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Wastewater-Based Epidemiology Is Already Here. How Should Utilities Prepare?

Wastewater-based epidemiology is a scientific field that’s surged in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Researchers have used wastewater to predict surges before they happen — a breakthrough that’s helped governments focus on preparation instead of reaction. 

And it isn’t limited to COVID. Once the pandemic becomes endemic, researchers will still be on the hunt for pathogens that can cause issues for public health. In the best-case scenario, scientists could catch the next pandemic before it happens.

But the strategy requires gathering and sorting through huge amounts of data. That presents privacy and data management issues for utilities to overcome. We spoke with two experts about the possibilities of wastewater-based epidemiology, and what utilities should be doing now to prepare.

What Is Wastewater Epidemiology?

Think of wastewater-based epidemiology as reading tea leaves, but grosser. 

Scientists take samples of human waste and analyze them for pathogens, like the virus that causes COVID-19. Researchers can then use the data to predict surges based on trends in where the pathogen is found and how much of it is there.

That allows local governments to ramp up public health measures like expanding health-care facilities and instituting mandates like masking or lockdowns.

The International Effort to Track COVID Using Wastewater

Most people have learned about wastewater epidemiology through the pandemic. Researchers’ ability to predict COVID trends has led to the field’s expansion

Some public health officers have found it’s less helpful in their municipalities, though they’re sometimes not sure why. In a sign of the field’s still-emerging status, experts have debated just how much wastewater sampling can tell us about COVID.

In the United States and Canada, and many other jurisdictions, wastewater sampling decisions lie with local governments, limiting the data’s scope. But projects like COVIDPoops19 show the method’s worldwide spread and a glimpse of what it could become.

Its creator, University of California Merced professor Colleen Naughton, said she hopes every city in the world will eventually have its own wastewater epidemiology outpost — though she noted it’ll take a while to get there. Even though it’s cheaper than individual testing, “it still requires resources and … utility-level sampling, and then courier services, and then labs to analyze it,” she said.

What Could Wastewater Epidemiology Be Used for in the Future?

Some experts believe COVID tracking is just the beginning. 

Naughton noted that the method was used to track polio outbreaks in the past. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now hopes to catch influenza, norovirus, fungal infections, hepatitis A and B, and antimicrobial-resistant (AMR) pathogens — bugs that have evolved to be resistant to antimicrobial drugs. 

“We’ve had large hepatitis A outbreaks in California and Michigan, so it would have been nice to have more of a warning system about that,” she said.

Experts have long warned of AMR “superbugs” that could ravage the world in a similar — or worse — way to COVID-19. Wastewater epidemiology could potentially identify them before they spiral out of hand. 

Wastewater testing could also be tested for opioids and other illicit drugs to combat the overdose epidemic, Naughton said.

Future-Proof Your Sampling Operation With Klir

Interested in learning how better data management can help you run more effective sampling programs? Book a demo of the Klir sampling module today.

What Challenges Will Wastewater-Based Epidemiology Create for Drinking and Wastewater Utilities?

Naughton and epidemiologist David Larsen raved, unprompted, about partnering and working with wastewater treatment plants. 

“They don’t get a lot of recognition for their important role,” Naughton said. “We go to the treatment plants and they’re always running around, you know, the phone’s ringing off the hook, and they’re like, ‘Yeah, sure, we’ll take an extra sample for you.’ It’s just been amazing what they’ve done to help. So we really appreciate it.”

Plant operators are “really excellent people,” Larsen said. “They’re a huge contributor to this public health initiative. And so I’m just really glad to be working with them and they’ve been great so far.”

Clearly, utilities are doing something right. But for those that want to get ahead of the game as wastewater testing expands in the coming years, the professors had some tips:

Equipment and Staffing

Some water utilities have absorbed extra epidemiological sampling requirements with ease. But others — especially rural and smaller plants — don’t have the equipment, time, or staff to spare, Naughton said.

Some that can only do a grab sample once per day have tried to time it with the morning flush to get the most data, Naughton said. But the “gold standard” of 24-hour composite sampling yields more complete data, Larsen said. 

Naughton recommended small utilities keep an eye out for programs like the one from the CDC and Water Environment Federation (WEF) where they could apply for free autosamplers. 

Smaller plants will also have more difficulty hiring enough people to carry out the sampling, then shipping it off, Larsen said. 

