Berkeley lacks public access to clean drinking water, UC Berkeley study shows

Amanda Ramirez/Staff

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What began three years ago as a project for a public health class at UC Berkeley is now a published study on public drinking fountain distribution and maintenance in Berkeley.

The study, which was published Jan. 24, concludes that public drinking water fountains are equally distributed across the city, meaning that no disparity in fountain distribution was found based on race or socioeconomic status. Most of the fountains in the city are “functioning,” according to the study.

Campus public health lecturer Charlotte Smith, who co-wrote the study with her former student, Dylan Avery, said former city councilmember Laurie Capitelli approached her with the research idea in January 2015. Smith said she turned the proposal into a class project for students in her Drinking Water and Health course during the spring 2015 semester.

The goal of the study, according to Smith, was to assess the condition of public drinking water fountains in Berkeley and to create an electronic database to help the city improve maintenance of its fountains.

“Having an electronic database really makes maintenance a lot easier,” Smith said. “That’s what the class did for the city — that was our public service.”

Smith and her students began conducting research in January 2015 after the approval of a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages — a city effort to promote drinking water as a healthier alternative to sugary drinks. Avery said the city wanted to ensure widespread access to clean drinking water before implementing the tax.

Avery, a former undergraduate student in Smith’s class, took on a leading role in the research project by creating a mobile application that allowed students to conduct field research on drinking fountains around the city.

“It was a real opportunity for me to practice taking leadership in research and helping the local community,” Avery said. “It was more of an immediately rewarding experience.”

City spokesperson Matthai Chakko said in an email that the city will review the study to determine if any changes should be made regarding public drinking fountains. He added that the city began a program this year to replace existing faucets.

The technology used in this study can be applied to other public resources including parks and playgrounds in different communities, campus associate professor of community health sciences Colette Auerswald said.

“To have a tool to look at resources … makes this kind of research more accessible to folks outside of the ivory tower,” Auerswald said.

Although the study found few issues surrounding the distribution and upkeep of public fountains in Berkeley, Avery said that during the course of his research he noticed an absence of water fountains in two areas of the city: Downtown Berkeley and South Berkeley.

Capitelli cited lack of access to clean water as a critical issue in Berkeley. A “second phase” in discouraging Berkeley residents from consuming sugar-sweetened beverages and purchasing plastic water bottles, Capitelli said, is to create a mobile application that would inform the public about where to find clean public drinking water — an idea that Capitelli said he hopes will be implemented this year.

“What I think (the study) does is it points out that there are very limited sources of safe drinking water,” Capitelli said. “The city, as a public health issue, needs to address that.”

Contact Danielle Kaye at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @danielledkaye.

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  • s randall

    There should be a link to the study.

  • SimpleWater

    People shouldn’t have to buy bottled water as the only way of gaining access to it. That being said, there is a larger issue at hand. As part of our SimpleWater project, we have been testing a significant number of tap water samples in Berkeley. We’ve detected a slew of premises-related heavy metals (albeit in small concentrations), as well as higher than desirable concentrations of Trihalomethanes. This means that even if public water is made more widely available–there still could be issues with the water quality. If anyone wants to find out what’s in their water, shoot us an email at [email protected] and we’d be happy to help you out.

    • lspanker

      Let me repeat some questions I have asked elsewhere:

      * In laymen’s terms, how are trihalomethanes formed/introduced into the water supply, and what specific danger do they present in drinking water?

      * What concentrations represent (a) significant health risks per current literature, (b) maximum legal or recommended amounts in drinking water, and (c) levels currently found in EBMUD water?

      * What type of remediation/treatment methods are effective on the utility (supply) side? What would commercially available systems cost to build/operate on an annual basis, how much water would they be able to treat, and to what levels of remaining THMs could be expected on the discharge side?

      * Are there any other capital equipment improvements that could result in reducing exposure or lowering concentrations of THMs in the drinking water supply?

      * What if any home remediation steps (aeration/filtration etc.) are possible for concerned end users, and how effective are they in terms of THM reduction?

      • Woolsey

        Put an activated carbon filter on your faucet and fill up a glass jug for daily use. Make sure public drinking water fountains have run for awhile before taking a drink (lead). Never use the hot water tap for making coffee (lead). THMs are a byproduct of the chlorination process.

        • Charlotte Smith

          Correct. Alternatively, fill a jug of water and let it sit in the refrigerator for a few days, The THMs are volatile and will go into the air space and escape.

