A few weeks ago I was filling my water bottle at one of the drinking fountains at Grand Rapids Community College, and I realized it had never crossed my mind before what processing the water goes through. Although I had never previously questioned the quality of the water I drink, but with all of the water quality issues facing Flint, Rockford, and Oscoda, I couldn’t help but wonder if our water in Grand Rapids was at risk as well.
In an attempt to learn more about our water, The Collegiate took a trip to the Lake Michigan Filtration Plant in Grand Haven to view the water treatment process. During the trip, Mike Grenier, the plant’s superintendent, described the steps the water goes through before reaching our tap. The cycle starts by pumping water out of Lake Michigan using two pump lines a mile long. The water enters two stations on Lake Michigan and gets pumped to the main facility.
From there, chemicals are added to the water to sanitize it. Chlorine starts the disinfection process and also controls zebra mussels. Aluminum sulfate is also added to help remove unwanted colors and turbidity by attaching to the dirt and pulling it down. The process continues into multiple settling basins then to an accelerator, which slowly mixes the particles together and attaches them to each other so they can get heavier and settle down. Anything that doesn’t settle down gets taken out in the sand filters, which contain a layer of anthracite, a layer of crushed coal and then another layer of sand to polish the water on its way out.
Fluoride is added to the water at this stage, which reduces tooth decay and cavities. Grand Rapids was the first community in the United States to put fluoride in the water in 1944. The last chemical added is phosphate, which coats the inside of the pipes to prevent the leaching of copper.
At this stage the water is potable, which ends up in the reservoirs of the plant and gets pumped into town. The water is bleached again before it’s pumped to the city. This last step is to ensure that any water that comes back into the distribution pipes from someone’s property that is contaminated by incorrectly laid plumbing does not get back into the pipes.
The distribution pipes are something else that employees at the plant need to consider. Depending on their condition, materials that they were made of and their age, the city decides whether to change or maintain the pipes “There are pipes that are 70, 80 years old… The age of the pipe is not the driver, it’s what it was made of and how it was laid,” Garnier said.
In recent years, a chemical family called polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) was brought to the public’s attention nationwide.
PFAS is part of a chemical family that doesn’t exist naturally. The chemical was invented in the 1930s and has been widely used since the 1940s. The unique properties of PFAS is water and oil repellency and temperature resistance. PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) are PFAS compounds found in a wide range of products used by consumers and industries like coatings for wood, textiles, paint, paper products and cookware. PFAS was also used in firefighting foams, construction, electronics, automotive and aviation industries.
In 2017, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality tested over 20 wells for their PFAS levels in Rockford area. Fourteen contained some level of PFAS, and sevenhad levels that placed above the safe limit. Since it has reached the water plate, the chemicals found their way to rivers and therefore to Lake Michigan.
The chemical is measured in the water by parts per trillion (ppt). The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set the margin of protection, from a lifetime of exposure to PFOA and PFOS from consuming water, to 70 ppt. The safety levels are different from one state to another. The State of Michigan has adopted the EPA recommended safety level.
Right now in Lake Michigan, the level is at 2.5 ppt. (PFOS and PFOA combined). According to the last tests conducted by the water treatment plant in June 2018, they should be down to 0.3 next year according to Grenier.
Healthwise, there is no direct correlation between PFAS levels in the blood and diseases that experts have been able to properly pinpoint so far, but it’s known that the chemical is bioaccumulative and non-biodegradable. In general, studies on animals have found that being exposed to high levels of PFAS resulted in changes to the function of the liver, pancreas and thyroid.
Knowing that the current pollutant levels in Grand Rapids water are within safe levels makes me more comfortable filling my water bottle at the fountain than being clueless. Being aware and keeping a watchful eye on the pollutant levels of the water we drink is our responsibility as a community.