Given Flint’s Tap Water Crisis, How Does Baltimore Fare?

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lime_waterAs we watch the tragic Flint, Michigan, tap water situation unfold, it begs the question closer to home: How good is Baltimore’s tap water?  As we’ve reported before, the Baltimore metro enjoys good quality drinking water. But to be sure, we checked in with Department of Public Works to ask a few specifics regarding Flint’s situation. Even though Baltimore delivers good tap water to 1.8 million homes and businesses, it’s still a good idea to filter the unavoidable chlorine by-products from your water. As Flint has taught us, it’s smart to know the source, ingredients and potential pitfalls of products our families consume and use.

For the most part, our drinking water is good because in 1973 the Safe Water Drinking Act was signed into law and set minimum health standards for municipal-supplied tap water. The federal government’s Environmental Protection Agency regulates drinking water.

The Baltimore City Department of Public Works supplies 1.8 million homes in the Baltimore-metro with drinking water.  Baltimore is known for good drinking water that meets all federal standards. Each year, the city distributes an easy-to-follow report detailing yearly water quality test results.

Clean water in, clean water out

Baltimore’s water source is surface water – rainfall and snowmelt – which feeds into the Liberty, Loch Raven and Pretty Boy reservoirs. The watershed that feeds our reservoirs is clean thanks to strategic planning by Abel Wolman, a Maryland Department of Health Engineer between 1922 to 1939. Wolman’s visionary-thinking spurred Baltimore to buy the vast acreage surrounding our reservoirs to ensure the land remained undeveloped. The Baltimore-area watershed is mostly forested (a natural filter) with little industry and farming. Baltimore City has three water treatment plants that deliver tap water to Baltimore City and Baltimore County, as well as parts of Anne Arundel and Howard Counties.

Flint’s corrosive water in, lead-tainted water out

In 2014, Flint’s elected officials chose to switch the water treatment’s plant water source from the pricier Detroit supply, to the notoriously dirty Flint River.  Flint River water is toxic and its contaminants corroded not only Flint’s iron pipes, but the city’s lead-based pipes as well.  Allegedly, Flint chose to not add anti-corrosive agents at the treatment plants and the invisible chemical lead leached into tap water and was consumed by Flint’s citizens.  Lead is a neurotoxin and there is no safe level in humans. Lead accumulates faster in smaller children’s bodies (Flint’s childhood lead cases spiked), and lead’s negative developmental impacts are irreversible. You don’t mess around with (or ignore) lead.

Could lead leach into Baltimore’s aging water pipes?

The Susquehanna River, also not a clean river, is Baltimore’s backup water supply in case of drought. Jeffrey Raymond, DPW’s Chief of Communications explained, “Published in a few months, the Baltimore 2015 water report’s value for lead was 5.00 parts per billion (ppb). That’s well below the 15 ppb action level set by the EPA.”

He continued, “Baltimore has no lead service lines, so they cannot leach lead as happened in Flint. However, lead is found in pipe joints and fixtures, and some homes may have leaded fixtures. We treat our drinking water with calcium oxide (lime) as one step in our treatment process.  Lime increases the water’s pH and alkalinity, which when kept at an optimal level, forms a thin protective coating on the inside of pipes. When the City uses the Susquehanna River for raw water, the amount of lime required may increase or decrease depending upon the water’s characteristics.” said Raymond.

Baltimore City also analyzes the water coming in and leaving our treatment plants several times a day for compounds, chemicals, and metals.


Baltimore’s tap water catch-22

Even though Baltimore enjoys good water, you may want to be aware of a solvable tap water catch-22 that can impact your family’s health. Tap water needs to be filtered to remove unintended and unavoidable chlorine by-products and contaminants. Filtering drinking water is a homeowner’s responsibility.

Filtering out chlorine by-products

Since the 1920s, chlorine is used by most water treatment plants to disinfect water; it’s cheap and effective and saves millions of lives. Before Baltimore began using chlorine as a disinfectant, about 2,000 Baltimoreans died each year (four percent of the population) from water-borne illnesses.

To ensure that your home’s water stays contaminant-free between the water treatment plant and your tap, drinking water leaves Baltimore City treatment plants with a smidgen of chlorine. As water travels through Baltimore City pipes to your tap, the minimally-chlorinated water reacts with organic matter (rust, dirt, leaves) and unavoidably forms chlorine by-products. 

Discovered in 1979, the 600 or so chemicals that make up chlorine by-products are grouped into THMs (trihalomethanes) and HAAs (haloacetic acids).  The 2014 Baltimore Water Quality reports that our area meets all regulatory requirements for chlorine by-products and all other contaminants. Scientific research suggests that long term exposure to chlorine byproducts through drinking and skin inhalation (hot showers) is linked to higher bladder cancer rates in people.

Filtering your home’s tap water in either pitchers, on-sink systems  or whole house filters ensures you get clean and healthy water.  Click here for more details on choosing simple options to filter your tap water.

Laurel Peltier
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Laurel Peltier

Laurel writes the environmental GreenLaurel column every other Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of UVA's MBA program, she spends her time with her family and making "all things green" interesting.
Laurel Peltier
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