      • SimpleWater

        1. Trihalomethanes (THMs) are formed when chlorine – a common disinfectant used by most water utilities – reacts in your pipes with organic matter. The term “organic matter” generally refers to a wide group of carbon-based compounds (like vegetation) called humic substances that formed by the decay of soil, leaves, and other microbiology which frequently naturally occurs in water supplies (and usually in low concentrations by the time they enter your drinking water pipes). When water system engineers add chlorine to your tap water at the water treatment plant, it eventually reacts with humic acids in the pipes and THMs are formed.

        2. If you are a customer of any US public water system then the US EPA currently regulates the Total THMs in your water with a Maximum Concentration Level (MCL). The MCL for all four THM’s (aka Total THM’s) is equal 0.080 PPM (this is the same as 80 PPB or .08 mg/L). This means that all THM’s in your tap water are not allowed to exceed 0.80 PPM. Meanwhile, since there are four types of THM’s, and individually they have unique health effects, they are ALSO monitored for their individual concentrations with a Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG): bromodichloromethane (0 PPM); bromoform (0 PPM); dibromochloromethane (0.06 PPM); chloroform (0.07 PPM). These MCLGs are different from MCLs. An MCLG is the level of a contaminant in drinking water below which there is no known or expected health risk to humans, however MCLGs are not enforced health regulations, they are more like health goals. In our opinion, EBMUD generally does an exceptionally good job at providing safe drinking water to folks in the Easy Bay. However, it is very complicated to manage a huge network of underground pipes and even EBMUD can’t control for the issues with your home’s individual plumbing and pipping issues. That said, historical data shows that EBMUD THM levels are generally between 0.02 and 0.08 PPM. If you are one to question the accuracy of these reported values, I can say that most Berkeley-based Tap Score customers do indeed fall in this range as well. There are certainly concentrations of THMs in EBMUD water but the reported levels do not exceed MCLs. Overall, the public health and science community will eventually know what the safe level of these contaminants is in drinking water. For now it’s probably best to assume that the lowest achievable value is safest, at Tap Score, we aim for 0 PPB TTHMs.

        3. As of 2018, it is generally assumed that the risk from pathogens in your water is greater than the health risk from THMs and therefor we continue to prioritize chlorine disinfection over THM elimination, almost everywhere. Because chlorine is a near-universal disinfection decision made by US public water systems, it is practically inevitable that THMs will be in your drinking water supply. Other than by minimizing and monitoring chlorine and humic acid concentrations, there is almost no foreseeable way of removing this issue AT the water treatment plant. Water system engineers WANT there to be a chlorine residual in your distribution pipes because this keeps your water safe from potentially harmful bacteria and viruses. Ultimately this decision to chlorinate versus have NO THMs is a tradeoff between safety from microbes and safety from THMs.

        4. The two easiest ways for a resident to reduce the load of THMs coming from a public water system: (1) consider buying an NSF certified carbon filter for your drinking water at home; or (2) purchase bottled water with lower published THM values (this isn’t always easy to figure out). Since there are SO many different treatment products on the market, it is difficult to give a blanket statement about removal of THMs with home treatment products. If you have a question about a particular treatment product, come to our website and ask us, we’ll be happy to let you know what your treatment solution is capable of reducing THMs by.

        Hope this was helpful! Let us know if you have any other questions!!

        • Charlotte Smith

          Johnny, you deserved your A in PH271c

        • lspanker

          Thank you – finally someone has taken the time to detail an objective description of the issue, something that the Chicken Littles are demonstrably incapable of doing. Seems that at this point, carbon filtration is the most practical solution to dealing with the THM issue in public buildings.

  • lspanker

    FWIW, they have this stuff in the stores called “bottled water”. It’s very convenient and refreshing to drink…

    • flashsteve

      That was my reaction as well. Very few people ‘need’ a drink of water during their daily walks in town. I walk a lot, so carry a water bottle, if I am going to be walking more than an hour. Yes, occasionally I get thirsty on a hot day. The cost of providing public drinking water is incredible, when you factor in the construction, maintenance and repair. It is a nice amenity, but I can only see the houseless as having a true need for public water. Now, as an older guy who has to pee a lot, investing in public urinals is a cause that I can get behind.

      • lspanker

        Tend to agree – methinks that “lack of access” to these people means that nobody will give it to them for free.