Lower Merion: What’s in Your Water?

Testing the Tap in Montgomery County

Lower Merion Township Drinking Water originates in the Schuylkill River Sub-Watershed. The Schuylkill River is the largest tributary to the Delaware River. In a sense, our watershed is the hydrological little sister to big brother Delaware. The Schuylkill extends through several counties as it winds towards Philadelphia. The name is derived from a Welsh word meaning “hidden river.” With its gentle creeks and tributaries, its strong, swift flows, and its abundant flats, our river does seem to disappear at times beneath a canopy of tall trees.

Aqua PA, the private water utility which supplies Lower Merion, is one of the largest and fastest growing water companies in the US. Currently in its 125th year, they provide tap water for approximately 3 million people in 13 states, including more than 1 million residents of Montgomery, Chester and Delaware Counties. Aqua Waste Management, a wholly owned subsidiary, is fast becoming the largest waste hauler and treatment services provider in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Lower Merion is on Aqua’s Main Division. The utility pulls water for the Main Division from the Schuylkill at various intakes upriver. They also draw water from numerous of wells. Aqua treats the water and pipes it into to our homes. They do a pretty darn good job. Sometimes, the water smells too much like too chlorine, and there was a period in 2010 when it was really salty, but I have always thought of this company with a stirring local pride. It’s their zeal for recycling frack waste that troubles me.

In a testimony to the PA Democratic Policy Committee on June 9, 2011 in Philadelphia, Aqua Regional President, Karl Kyriss states:

“While we recognize the significance of this domestic energy resource for the country, as well as the potentially substantial economic benefit for Pennsylvania, we also share the Commonwealth’s deep and justifiable environmental concerns over responsible development of this resource.

“We can also play a role in providing water resources for responsible energy development. In short, we want to support efforts to grow an industry that provides tremendous economic benefits to Pennsylvania and critical energy resources for our country, and we want to ensure that it’s done right – with the proper respect for our natural resources now and into the future.

“There have been reports of some impacts to private wells. However, the potential water source contaminants we have, and continue, to watch for are:
Natural gas
Radioactive elements

“We believe that there is low potential for adverse impacts on our water supplies from Marcellus Shale drilling activity in large part due to DEP’s effective regulations coupled with enforcement. To support DEP monitoring activities, we are taking steps to establish baseline water quality information for our supplies. We will be monitoring water quality more frequently and extensively than required by regulation whenever drilling activity is occurring anywhere near one of our well supplies so that we can detect and respond to any water quality changes that might occur.”

Aqua PA’s Water Boomlet
When all is said and done, Aqua PA is bending its business plan over backwards to make it right for  gas drillers in Pennsylvania, and to profit fully from the present Water Boomlet  – like any successful water company should. And they are doing the math. But it’s entirely a matter of chemicals content, Total Dissolved Solids, turbidity and radionuclides. And, beyond some pretty basic and outdated Federal standards, it is Aqua who is calculating what is to be considered acceptable risk. What’s more, fracking in the Marcellus shale is new to them, too.

I hear the best water filtration technology available today is membrane technology. It’s even being explored by scientists at Bucknell University. It shows promise, but it also has inherent problems, like massive power demands, but the idea certainly deserves further study, yes? If Aqua is seeing record profits, shouldn’t they be investing in this kind of thing? To quote Aqua’s Kyriss, “Water is the only utility we consume.”

Aqua PA assures us that they are ramping up testing, going above and beyond what Federal guidelines mandate. And clearly there’s a coordinated effort with the PA Department of Environmental Protection. This is positive, yet somehow not that reassuring. I mean, why is a state agency so inclined to work with a private enterprise, yet so disinclined to fall in step with the EPA?

I love the Schuylkill. This river sustains my life, and the well-being of my family and our community. I am very concerned about how we can protect it. Some of the Schuylkill’s dams, like the Flat Rock Dam in Gladwyne, are owned by Exelon, the energy giant, who is btw Aqua’s largest water customer. Some, though fewer each year, are still owned various agencies of the state. What does this mean to the quality and safety of our tap water? The Schuylkill Action Network is a local watershed protection group, and I will post more about them after their next meeting in July. Meanwhile, enjoy our Lower Merion household water test results below.

Lower Merion Tap Water Test Results
Baseline testing – that’s what we were about. We are far from drilling activity, yet not a single county in Pennsylvania will remain unaffected by the current Gas Boom. We hired Drinkwell Labs, a division of Underwriters Laboratories, Inc. They are a non-profit testing lab. Our Sample Site: The powder room sink, there’s no filter on that one. Collection Date: May 2, 2011.

