancer, second only to cigarette smoking. Since radon gas is released from water, reducing exposures can necessitate remediation or using an alternative water source. NJDEP has strong radon recommendations for schools.
Water action plan
Drinking water investigations are important for local associations, which should work with their UniServ fi eld representatives to do the following:
- Obtain the official name, identifi cation number, and type of school water system, (community or NTNC) name of licensed operator, and license renewal status.
- Consult Drinking Water Watch, the electronic database of NJDEP DSW, for water system information, monitoring results, defi ciency reports, and links to enforcement data. Visit private water company websites and get on their mailing lists.
- Review annual Consumer Confi dence Reports required of all public systems.
- Consult the county health department regarding monitoring requirements and waivers for district NTNC systems.
- Consult NJDEP’s Site Remediation Program regarding nearby Known Contaminated Sites, mitigation efforts, and water and building monitoring.
- Resist efforts to erode N.J. water quality standards or to provide lengthy extensions of compliance deadlines when health is involved.
WEC is leading a campaign to safeguard state standards, including those for water quality. See Forward not Back, For Good Jobs and Healthy Communities, We Need Stronger Safeguards not Weaker, www.njwec.org/PDF/Programs/ FactSheet_Regulations_2011.pdf.
NTNC system exemptions
Community systems must meet federal and state MCLs for radiologic contaminants and even private well owners must test for radiologic contaminants, but NTNC systems are exempt. In Burlington County a community public system was fi ned and ordered to take several wells offl ine until controls were installed. But the NTNC system at a nearby high school is not required to monitor or manage radiologic contaminants. This is a surprising regulatory exception since everyone served by public water systems is entitled to drink safely.
People often choose bottled water for convenience, image, and taste, but health concerns are present in such water options. Bottled water is less regulated and may not be the healthier choice. In addition, water coolers using bottled water need to be regularly sanitized, but this rarely happens. School staff and students will be best served by focusing on improving water quality from community public water systems and wells – not getting bottled water.
For more information
- N.J. Department of Environmental Protection: Division of Water Supply Technical assistance 609- 292-5550
- Drinking Water Watch www11.state.nj.us/DEP_WaterWatch_ public/index.jsp
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) http://water.epa.gov/drink