Lots of government grants are going to labs for analysis — but more cash should be flowing to utilities to hire more staff to carry out the increased sampling load, Naughton said. Public health is “chronically underfunded,” Larsen said, adding that any increased burden shouldn’t come out of utilities’ budgets.

Coordination With Researchers

Scientists analyzing wastewater samples rely on utilities’ knowledge of their systems, the experts said. Things like the amount of industrial waste the facility processes, or how much salt is used on the roads in winter can make a big difference to sampling, Naughton said. 

“So when we see things that are weird with the data, they can be like, ‘Oh, that clarifier went offline then, or we had this industrial flow,’” she said. 

Developing those relationships is critical to a smooth working partnership, Larsen said. 

“Know who the epidemiologists are and know who the environmental epidemiologists are,” he said.

Naughton added that she invites utilities she works with to meetings so they can ask questions and engage with public health departments. 

Data Privacy

Health data is a sensitive topic, and utilities need to make sure security is top-of-mind.

As the population sample decreases, the privacy risk increases, Larsen said. Sampling for COVID-19 and other illnesses at a city level can’t put any individuals’ or groups’ data at risk. But what data is made public from sampling at smaller levels must be considered thoughtfully, the experts said. Generally, sampling becomes a data privacy risk at under 3,000 people, Naughton said.

“It’s public information that public money is going towards… so you should see that data. But we do need to be sensitive to how that data is shared and what it’s used for, and if it’s targeting communities more than helping communities,” she said.

Larsen recommended reading the World Health Organization’s guidelines on public health surveillance. Arizona State University has also studied the field’s privacy implications.

And if local public health units opt to sample for drugs, Naughton said it should be to find out which neighbourhoods need more support — not to increase incarceration or otherwise punish communities.

Homework

Fortunately, there’s lots of reading on wastewater-based epidemiology for utilities to do — potentially an “overwhelming” amount, Naughton said. 

She pointed to resources from the Canadian Water Network as a great starting point. Videos like the WEF’s that show what happens to samples can be helpful for utilities as well, she said. 

“Our plants love seeing the data, and getting it back, and (knowing) that it’s being used for something,” she said.

Better data management can help utilities better prepare for wastewater epidemiology

Wastewater epidemiology requires sampling large amounts of data. Klir’s sampling module allows you to stay on top of it all, so you can be ready when researchers come knocking.

Book a demo today to find out how Klir can help you streamline data throughout your organization. Learn more and book a demo today.

Preventing Backflow With Better Customer Relationships: A Checklist

“I heard only people with lawn irrigation have problems with backflow.”

“How do I know this backflow assembly is really necessary?”

“Okay, so what’s the least expensive assembly I can buy?”

Sound familiar?

Water suppliers and backflow inspectors hear these questions from customers all the time.

While it makes sense that customers might have some questions about backflow, an uninformed or uncooperative customer can also create problems.

  • They could balk at the price of a new device, delaying installation and creating administrative and compliance headaches.
  • They might forget about inspections, leaving inspectors waiting at the door.
  • They can ignore easy-to-fix hazards existing in their own plumbing system, increasing backflow risk in general.

The fact is that effective cross-connection control is just as much about technical challenges as it is about nurturing good relationships with customers and ensuring they understand their responsibilities and obligations.

To do that, water suppliers have to be creative. Here are three successful approaches we’ve seen, and how they can help your backflow prevention program succeed. 

1. Arm Yourself With Good Educational Materials

In addition to being a leader in backflow training and research, the USC Foundation for Cross-Connection Control and Hydraulic Research is an excellent starting point for water suppliers looking to raise awareness around backflow.

The foundation’s customizable brochures, video guides and slideshows all do a great job of explaining concepts like backflow, back siphonage and backpressure to a non-specialist audience, providing you with everything you need to start an awareness campaign in your community.

The American Backflow Prevention Association’s educational materials are another excellent resource, and its Buster Backflow series even provides younger readers with an entry point into the subject.

If you’re keen on producing your own materials, the backflow incident case histories published by the AWWA and the EPA can also be invaluable. These vivid, at times jarring incident reports aren’t shy with the details and include reported cases involving:

  • Gallons of seawater entering the soda fountains at a fast food restaurant
  • Propane entering a town’s water system
  • Blood coming out of a Michigan hospital’s drinking fountains 

Chapter 2 of the EPA’s official Cross-Connection Control Manual (PDF) includes more than a dozen of these stories, each of which do a great job of communicating the dangers of backflow.

Prevent Backflow With Better Data Management

Interested in learning more about how better data management can help you run a more effective cross-connection control program? Download the guide and book a demo of the Klir backflow module today.

