Beacon News: What’s in your water?

By Tyann Mullen & Kristina Webb
Contributing Writer, Managing Editor

A recent scare in a local community has students at Palm Beach Atlantic University asking the question: What’s in our water?

An accumulation of brain tumors noted by several residents of The Acreage prompted the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) to research the well water system in the peaceful, rural community.

Of the thousands of residents, 46 adults and 15 children were found with brain tumors. The FDOH is continuing to research the victims’ medical histories and is seeking to determine whether private wells are causing the cases of cancer to form, or if other environmental causes are at play.

The City of West Palm Beach, which supplies PBA’s water, tests its water at points around the area “hundreds of times a year,” said Peter Robbins, public information officer for the city.

“Because the area is so large, it is more efficient to take samples across the area, rather than in each and every home,” Robbins said. “We do constant surveillance of our water.”

PBA’s water travels from Clear Lake to a water treatment facility and then to pipes that feed into West Palm Beach.

According to the City of West Palm Beach’s Public Utilities Web site, the water goes through a filtration and sanitation process.

Chlorine is the chemical most used to sanitize the water, the Web page reports.

Although large amounts of chlorine could be harmful to your health, once diluted in water it loses any potential threat.

Fluoride, ammonia and sodium hydroxide are also added to balance the water’s levels.

In West Palm Beach’s 2008 Water Quality Report, all levels of potentially hazardous contaminants were safe except for one: trihalomethanes, a by-product of the chlorine used in the sanitation process.

An excess of trihalomethanes over an extended period of time may cause liver and kidney damage and increase a person’s chances of cancer.

“Think of a swimming pool: too much chlorine in a pool irritates the skin and the eyes,” said Dr. Matthew DellaVecchia, assistant professor of chemistry and pharmaceutical science at PBA. “Not enough chlorine and all kinds of ‘nasty’ start to grow and thrive. When the chemical balance in the water is ‘just right,’ you have a beautifully clean pool that is pleasant to swim in.”

DellaVecchia added that the chances of experiencing any side effects from the water treatment process are minimal.

A report released in early September by Palm Beach County said the water in the Seminole Water Plant, which supplies many of the schools in The Acreage, tested positive for slightly elevated levels of radium.

This naturally occurring radioactive isotope is commonly found in well water.

The level of radium found in the Seminole Water Plant’s wells was deemed safe, the report said.

“I would argue that the current system of water disinfection has proved quite useful and relatively safe,” DellaVecchia said. “It would also be fair to say that many people have lived on water from a well and that has proven equally useful and relatively safe as well.”

Although radium sounds like it would harm your body, that is not always the case.

Many things in the environment are naturally radioactive, including air, water and soil. Our bodies include a composition of some radioactive materials.

According to DellaVecchia, just as too much of a chemical could harm you, too much radium could harm you as well.

“It all depends on your genetics and how much radium your body can handle,” DellaVecchia said.

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