PULLMAN, Wash. — Frank Loge, a Washington State University assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, has received a $1.8 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to study the health risks associated with drinking groundwater from aquifers.
When bacteria in drinking water sickened thousands and killed more than 100 people in the Milwaukee area in 1994, all the current regulations regarding safe drinking water were being followed. These and other incidents like it have led a WSU research group to investigate.
For acute illnesses caused by pathogens, government regulations were developed and based on the success of treatment technologies. For instance, researchers found in a lab that chlorine inactivates salmonella. Based on the laboratory experiments, municipalities and other water suppliers are required to have certain amounts of chlorine. The problem, however, is that nobody knows if the lab results transfer to a municipal water system.
Nobody knows either how often people actually get sick from pathogens in their drinking water as opposed to other means of transmission. The fact that occasional outbreaks of illness, like the one in Milwaukee, occur with proper regulation indicates that the treatment technology-based requirements may not be catching all the bugs, Loge said.
Working with the Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation in Wisconsin, Loge will monitor the health of children in 14 participating Wisconsin communities as their water supply is being monitored for specific viruses. Children are a better indicator of pathogen infection because they have less immunity built up than adults. Specifically, Loge will look at the incidence of gastro-intestinal illnesses while municipalities are using standard disinfection practices and again after the researchers intervene and kill all the pathogens in the water.
“This will provide a valid and representative measure of risk that can help guide policies for safe drinking water,’’ Loge said. “The results will also address the public health significance of water contamination from these viruses.’’