2. Set Testers and Inspectors up for Success

While they might not have the time to educate every single last customer, testers and inspectors can certainly help—provided you give them the right tools.

In addition to arming them with good information and literature they can leave with the customer, ensuring inspectors have access to accurate and up-to-date information about your cross-connection control program is the best way to set them up for success.

That includes:

  • Ensuring testers are clear on each customer’s responsibilities.
  • Ensuring individual customer information is recorded properly and up to date to prevent confusion or delays during the inspection.
  • Informing inspectors of any risks or hazards that are specific to that customer.

One way to do this is to keep all backflow and cross-connection control-related data together in one system that inspectors can access themselves, eliminating the need for time-consuming paperwork chasing.

3. Cut Down On Administrative Work

If having a good backflow brochure and taking care of your inspectors is important, educating and engaging with community members directly is essential.

But building relationships with local businesses, institutions and other important water users in your community can be difficult when you’re stuck in the office taking care of administrative work.

Cross-connection data management software like Klir can help free up some of that time by:

Automating Away Repetitive Work

Klir automates a lot of the busywork involved in maintaining asset inventories, creating inspection schedules and capturing cross-connection data in general. If you’re currently using spreadsheets or software that wasn’t built specifically for backflow, switching to Klir could save you hours of work per week. 

Simplifying Inspections

Backflow professionals often tell us how difficult it can be to get backflow data in and out of a water supplier’s system. Customer files can be difficult to access, and inspection reports can be time-consuming to fill out.

A dedicated backflow data management solution like Klir solves these problems by bringing all backflow data into one accessible, easy to use system, giving inspectors access to all of the information and forms they need in a web-based app.

Making Your System Self-Serve

No one likes getting sternly-worded inspection reminders or water shutoff warnings. Making cross-connection control a self-serve process is one way around this, which is why we’re so excited about Klir’s community module, which will soon allow users to do exactly that.

Take Control of Your Cross-Connection Data With Klir

Klir’s backflow module helps utilities schedule, organize, and run effective cross-connection control programs, making it easier than ever to manage backflow data with powerful dashboards, asset mapping and project management automation. Learn more and book a demo today.

How To Spend Less Time Administering Backflow and More Time Preventing It

Backflow can bring contaminants in homes and businesses back into the main drinking water line, threatening public safety, undermining trust in the water supply, and creating legal and financial headaches for water suppliers.

We all have a role to play in preventing backflow, but in most cases responsibility ultimately falls with local water providers and inspectors. The problem is that many backflow prevention programs are under-resourced and compete with other priorities like distribution, water quality and even FOG, overburdening operators and forcing them to juggle many hats. 

The tools utilities use to manage their cross-connection control records don’t help either. 

Outdated software, spreadsheets and even paper forms and files create headaches for workers in the field, while administrators at the utility spend hours hunting down test reports, correspondence with customers, and important information about backflow devices.

All of that extra recordkeeping and data entry work is adding up, preventing operators from focusing on tasks that actually add value like inspections, surveys and infrastructure management.

Here are three ways to cut down on the amount of time operators spend administering backflow prevention and more time on actually preventing it.

1. Streamline Reporting and Data Entry

Cross-connection control generates a lot of data, and making sure that data is captured and organized the right way can be a challenge.

Take something as basic as the forms inspectors fill out when they carry out routine backflow assembly tests. Properly filling one out can take a significant amount of time because:

  • Test forms can vary by jurisdiction
  • Different submission requirements might require paper mail, fax or email submittal
  • Forms will often try to fit many different test types–RPZ, DC, DCDA, RPDA, and PVB—onto a single page

Doing everything you can to minimize data entry time and remove as many sources of friction from this process as possible keeps inspectors happy and productive while cutting down on delays and unnecessary work.

One essential piece in your toolkit: a web-based, configurable reporting tool like Klir that simplifies inspection management and provides a user-friendly interface for risk assessment, survey, test and incident report data entry.

Replacing a spreadsheet or paper-based process with a web-based one can save inspectors hours of data entry time per week and free them up for more important tasks.

2. Increase Data Accessibility 

Getting data into your system is important. But getting that data back out and into the hands of the people who need it most is crucial, especially if your water system experiences a backflow event.

In addition to potentially endangering public safety, causing denial of service to customers and loss of revenue for the utility, backflow incidents can put a huge administrative burden on water providers.

