By Peter S. Cartwright, P.E.
How much does public perception influence governmental policy? Is the voice of the people heard? The answer to these questions is a resounding yes! The government certainly doesn’t respond to our entreaties as rapidly as we would like, or possibly as strongly as we would wish; however, the will of the people does influence public policy. Certainly attributable to the power of the people is the very existence of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Consumer Protection Agency and other governmental departments charged with protecting the health, safety or economic welfare of consumers.
Public opinion can be measured by extrapolations of a survey of a group of people or the most accurate polling procedure known, the voting power of the dollar—or pound, franc, mark, guilder, ruble, lira, peso, rupee, etc., for that matter. The buying habits of consumers dictate virtually all commerce in the world today and constitute the key factor in any new product or process development activity. Public perception measured in this manner is no less important with regard to drinking water quality. If the public perceives its drinking water supplies as unhealthy, or if the water looks, smells or tastes “bad,” it’ll either clamor for a change, or buy bottled water or a water treatment device.
Too much education and information about the source and treatment of municipal drinking water can actually be dangerous at times, because the average consumer isn’t technically equipped to understand many of these issues. Granted this may be changing, what with increasing public attention over the past 10 years on the environment and water quality, augmented with release this past year of Consumer Confidence Reports required by the 1996 Safe Drinking Water Act reauthorization—but there remain many related microbiological, chemical and engineering issues that simply go over most consumers’ heads. An example of this is diminished 1999 bottled water sales because of news reports concerning high quantities of bacteria found in bottled water. Regardless of the facts that these bacteria are generally non-pathogenic and the human mouth contains orders of magnitude more bacteria than in the most contaminated bottled water, the public associates the word “bacteria” with “bad,” not recognizing that we cannot live without bacteria. Unfortunately, the media—with a lack of understanding of all the nuances of water chemistry—has a tendency to all too often take something out of context and sensationalize it; thus, it becomes a matter of a little bit of knowledge becoming worse than none at all.
Vague health effects
One of the problems we must keep in mind is that there’s still a lot even we don’t know about the health effects of certain contaminants (or mixtures of contaminants), as well as the concentration level in drinking water supplies above which human health is compromised—the maximum contaminant level (MCL).
A case in point is that of heterotrophic bacteria, known by the acronym for the method of quantifying them, HPC (heterotrophic plate count) bacteria. As these bacteria are ubiquitous, naturally occurring and ever present in our environment, they’ve always been considered non-pathogenic. In actuality, this isn’t the case. A 1984 document, “Drinking Water Criteria: Document on Heterotrophic Bacteria,” prepared by the Criteria & Standards Division, Office of Drinking Water, USEPA, establishes the following definition:
“Heterotrophic bacteria include all those bacteria which can use organic nutrients for growth. The aquatic environment teems with an extremely diverse flora of these organisms. They include virtually all known primary and secondary bacterial pathogens, whether transient or indigenous, which are spread by the water route.”
Recently, some experts have expressed concern that very high concentrations of non-pathogenic HPC bacteria may actually cause pathogenic reactions, particularly in people with compromised immune systems, as well as the very old and the very young. It appears the consensus among these experts is we really don’t know if high concentrations of HPC bacteria pose a threat to any humans, and we do a disservice to the industry as well as our customers if we make definite unequivocal statements when the scientific evidence supporting either conclusion is incomplete.
It’s easy to say, “We’ve gone this long, and there doesn’t seem to be a problem.” However, how many years ago did we think that an MCL of 50 parts per billion (ppb) for lead was safe, now it’s 15 ppb; the MCL for arsenic has been 50 ppb and, within two years, it’s destined to be lowered, perhaps to as low as 5 ppb. Then there’s E. coli. How many years ago was it considered simply an indicator bacteria for the presence of sewage? Now, it’s known to be a causative agent for pathogenic outbreaks that have even resulted in deaths. Witness last Labor Day’s 1,000-plus people infected by contaminated groundwater at a fair in upstate New York—the largest such U.S. outbreak on record—and the resulting death of a child and an elderly man. There appears to be compelling evidence that there just may not be enough data to conclusively determine whether or not very high concentrations of non-pathogenic HPC bacteria will have a health effect on any segment of the population.
