What It All Boils Down To: Your Water And Your Safety

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Ohio University has issued a boil order that is in effect until 10 p.m. on Wednesday for the Athens campus, but it may not necessarily signal a cause for alarm. 

A boil order is a precautionary measure taken by the public water suppliers when the pressure in the water pipe system drops below 20 pounds per square inch (psi) and indicates that the water may be contaminated due to a flood, a water main break or operational maintenance according the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

From January 2009 to November 2012, the city of Athens issued 84 boil orders, according to data collected by the Athens Engineering and Public Works Department (APWS). 

Andy Stone, director of APWS, said they issue boil orders because there might be a chance of a bacteria coming into the water line. The department works to keep germs out of the line by keeping higher pressure inside the line than outside, so the overpressure keeps the bacteria from getting in.

“If that’s the case that bacteria is present, we will subsequently issue a no drink order until we can get the system flushed,” said Stone. “Almost 99.99 percent of the time there is no contamination, but as a public water supplier, our job is to guarantee that there is no contamination.”

After 24 hours of testing the sample, the lab knows the results. In Athens, boil orders are lifted automatically at the 24-hour mark if there is no known contaminant present.

“In most cases, the amount of contamination you get in a line, a normal person’s immune system would handle,” said Stone. “But if you’ve got someone in the house who’s got an immune-deficiency or is elderly or what have you, they have a potential for getting sicker easier.”

But a drop in pressure doesn’t always equate to a boil order. This is because the water treatment crew may be able to get to the water break and install a clamp before the water is contaminated, according to the APWS.

Bill Todd, who’s been a lab technician at the Athens Water Treatment Plant for 21 years, said the EPA guidelines don’t necessarily warrant that people need to get worried about boil orders, but they are still required to issue a boil order even if the water may be safe to drink. 

“You’re not supposed to drink water when it’s under a boil order, but then again people swim in rivers, lakes, and ponds, which are teeming with bacteria and it doesn’t hurt them,” said Todd.  

Dan Stephens, a teaching assistant at OU, said he can remember one time when his brother Sam got sick from drinking water from the tap in Lakewood, Ohio, but that hasn’t stopped him from drinking the tap water in Athens.

“I never boil my water,” said Stephens. “To me, a boil order just means that when it’s issued, don’t drink the water and if you are, boil it.”

How Athens Compares To Other Counties

The Athens Public Works serves the most people of all of the six public works plants in Athens County: 22,854. The department has had five violations since 2001, according to Safe Drinking Water Information System (SDWIS) data from the EPA. These violations were for coliform, which is defined by the EPA as “bacteria that is naturally present in the environment and is used as indicator that other, potentially-harmful, bacteria may be present.”

Stone said they use these bacteria as an indication if they should issue a boil order.

In comparison to the other five public works plants in Athens County, Athens’ water is among the cleanest.

Just six miles away from Athens, Chauncey has the most violations. Chauncey Public Works serves 1,428 people and has had 43 violations since 2002, according to SDWIS. These included violations of nickel, cyanide, arsenic and mercury in the water.

“America has an aging infrastructure,” said Stone. “The pipes are getting to the end of their life right now.”

Stone said the boil orders are a result of the pipes breaking and the fact that it costs money poor Appalachian towns cannot afford to pay. 

In comparison, other public works in Athens County, Le-Ax Regional Water District and Amesville Public Water System have had no violations. Nelsonville Public Works has had seven since 2001 with violations in coliform. Burr Oak Regional, which is one of the smaller public works, with a population of 761, has had four violations since 2004, all of which were for carbon.

The EPA regularly does checkups on the water treatment plants to make sure that they are sticking to their certification and regulations of testing the water. Todd said if this doesn’t happen, he might be in trouble.

“In 21 years, we’ve never been dinged,” said Todd. “So basically, we’ve done a very good job here. Those of us who work here are proud of that."

What Can You Do To Stay Informed? 

Because boil orders are a precautionary measure and you cannot always be sure that the water is safe to drink, Stone recommends people sign up for alerts.

As of November 2012, only 22 people out of 58 subscribers in the city of Athens received text alerts, according to data collected by Scott Thompson, director of the Athens Government Access Channel. Thompson said boil orders are also announced on local radio stations and in newspapers.

“Boil orders are also posted on the city website, including the Notify Me opt-in servicesFacebook and Twitter,” said Thompson. “Road signs are also placed in the neighborhoods affected by the boil order.”

Residents may also call the boil order hotline at 740-594-5078 for more information.

In the case of a boil order, the AWPS website recommends the following:

– Bring water to a full boil for three minutes before drinking.

– Use only boiled water for preparing food and drinking.

– Dispose of ice cubes that were made during a boil order.

– Supervise children to avoid water being ingested.

If you don’t boil the water, you can disinfect water by adding one teaspoon of unscented chlorine laundry bleach for every five gallons of water. Let it stand 30 minutes before using.

“Be mindful of your environment and recognize that those things can impact you," Stone said. “Don’t be overly excited about boil orders. I don’t get worried when it happens in my house.”