One study by the American Backflow Prevention Association (ABPA) found that operators spent an average of 494 hours investigating each backflow event, incurring an average personnel cost of $14,800 per incident. Another study from USC put that figure at $16,143 and found that one utility had spent more than $1.6 million responding to a single event.

Keeping risk assessment, survey report and inspection data in one easy to use system can make a world of difference during a backflow investigation, helping: 

  1. Cut down on time lost hunting down information
  2. Improve response times and ultimately cut down on risks to public safety 
  3. Simplify backflow incident reporting

It bears remembering that most large water providers are legally obligated to keep these records. Not keeping them in a dedicated data management or recordkeeping system could create issues around liability and even result in fines, especially if a backflow incident ever occurs.

3. Bring Everything Together Into One Dashboard 

We’ve talked about the personnel hours and costs involved in a backflow investigation. But what about the day-to-day work of scheduling inspection routes, corresponding with customers and reporting to regulators?

Those priorities can be difficult to stay on top of when you’re tied up with record keeping and paperwork. But they’re also precisely what we create more time for when we do a better job of managing backflow data.

Powerful dashboards like Klir can do exactly that, giving administrators easy access to their entire backflow prevention program at a glance and bringing it all together into one detailed report, making it easier to:

  • Plan and manage inspections
  • Track important program metrics like new installations and enforcement actions
  • Stay on top of compliance, violations and correspondence with customers

Take Control of Your Cross-Connection Program With Klir

Klir’s backflow module helps utilities schedule, organize, and run effective cross-connection control programs. Most importantly, it gives organizations the means to keep comprehensive digital records on all their cross-connection activities. To learn more, book a demo today.

The EPA Is Rolling out Its PFAS Plan. What Does It Mean for Utilities?

Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS — pronounced “PEE-Fass”) are a class of synthetic “forever chemicals” that have been linked to cancer, high cholesterol, and even the suppression of vaccine effectiveness in children. They’re present in everything from nonstick pans to fire extinguishers and they accumulate easily in the environment, making them an increasingly big problem for water systems.

Some European countries and Maine have banned the chemicals, 29 states have already introduced numerical PFAS limits for water, and more than 100 anti-PFAS bills were passed across the country last year.

Although many American water utilities are still figuring out how best to deal with them, there are signs regulators are getting serious about introducing federal rules for PFAS. After years of being accused of inaction, the White House is publicly detailing its anti-PFAS plan.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also used some tough language of late. 

Administrator Michael Regan recently pledged to “turn the tide” against the chemicals by “harnessing the collective resources and authority across federal, Tribal, state, and local governments to empower meaningful action now.”

Recently the EPA announced that 29 of the next 30 pollutants it would look at under its Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR) would be PFAS, signaling that the agency was taking concrete steps to regulate the pollutants.

What is the UCMR and how does it work?

The EPA releases a new Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR) every five years. 

The UCMR requires public water systems that serve more than 10,000 people to start sampling for a list of contaminants that they previously could ignore. (The latest list — UCMR 5 — will require systems serving more than 3,300 people to sample, as well as a representative group of 800 smaller systems.)

The EPA evaluates candidates for new UCMR lists based on studies that show how harmful they are, how actively they’re being used, and how readily available data is on their frequency of use.

The agency says UCMR data is one of the key sources it uses to make regulatory and other risk management decisions. 

“[UCMR 5] data will ensure science-based decision-making and help prioritize protection of disadvantaged communities,” the EPA says.

What is the EPA’s PFAS strategy?

The agency’s roadmap for dealing with PFAS is centered on a “new three Rs” of sorts: Research, Restrict, and Remediate. 

The EPA wants to learn more about PFAS, prevent the chemicals from entering the natural environment as much as possible, and hasten the cleanup of PFAS across the country.

In a roadmap document that will take the agency to 2024, the EPA lays out a number of other strategies to deal with PFAS that could affect drinking and wastewater utilities.

Spring 2022: Enhance PFAS reporting under the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI)

Some utilities have to report PFAS to the TRI. The EPA says it plans to get rid of 11 exemptions and exclusions for those reporters by labeling PFAS  “Chemicals of Special Concern.” This will help the EPA collect more data on the chemicals.

Winter 2022: Finalize new PFAS reporting under TSCA Section 8

By Jan. 1, 2023, there will be a new rule in place regarding data collection about PFAS produced since 2011, including information on uses, production volumes, disposal, exposures and hazards. 

This will also help the EPA get to know the sources and quantities of PFAS in the U.S. and will be used to develop future regulations. 

