Investigation reveals Coloradans could be drinking toilet water in their homes
November 28, 2013
Feel like a nice cool glass of ice water? Before you take a sip, you might want to take a quick tour of your home. How's the fill valve in your toilet? Do you have a vacuum breaker on your outside spigots? What about your boiler?
Without the right plumbing bits and pieces in place, you could be at risk of drinking toilet water, sipping lawn fertilizers or slurping hazardous chemicals. If they aren't protected, cross connections between the drinking water in your home and non-potable water sources can mean that dirty water gets mixed with the clean. It might take as little as a change in water pressure.
And it's not just in your home. Backflow can happen almost anywhere — from schools to restaurants to water treatment plants.
A review of state records by I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS shows that throughout Colorado, hazardous cross connections rate among the most persistent public health risks in water distribution systems.
I-News found that 30 percent of water providers inspected by the state since 2009 were found to be in violation for something related to cross connections or backflow — most often issues related to documenting or managing risks. And 9 percent of the water systems were found to have potentially hazardous cross connections.
Among schools operating their own small water systems, inspectors found cross connection issues to be even more prevalent. Roughly 47 percent were found to be in some kind of violation of cross connection or backflow rules, while risky cross connections were found in 19 percent of the schools, according to a recent analysis by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
If left unchecked, these routine plumbing problems can make people sick.
Last fall, 26 people at a medical facility in Colorado Springs fell ill after drinking water that tasted and smelled odd.
The building, which includes Memorial Hospital's surgery and wound care centers, shut down until an investigation by state public health authorities identified the probable culprit: a faulty connection between the drinking water and the ventilation, or HVAC, system.
Propylene glycol — an ingredient in antifreeze — had been leaking into the pipes for three days, officials found. Investigators said other anti-corrosive chemicals may have gotten into the water, as well.
NexCore Properties, which manages the building, had no comment on the state's findings. Paula Freund, a spokeswoman for Memorial Hospital, said she's confident the water problem has been fixed.
Fred Spengler is one of a few technicians in the state trained to find and fix cross connections in homes and businesses. In Colorado, he says, it's often older homes that have problems, or those with special features like solar panels or heated driveways.
But issues turn up in mundane places, too.
"Lots of the cross connections have to do with toilets," says Spengler.
A 2004 study conducted in Iowa by the University of Southern California's Foundation for Cross Connection Control and Hydraulic Research found that nearly one in ten homes had a direct connection to a health hazard — most often in the toilet, but also in heating and cooling systems, water softeners and outside spigots.
Patrick Sylvester, the study's project manager, said in an interview that he was surprised how many homes had faulty sewer connections — 14 of the 188 homes included in the study.
Only 4 percent of the homes were fully protected from a direct or indirect cross connection, according to the USC report.
"Most of the cross connections could be abated with a few dollars and a few minutes," the study found, "but residents were unaware of the hazards existing in their own plumbing system."
As in larger water systems, faulty cross connections at home can cause health problems if a change in water pressure or a disruption to the water line coincides with an unprotected connection. In most instances, an illness caused by backflow would be tough to trace to its cause; it might be dismissed as a 24-hour bug.
In some cases, the consequences can be serious. In Commerce City last year, Nick and Roxanne Cattaneo were awarded more than $900,000 from Aquakleen Products Inc. after their family's sewer line was mistakenly connected to their drinking water during the installation of a water softener.
Commerce City officials warned at the time that Aquakleen had installed water softeners at more than 100 households without a permit. Backflow from a household has the potential to pollute public water, too.
A lawyer representing Aquakleen said the company had no comment.
From 1970 to 2001, according to the National Research Council, there were 12,000 reported illnesses from 459 instances of backflow. The number doesn't catch unreported cases.
"Because of the enormous range of contaminant sources involved, as well as the number of unprotected cross connections, backflow events collectively constitute the greatest potential health risk from distribution system contamination," the National Research Council reported in 2006.
In Colorado, state water quality inspectors periodically inspect larger water systems — which include anything from a school or a campground with its own well and filtration system, to a town or a city.
Larger water systems like the city of Denver are required to keep records of the highest-hazard spots in their jurisdiction — places like the Denver Zoo, where the water district found in 2006 that water meant for washing down the lion's den was mixed with employees' drinking water.
Nearly one in three water systems in the last five years has been dinged for failing to keep adequate testing records or for other backflow-related problems.
Most schools aren't routinely tested by the state — it's left to their water providers to mitigate the risks. But schools with their own wells have a poor record of compliance.
The water system that supplies Caliche School in the northeastern Colorado town of Iliff, for example, failed to install backflow preventers in the mop sink, the auto shop and the training room, state inspectors found during the most recent inspection in 2010. School officials say the backflow preventers are now in place, and the water system is being upgraded.
Officials from the state public health department downplay the risks associated with backflow, emphasizing that water pollution from a bad connection depends on a lot of things going wrong at the same time — for instance, a pressure change, an absence of protection, and the presence of a harmful contaminant.
"It is a potential risk, and it is something that we evaluate," says Ron Falco, who manages the state's safe drinking water program. "A cross connection by itself isn't a contamination."
The state rarely punishes water providers solely for problems related to cross connections — even in cases of repeated problems.
However, they acknowledge that the state regulations need updating — in part to offer more guidance to small, cash-strapped systems.
After a salmonella outbreak in the southern Colorado city of Alamosa in 2008 that was unrelated to backflow, a team of investigators called for a series of reforms to prevent future incidents of waterborne illness, including updating state regulations related to cross connections.
Four years after that report came out, however, the old rules are still in place. The outdated regulations don't mention specific hazards to look out for — things like chemical laboratories, aircraft manufacturing facilities or mortuaries. They also don't spell out specific backflow prevention methods or set testing standards.
Falco, who was lead author of the 2009 report on Alamosa, says that the current rules don't pose any risk to the public. He said that inspectors have stepped up surveillance of backflow-related risks since 2009, and expects to see improvements in water providers' records.
The new rules are expected to launch by January 2015.
I-News is the public service journalism arm of Rocky Mountain PBS and works collaboratively with news media throughout Colorado. To read more, please go to inewsnetwork.org. Kristin Jones can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org