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CDC to observe Ground Water Awareness Week March 9 through 15

An individual protesting the use of hydraulic fracturing is flanked by police
An individual protesting the use of hydraulic fracturing is flanked by police
Photo by Dave Thompson/Getty Images

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has announced the observance of Ground Water Awareness Week from March 9 through March 15, 2014. The CDC is promoting this event in partnership with the National Ground Water Association, an advocacy group based in Ohio and devoted to highlighting the importance of clean ground water. Ground Water Awareness Week has been observed for several years, and serves to remind the American public that both private wells and public drinking supplies depend on clean ground water.

The National Ground Water Association believes that stewardship of ground water is everyone's job, and provides resources for private well owners as well as environmental activists. Both chemical and biological contaminants can pose health problems for individuals and communities drinking unclean water. The CDC provides information on the burden of disease from biological ground water contaminants, noting that 33 drinking water-associated outbreaks were documented from 2009 to 2010, sickening more than 1,000 people and leading to nine deaths. The two primary biological contaminants were Legionella and Campylobacter.

In addition to the aforementioned bacteria, viral contamination of ground water is a concern for government regulators such as the EPA. The EPA oversees the enforcement of the Safe Water Drinking Act of 1996 and the associated Ground Water Rule of 2006, which require that drinking water be treated to remove 99.99 percent of viruses. Some viruses specifically named by the EPA as cause for concern are echovirus, hepatitis A, rotavirus, and norovirus. Information on compliance with the Ground Water Rule can be found on the EPA website.

In addition to biological agents such as bacteria and viruses, ground water contaminants include chemicals used to clean the water, byproducts of these chemicals, and industrial chemicals inappropriately released into water or ground. Disinfectants considered contaminants and monitored by public water authorities include chlorine; some disinfectant byproducts are haloacetic acids and trihalomethanes. Health risks from these chemicals include anemia, cancer, and central nervous system dysfunction.

Industrial chemicals found in drinking water include antimony (from flame retardants), barium (from hydraulic fracturing / natural gas drilling waste discharges), cyanide (from fertilizer and plastic factory discharges), and mercury (from landfill runoff). Municipal water authorities monitor for these contaminants and provide water quality reports on an annual basis to their customers. For each contaminant, the EPA has set a "maximum contaminant level" (MCL), concentrations above which are considered detrimental to human health.

New concerns have arisen in recent years in Pennsylvania due to the sudden onset and dramatic increase of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," to harvest natural gas deposits from underground across a large portion of the state. As a recent EPA report indicates, across the 152,979 water systems in the United States, there were 1,730 violations of inorganic chemical and radionuclide MCLs in 2010, affecting nearly three million people. Groups such as Clean Water Action (CWA) have been busy lately, taking action against gas drilling firms that illegally discharge polluted water.

One recent action, a lawsuit by CWA against Waste Treatment Corporation of Warren, PA, resulted in a consent decree being proposed by the state. Waste Treatment Corporation allegedly released 200,000 gallons per day of gas drilling wastewater into the Allegheny River. CWA spokesperson Myron Arnowitt expresses his continued concern that the consent decree falls short of full remediation: "Beyond allowing Waste Treatment Corp. to continue their damaging discharges for two years, the consent decree fails to require any cleanup of the elevated levels of radioactivity they found in the Allegheny riverbed sediment."

Wastewater discharges in the Marcellus Shale region of Pennsylvania are just one threat to safe drinking water. Individuals interested in ensuring clean ground water can take action by visiting the National Ground Water Association and Clean Water Action.

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