Fall 2023: Establish a national primary drinking water regulation for two PFAS

The EPA has not yet established national drinking water guidelines for PFAS. It will put forward a proposal to do so this fall, followed by a final rule expected in fall 2023.

The agency has proposed regulating two PFAS in drinking water: perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). 

It says more PFAS will be considered this year and in the future.

Winter 2024: Restrict PFAS discharges from industrial sources

The EPA plans to put forward new Effluent Limitations Guidelines (ELGs) to limit how much PFAS industrial utilities, like municipal sewage treatment facilities, can emit.

The agency has done a multi-industry study on PFAS discharges, and “plans to make significant progress in its ELG regulatory work by the end of 2024.”

Actions to come include:

  • Restricting PFAS output in organic chemicals, plastics and synthetic fibers, metal finishing, and electroplating. 
  • Studying facilities where there’s a bit of data, but not enough to make a new rule — such as electrical and electronic components, textile mills and landfills. 
  • Studying facilities with not much data — such as leather tanning and finishing, plastics molding and forming, and paint formulating. 
  • Monitoring industrial categories slated to phase out PFAS by 2024 — such as pulp, paper, paperboard and airports.

Winter 2022 and Fall 2024: Leverage NPDES permitting to reduce PFAS discharges to waterways

The EPA will include new restrictions in its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) to reduce PFAS discharges at the source. The rules are expected this winter. 

Utilities and industry will have to 

  • Eliminate or substitute other chemicals for PFAS
  • Use non-PFAS firefighting foams
  • Enhance public engagement with downstream communities and public water systems
  • Use pretreatment programs to control PFAS at the source

Winter 2022 and Fall 2024: Publish final recommended ambient water quality criteria for PFAS

The EPA sets out recommended water quality criteria for states and tribal governments to use. Soon, those recommendations will include PFAS limits. 

It will start with PFOA and PFOS, and move to other PFAS later. 

Criteria for aquatic life are expected in winter 2022, and human health criteria are expected in fall 2024.

Winter 2024: Finalize risk assessment for PFOA and PFOS in biosolids

The EPA may set limits on the amount of PFAS that can be in biosolids (sewage sludge) from wastewater treatment facilities. PFAS can contaminate crops and livestock when used on farms.

The agency will complete a risk assessment for PFOA and PFOS by winter 2024, to determine if limits are necessary.

2024: UCMR 6 and Beyond

According to the EPA, UCMR 5 is just the beginning.

“Going forward, EPA will continue to prioritize additional PFAS for inclusion in UCMR 6 and beyond, as techniques to measure these additional substances in drinking water are developed and validated,” the agency said in its roadmap to 2024.

What are other utilities doing about PFAS?

Some larger utilities are already ahead of the game. 

Klir has profiled the Santa Clarita Valley Water District’s (SCV) anti-PFAS efforts. That utility put forward a radically transparent plan — publicly sampling for all PFAS, even though California only required them to sample for 15 at the time.

The SCV used techniques like reverse osmosis and ion exchange to remove PFAS from water — and did it all quickly, and with flexibility in mind.

For forward-thinking utilities like the SCV, the EPA’s UCMR 5 announcement could mean more funding from government agencies for its existing programs. 

Those who fail to move quickly will have to deal with more sampling work, and may miss out on important sources of funding.

Is there funding available to help fight PFAS?

The federal government has set aside billions for PFAS mitigation. 

  • The Safe Drinking Water Act provides $5 billion for small communities to buy filtration equipment
  • The Drinking Water State Revolving Fund provides $4 billion for water utilities to deal with emerging contaminants “with a focus on PFAS” 
  • The Clean Water State Revolving Fund will give $1 billion for technical assistance for rural, small and tribal wastewater treatment facilities to fight PFAS.

The EPA has awarded millions in grants for PFAS research and mitigation. The agency said data gathered from UCMR 5 “will also serve as a potential source of information for systems with infrastructure funding needs for emerging contaminant remediation.”

Other levels of government have instituted similar programs. Be sure to check with your local government and environmental authority about funding that could be available to you.

Prepare for PFAS With Klir

Klir is a single, unified operating system for water, pulling every aspect of water management—including compliance, sampling, reporting and more—into an easy to use dashboard. 

Looking to bolster your sampling operation to prepare for PFAS? Speak to a Klir expert about how our platform can reduce administration and paperwork while optimizing your organization for new regulations.