There are certainly some cases where a contaminant once considered a health risk has been discovered to be not so dangerous after all, such as in the case of silver. This element, which was once on the primary drinking water standards list, has now been moved to the non-health risk list of secondary standards. However, this change in direction is definitely the exception.
The point is that creating the perception of alarm in the minds of the public is neither ethical nor honest; still, there’s surely a trend among the scientific experts that the contaminant concentration levels once thought to be safe are no longer necessarily considered so. Unfortunately, in addition to the media, well-meaning and perhaps uninformed environmental organizations, along with overzealous attorneys and even politicians too often leap to conclusions and make irresponsible statements and accusations that contribute to negative perceptions about our municipal drinking water quality as well as the performance of water treatment technologies. Too often, the misguided and/or dishonest activities of a few members of our industry have created the perception in consumer’s minds that nothing the industry sells works.
What goes around…
Now, another area where public perception is potentially harmful is that dealing with reclaimed water—water recycled, treated and rerouted from the “toilet to the tap” as a program in San Diego so euphemistically put it, much to the public’s distaste. Most people aren’t aware that almost all drinking water supplies have almost surely been somebody’s bodily waste at some point in history, particularly for those communities drawing their supply from surface water sources—just look at the next community upstream from you. If they understood that this waste stream has been treated and is perfectly safe, they would likely not be so paranoid about projects under way to convert sewage plant effluent directly to drinking water.
The technologies are here, and with proper design safeguards and monitoring, the quality of this drinking water will be at least as good as any coming from a typical municipal drinking water treatment plant. Again, too little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
Let’s not get emotional
So what can we do about this dilemma? As water treatment professionals who understand the technical issues, we must avoid emotional arguments and scare tactics. Heaven knows, the media does enough of that.
We can’t pretend to know how much technical information each consumer wants, needs, or even should be given. However, we should be in a position to answer any and all questions factually and honestly.
The water treatment industry doesn’t have the best record when it comes to credibility and honest dealings with consumers, so we already have one strike against us. In essence, though, the public wants the products this industry has to offer. This is evidenced by growth in popularity of simple devices such as pour-through filter pitchers and end-of-faucet and showerhead filters as well as demand for reverse osmosis and water softening systems at mass merchandisers such as Sears and Home Depot. Thus, those dealers or salespeople that use “fear” as a selling tool do a disservice to their customers and their industry. There’s enough alarm already because of accurate and inaccurate media reports on the subject; it isn’t necessary and, all too often, it masks a lack of full understanding of how the equipment works or basic water chemistry.
I have heard some people use the excuse that they’re not technically equipped to answer questions they hear in the field, but feel compelled to tell the consumer something anyway. This is a poor excuse, as there are a multitude of resources available to the industry. You owe more to the industry to which you owe your living and livelihood. If all you have to offer is a sales pitch, you risk being put out of business by somebody with a better pitch or lower price. However, if you know how your equipment works inside, outside and backwards and can explain this clearly to your clients, you’ll have built a lasting relationship based on trust and confidence that will keep your business not only afloat but prosperous.
One of the primary goals of the Water Quality Association is to improve the technical competence of its membership. Accordingly, there’s a plethora of information available, ranging from books, article reprints, “white papers,” and other printed media to audio and video tapes of technical presentations at the annual conferences, etc. There are technical trade magazines generally available at no cost to you. So, there’s simply no excuse for a member of our industry to give erroneous technical information to a consumer or other members of the public.
We have a responsibility as water treatment professionals to be more than sales jockeys and to educate ourselves. We also have a responsibility to educate the public at every opportunity, which will eventually influence public perception. We’re the experts in a very complicated and technical field of science. It’s incumbent upon us to seize this opportunity in order to be able to answer the public accurately, fully and honestly.
About the author
Peter S. Cartwright, CWS-VI, president of Cartwright Consulting Co., Minneapolis, Minn, is a registered professional engineer in several states. He has been in the water treatment industry since 1974 and has published more than 100 papers and articles on related issues. A member of the WC&P Technical Review Committee, his expertise includes such high technology separation processes as reverse osmosis, ultrafiltration, microfiltration, electrodialysis, deionization, carbon adsorption, ozonation and distillation. He can be reached at (612) 854-4911, (612) 854-6964 (fax) or email: CartwrightConsulting@compuserve.com