THE GOOD NEWS: our water is essentially safe and basically unremarkable. There are a few yellow flags, but nothing to write home about. THE BAD NEWS: I’m not the only one who thinks we need to do more extensive and regular testing. Every stake holder, even the gas drillers  agree, test, baby, test! The real question there is who is willing to pay for it. (Hint: not Aqua.)

UL DrinkWell Laboratories: Lower Merion Household Water Test Results
Bacteriologicals GREEN
Regulated Metals YELLOW
Inorganics YELLOW
Herbicides GREEN
Pesticides GREEN
Industrial Chemicals GREEN
Radionuclides YELLOW

GREEN = no detections at or above the Reporting Limit
YELLOW = contaminants detected below Federal Limit
RED = contaminants detected at or above Federal Limit

GREEN = no detections at or above the Reporting Limit
YELLOW = contaminants detected below Federal Limit
ORANGE = aesthetics contaminants detected at or above Federal Secondary Limits
RED = contaminants detected at or above Federal Limit

Contaminants Detected with Related Health Effects & Aesthetics Conditions
Below please find a summary of detections for the sample you submitted. The source of any health effect language used in this report is the Federal Register or other United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) documents. For more information on health effects in drinking water, please visit http://www.epa.gov/safewater. Sources for aesthetic effect language is the EPA and Rutgers University, Interpreting Drinking Water Quality Analysis, 5th Edition. Shelton, Theodore B. Ph.D.

Health Related Contaminants

Barium was detected at 42 ug/L which is less than the Federal MCL of 2000 ug/L.

[Wikipedia: Soluble barium compounds are poisonous. At low doses, barium acts as a muscle stimulant, whereas higher doses affect the nervous system, causing cardiac irregularities, tremors, weakness, anxiety, dyspnea and paralysis. This may be due to its ability to block potassium ion channels which are critical to the proper function of the nervous system. However, individual responses to barium salts vary widely, with some being able to handle barium nitrate casually without problems, and others becoming ill from working with it in small quantities.]

Copper was detected at 22 ug/L which is less than the Action Level of 1300 ug/L.

[Wikipedia: An accumulation of copper in body tissues causes Wilson’s disease, or hepatolenticular degeneration, which is an autosomal recessive genetic disorder. Wilson’s disease manifests as neurological or psychiatric symptoms and liver disease.]

Fluoride was detected at 0.4 mg/L which is less than the Federal MCL of 4.0 mg/L.

[Wikipedia: Fluoride-containing compounds are so diverse that it is not possible to generalize on their toxicity, which depends on their reactivity and structure, and in the case of salts, their solubility and ability to release fluoride ions.]

Nitrate was detected at 2.1 mg/L which is less than the Federal MCL of 10 mg/L.

[Wikipedia: Human health effects: Nitrate toxicosis in humans occurs through enterohepatic metabolism of nitrate to ammonia. Nitrites oxidize the iron atoms in hemoglobin. This process can lead to generalized lack of oxygen in organ tissue and a dangerous condition called methemoglobinemia. Infants in particular are especially vulnerable to methemoglobinemia.]

Turbidity was detected at 0.1 NTU which is less than the Federal MCL of 0.3 NTU.

[Wikipedia: Turbidity is the cloudiness or haziness of a fluid caused by individual particles (suspended solids) that are generally invisible to the naked eye, similar to smoke in air. The measurement of turbidity is a key test of water quality. Governments have set standards on the allowable turbidity in drinking water. In the United States. Many drinking water utilities strive to achieve levels as low as 0.1 NTU.]

Radon-222 was detected at 15 pCi/L. There is no Federal Limit for this contaminant.

[Wikipedia: There are thirty-five known isotopes of radon (Rn). The most stable isotope is 222Rn with a half-life of 3.823 days.]

Total Alkalinity
Total Alkalinity was detected at 67 mg/L as CaCO3. There is no Federal Limit for this contaminant.

[Wikipedia: Alkalinity or AT measures the ability of a solution to neutralize acids to the equivalence point of carbonate or bicarbonate. In the natural environment carbonate alkalinity tends to make up most of the total alkalinity due to the common occurrence and dissolution of carbonate rocks and presence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Solutions produced in a laboratory may contain a virtually limitless number of bases that contribute to alkalinity.]