Drinking Water Contaminants: How Water Utilities Are Keeping Us Safe

Last year the EPA released the biggest overhaul to its Lead and Copper rule since 1991, and in November Congress included $15 billion for lead pipe replacement in its infrastructure plan, signalling that U.S. regulators were finally getting serious about lead in drinking water.

They’ve got their work cut out for them: 10 million service lines in the U.S. continue to be made of lead, which is particularly harmful to children, has a disproportionate impact on low-income communities with aging and outdated infrastructure, and has led to public health crises like the one we saw in Flint, Michigan a few years ago.

That’s why in addition to the new regulations, last week the EPA announced it would open its Lead Strategy up to public input and provide communities affected by lead contamination with the chance to provide verbal input during a series of comment sessions held over Zoom.

But while lead is currently making headlines, it isn’t the only contaminant that drinking water utilities are working hard to keep at bay—and it also isn’t the only contaminant that the general public has a role in helping manage. 

Here are six other common drinking water contaminants, how your water provider protects against them, and how you can help.

PFAS

Public awareness of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, has been steadily increasing in recent years. But is it something you should be concerned about?

PFAS are used to make takeout packaging, nonstick pans, food containers and numerous other everyday items. These “forever chemicals” have been linked to a growing number of health problems, including cancer, organ failure, and hormonal changes, and they’re also ubiquitous. (One study estimates that they might already be present in 98 out of every 100 people’s bloodstreams.)

Water providers have a variety of techniques to remove PFAS from drinking water, like ion exchange and reverse osmosis. But because utilities have only started to pay attention to PFAS in recent years, these technologies aren’t yet widely adopted.

If that worries you, there are some actions you can take. Ask your water provider for data on PFAS testing from your area. Avoid Teflon and nonstick pots and pans. Opt for household cleaners that don’t contain PTFE in the ingredients. And if you’re still concerned about PFAS in your home, consider installing a reverse osmosis filtration unit in your home. But be prepared to pay. These units can get expensive.

Chlorine

This is a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, excessive chlorine exposure can cause skin and eye irritation. However, chlorine is a “miracle chemical” when it comes to keeping freshwater supplies safe and drinkable. Your tap water contains small levels of chlorine, and that’s critical for filtering out harmful microorganisms.

If you notice your water has a strong chlorine smell, a charcoal filter (like a Brita) can go a long way to neutralizing the taste.

Mercury

Mercury is naturally occurring, and usually appears in non harmful concentrations. However, excess mercury levels from industrial pollution can be extremely harmful. Long term health problems include tremors, decreased mental function, and—in extreme cases—respiratory failure and death. 

Thankfully, water providers are very effective at preventing mercury from reaching unsafe levels. So while the health effects of mercury are alarming, it’s unlikely to put your household at risk. 

If mercury does concern you, for example, if you’re on well water rather than a municipal water supply, a reverse osmosis or absorption filtration can easily remove 95-97% of mercury from your water.

Pharmaceuticals

Did you know that flushing your unused medication down the toilet can be harmful to your community’s waterways? Trust us—those disposal instructions on your medications are there for a very good reason. 

Hospitals and care facilities dispose of an average of 250 million tons of unused medication a year. Can you imagine the impact on your health if that made it into your tap water? 

Water pollution from unused medications is usually from medical or manufacturing facilities not following the rules. But chucking a few of your unused pills in the garbage or toilet also adds to the problem. So, the next time you’re emptying out the medicine cabinet, follow those instructions.

Herbicides

Love a lawn that looks its greenest? Then you’ve probably used herbicides. Used to kill unwanted plants (weeds, mostly), herbicides can quickly spread to freshwater sources. Farms and golf courses are the primary culprits of herbicide introduction into water sources, but the herbicides you use to keep your lawn looking fresh also contribute. 

Seem harmless? It isn’t. Potential long-term impacts include organ damage (the liver, in particular), hormonal imbalances in children, and cancer. 

The good news is that filtration techniques like activated carbon, clay, and peat can all minimize the risks of herbicides, and your water is treated to remove these toxins before it even reaches your tap. Still, when it comes to personal lawn care and gardening, use best practices to prevent unwanted herbicides from entering your community’s water.

Pesticides

Similar to herbicides, pesticides are used to kill unwanted insects and bacteria in agriculture and lawn care. Pesticides can spread to fresh water sources much like herbicides—generally through rainfall and irrigation runoff. Like herbicides, there are a massive number of pesticides out there—and we don’t yet know the long-term health impacts of all of them. However, municipalities and water networks have effective ways to minimize their impacts.

There are a wide range of toxins and pollutants that can have harmful impacts on human health. But generally, the techniques your municipality uses to keep those risks at bay are very effective. 

Still, there are small actions we can all take to reduce exposure to potential pollutants, and to help ease the load on your water community’s water provider. 

America has some of the world’s safest drinking water thanks to the hard work of local water utilities. Do your part to reduce the introduction of further toxins and pollutants into something so fundamental and critical to all of us—fresh water.

Klir is the all-in-one water regulation and compliance platform built by water experts, for water experts. See how Klir works, and how we can help your utility save time and money—all while keeping your water safer and more secure. 

How to Prepare for PFAS (& Avoid a PR Disaster)

“A town’s water is contaminated with ‘forever chemicals’ – how did it get this bad?” That’s one of the headlines that residents of Pittsboro, North Carolina, woke up to earlier this year when the Guardian published a story about the community’s water supply.

Researchers had found that a local Chemours/DuPont chemical plant had released potentially toxic amounts of Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances—also known as PFAS or “forever chemicals”—into the town’s water supply.

As more of these investigations play out in the public eye, PFAS represents one of the greatest threats to public confidence in drinking water in recent memory. 

For municipal leaders and water operators across the country, the question is: what can you do to prepare?

PFAS Goes Public

PFAS entered the national conversation just a few years ago, but research has already linked them to everything from liver cancer to reproductive health issues, and some states have moved to ban them altogether. Congress began to move on PFAS last month when it passed the PFAS Action Act of 2021, which will require the EPA to establish national standards for PFAS levels in drinking water in the future.

Although the EPA already includes PFAS on the list of contaminants it tracks under the unregulated contaminant monitoring rule (UCMR), few laws currently exist dictating what utilities should and shouldn’t be doing about PFAS.

But if you ask WaterPIO founder and communications expert Mike McGill, utilities waiting for directives from legislators are missing a key opportunity to position themselves as leaders on the issue.

“The next time the EPA updates UCMR, you might have to start testing for dozens of different PFAS, and those testing requirements might cover more and smaller utilities. And if that’s the case, you’ll have to start communicating about PFAS as soon as you can.”

The Price of Waiting

Much is still unknown about the exact health risks posed by PFAS and the best ways to eliminate them from our water supply. But one thing is for sure: just because PFAS isn’t a problem in your backyard right now doesn’t mean that it won’t eventually be.

“Academics and activists are out there in the interest of protecting public health. They’re going to conduct tests in our waterways, and they are going to find these chemicals, and when they do find them, they’re going to keep making headlines,” says Mike McGill, who like many other water experts, believes we’re due for a reckoning on PFAS.

He says that if utilities don’t become the first communicators on the subject—that is, the first point of truth that the public turns to for accurate PFAS information in the local water supply—they risk losing control of the narrative completely.

“It becomes a scandal, if you will. Then suddenly we have to start throwing solutions against the wall to make up for the fact that we’re behind. And that’s where you start making mistakes.”

Utilities that choose to wait until they’re forced to respond risk the following:

Losing Time and Money

Waiting can get expensive. McGill recalls how one water utility in North Carolina spent more than $150 million on a facility to treat water for less than 100,000 people in a rush to address a local PFAS contamination.

PFAS treatment technologies like granular activated carbon (GAC) and ion exchange are already expensive, but if utilities wait until they’re forced to act, they risk scrambling to calm a distraught customer base and hastily picking a treatment solution that might not work for them in the long term.

Losing Control of the Narrative

Just because utilities didn’t create the PFAS problem doesn’t mean they should be afraid of taking responsibility and claiming the issue as their own. 

Not doing so could mean that someone else—regulators, environmentalists, manufacturers, or even customers themselves—takes control of the narrative. And as McGill emphasizes, when utility customers discover that they have potential carcinogens in their drinking water, “it wasn’t me!” probably won’t cut it as an excuse.

“If you’re not leading the conversation, then the customer is [simply] going to blame the utility for something they didn’t do.”

Eroding Trust

Utilities will have to ‘go first’ when it comes to communicating the threats and challenges of PFAS, and for many organizations—especially smaller utilities not used to doing lots of communications work—doing so might seem like a nerve-wracking experience.

But McGill says waiting could fundamentally erode a utility’s relationship with its customers.

“I used to run a newsroom for a couple of years, and we had an old adage: ‘if I hear from you first, I trust you first. If I hear from you last, I trust you last.’” 