Aluminum was detected at 18 ug/L which is less than the Federal SMCL of 50 to 200 ug/L.

[Wikipedia: In the Earth’s crust, aluminum is the most abundant (8.3% by weight) metallic element and the third most abundant of all elements (after oxygen and silicon). Because aluminum is abundant and most of its compounds exhibit low toxicity, the compounds of aluminum enjoy wide and sometimes large-scale applications. Some toxicity can be traced to deposition in bone and the central nervous system, which is particularly increased in patients with reduced renal function. Because aluminum competes with calcium for absorption, increased amounts of dietary aluminum may contribute to the reduced skeletal mineralization (osteopenia) observed in preterm infants and infants with growth retardation. In very high doses, aluminum can cause neurotoxicity, and is associated with altered function of the blood-brain barrier]

Chloride was detected at 34 mg/L which is less than the Federal SMCL of 250 mg/L.

[Wikipedia: Chloride is used to form salts that can preserve food such as sodium chloride. Other salts have varied uses ranging from medical treatments to cement formation. Chloride is a chemical the human body needs for metabolism (the process of turning food into energy). In the petroleum industry, the chlorides are a closely monitored constituent of the mud system. Chloride is also a useful and reliable chemical indicator of river / groundwater fecal contamination, as chloride is a non-reactive solute and ubiquitous to sewage & potable water. Many water regulating companies around the world utilize chloride to check the contamination levels of the rivers and potable water sources.]

DrinkWell Definition of Terms
mg/L: 1 mg/L or milligram per liter represents 1 part per million (ppm). An example of a part per million is one cent in $10,000.

ug/L: 1 ug/L or microgram per liter represents 1 part per billion (ppb). An example of a part per billion is one cent in $10 million.

Action Level: The concentration of a contaminant which, if exceeded, triggers treatment or other actions which a public water system must take.

Aesthetics: Contaminant which may affect water quality such as taste, color or odor.

Federal Limit: Maximum allowable concentration of a contaminant in a public water supply. This applies to primary and secondary limits.

Health Effect: The source of any health effect language used in the DrinkWell reports is the Federal Register or
other USEPA documents. For more information on health effects in drinking water, please visit

Herbicide: A chemical compound, usually synthetic, used to control weeds.

Industrial Chemical: Chemicals used or produced primarily in industrial applications.

Inorganic Contaminants (IOC): Mineral-based compounds such as metals and nitrates. These contaminants are naturally occurring in some water, but can also enter water through farming, chemical manufacturing and other human activities.

Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL): The highest concentration of a contaminant that is allowed in drinking water. MCLs are set as close to the Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) as feasible using the best available treatment technology and taking cost into consideration.

Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG): The concentration of a contaminant in drinking water below which there is no known or expected risk to health. MCLGs are non-enforceable health goals.

N/A: Not Applicable.

ND: None Detected. The contaminant was not detected above the lowest reportable value by the
procedure used for analysis.

NTU: NTU stands for Nephelometric Turbidity Unit which is the unit used to measure turbidity in water.

Turbidity refers to the scattering and absorption of light rather than transmission caused by
suspended matter such as clay, dissolved organic material and microscopic organisms.

Organic Contaminants: Carbon-based chemicals, such as solvents and pesticides, which can enter drinking water supplies through runoff from cropland, discharges from industrial operations, underground tanks, spills and other sources.

Pesticide: A synthetic chemical, used to control pests such as insects and other invertebrates such as worms
and nematodes.

Primary Drinking Water Standards: Legally enforceable standards established by the Federal government that apply to public water
systems. These standards limit the concentrations of specific contaminants that can adversely affect public health and which are known or anticipated to occur in public water supplies.

Radionuclide: An unstable form of a chemical element that radioactively decays, resulting in the emission of nuclear radiation.

Reporting Limit: The lowest concentration at which a contaminant is reported.

Secondary Drinking Water Standards: Non-enforceable federal guidelines regarding cosmetic effects (such as tooth or skin discoloration) or aesthetic effects (such as taste, odor or color) of drinking water.

Secondary Maximum Contaminant Level (SMCL): Non-enforceable federal limits set for contaminants included in the Secondary Drinking Water
Standards. The purpose of these limits is to assist public water systems in managing their drinking water for aesthetic considerations.

Volatile Organic Contaminant (VOC): Group of organic chemicals characterized by their volatility (ability to evaporate). Volatile organic contaminants are widely used in the manufacture of plastics, clothing and other common household items.

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