Testing, Treatment, and Transparency

If you’re looking to get ahead of PFAS, Santa Clarita Valley (SCV) Water Agency sets a shining example for a successful communications strategy.

In 2019, California state officials started asking utilities to test wells for PFAS contaminants. The order didn’t require agencies to take any further action, even if they discovered high levels of these contaminants.

Still, when SCV discovered that one of their wells had exceeded the 70 nanograms per liter advisory level, they sprung into action. They shut down the contaminated well, and began sampling all of their other wells for PFAS. 

The agency quickly put in motion plans to build a new treatment facility, but its plan would rely on an even more immediate line of defence. 

SCV embarked on an ambitious communications campaign to bring their fight with PFAS out into the open, led by communications manager Kathie Martin.

The agency began posting regular updates about PFAS testing, changes in regulations, and progress on their (now complete) treatment facility construction to a dedicated portal on their website, social media, and the agency’s email newsletter. Customers also had ample opportunity to learn about PFAS offline, at community meetings and via direct mail.

“Not only were we trying to be completely transparent upfront. We also wanted to be a little bit ahead of the game. That turned out to be the right decision,” says SCV operations director Mike Alvord.

The Benefits of Communicating Proactively on PFAS

So, should your agency take a leap of faith, or adopt a “wait and see” approach? 

Experts like Mike McGill argue that effectively communicating on the issue could result in lasting, long term benefits:

Develop a Leadership Advantage

‘Going first’ on PFAS won’t just allow utilities to cut down on public relations risk. It could also permanently cement their place as leaders and experts on the issue, building lasting credibility with customers, media and other stakeholders who are looking for answers. 

“If you are willing to get out front and say, ‘we’re going to test, and we want to go above and beyond, because that’s what we think our role is as the provider of safe clean drinking water is,’ there’s a lot of power behind that. Especially when you get results,” points out McGill. 

Influence Policy

One specific advantage to adopting a leadership position on an under-regulated contaminant like PFAS is that utilities stand to meaningfully shape policy as it’s being written. 

The more effective utilities are at communicating the on-the-ground realities of treating water for PFAS, the more likely it is that those realities will inform future legislation.

Build More Proactive Organizations in General

The benefits of effectively communicating on issues like PFAS also go beyond any single contaminant or treatment project.

As SCV’s Alvord points out, his organization’s radically transparent approach to the issue did more than just alleviate Santa Clarita Valley residents’ fears about PFAS. It also helped his organization come together and build a strong work culture in the wake of an 2018 SCV agency merger that combined four separate water utilities into one.

“We brought in different cultures, different personalities, and we immediately had to work together because we had to try to form our own new culture,” says Alvord, noting how SCV’s efforts to remain transparent to the public also ended up making the organization more transparent to itself, and therefore more cohesive.

“If we were separate, I think it would have been much more difficult.”

Proven practices for PFAS PR

Taking a lessons from agencies like SCV, here are some approaches to consider as you look to communicate how your agency is acting on the PFAS problem:

1. Take Credit for Your Work

The first step of any good PFAS communication strategy is to take stock of what your organization is already doing about the issue, and to not be afraid to brag about it. 

Have you already started testing for certain PFAS? Has your utility already started working with PFAS treatment technologies like reverse osmosis, GAC, and ion exchange? Then your customers need to hear about it.

Make sure that any valuable work you’re already doing on PFAS doesn’t get buried or confined to just one communication channel, either. 

“I worked with one utility that tested for 75 different PFAS, and their data was spectacular. But they only made a passing reference about that in their water quality report,” points out Mike McGill. 

These types of documents tend to get buried on your website. If you’re not actively pushing this information out to the public, it will likely fall by the wayside.

2. Identify Other PFAS Advocates and Experts

It might also be useful to take stock of other experts in your network or area who might be doing important PFAS work.

Are there any local academics who have published research on PFAS in the past? Environmentalists who have lobbied local governments? Media outlets who have published stories about PFAS? Now might be a good time to become familiar with them and their work, and use it to inform your strategy. 

3. Take a Leadership Role

Even if your utility already does excellent work on PFAS and has good relationships with external stakeholders, you might still feel apprehensive about broadcasting those efforts to your customers. 

McGill understands why utilities might be nervous to take the lead, but he says that the ones that do stand to benefit far more in the long run than those who stay quiet.

“You need to become a thought leader, because by doing so you help out the entire industry. You show the path of how to handle it properly.”