Where do we get our scientific information from?
My city sent out notices informing me and my fellow citizens that a few of the city wells providing city water in my town had slightly higher than allowable levels of manganese. The EPA has set guidelines, and the city was looking into ways to either disperse the manganese or to alleviate the issue. According to my letter, it can cause Parkinson’s-like symptoms in adults, but because children do not process it well, it could cause toxicity to their nervous systems. The un-born were also at high risk due to the blood bond that mothers have with fetuses.
I’m not on city water, though. I have a private well. The city didn’t provide an exact map of which wells were implicated, so I have to get my water tested (and so do 5,600 other households, according to the desk clerk I spoke to yesterday). Fortunately for us, we don’t enjoy the taste of our well water, so we’ve drunk distilled water (I know BPA and plastics in water aren’t any better) and rented ourselves a water filter from a local water filter supplier.
I wasn’t exactly surprised to see the notice.
Manganese seeps into the water supply through industrial pollution or rock erosion over time. In my neighborhood, there are several industrial sites, a heavy metal recycling center less than five miles away that is also an EPA brown site, and an old dump that we affectionately call “diaper mountain.” Diaper mountain is less than a half mile away from my home. In the twenty-some years that I’ve lived here, the state has eminent-domained houses that were on its border. Every few years, the areas “closed due to environmental concerns” creep closer and closer to the neighborhood and local parks.
I’m curious and like to learn more about things, and I knew literally nothing about manganese than what was printed on the one-sided paper from my city.
I dug in deeply. In less than an hour, I found a few things — some disturbing, some confusing. The EPA’s findings about manganese were published in 2004, and coincided with the information that my city sent me. I also landed on a company that supplies water filters for the manganese problem. They were quite detailed in their information. And then…the confusing. I found an article posted on the Penn State Extension site that seemed comprehensive, except that in their paper was this tiny little blurb.
“Drinking Water Standards
Iron and manganese are not health concerns in drinking water. Instead, they both have secondary or recommended drinking water standards because they cause aesthetic problems that make the water undesirable to use in the home and a bitter metallic taste that can make the water unpleasant to drink for both humans and farm animals.” (Emphasis is mine.)
Currently, every state has its own water standards, with few exceptions. My own state has stringent regulations. I contacted someone from a state water association about the Penn State information, because I wanted to understand why the EPA regulations were followed so differently. In short, while the bulk of the article I read was technically accurate, I was told that it only applies to Pennsylvania private wells— and that I should disregard it entirely because my state’s regulations for private wells are different.
I’ve seen this before.
When I was a child, we lived less than ten miles away from a mining smelter. It spewed harmful toxicants into the air for years. My town was ground zero in one of those cancer clusters that people hear about. The company denied they were causing harm, and no one stepped in to deal with it. Finally, the people in my area were able to get enough attention and the smelters shut down, but the damage was done from mining slag and air pollution. The pilings from the heavy metal mining remain there to this day, still polluting those that live right next door to them. The company simply shut down the mines and didn’t pay to ameliorate the problems in that neighborhood.
This isn’t the case in my city today.
They plan to do what they can to fix the problem, unlike what happened in Flint, Michigan and other less fortunate towns. My city is providing water tests for those of us with wells. (I paid $45 for the combined coliform/manganese tests.) They are acknowledging that there may be a problem.
So what do we do when there is conflicting information?
The Internet is a wide wide world with plenty of information and disinformation out there. Unfortunately, if someone has letters after their name, that does not always mean that they have the best interests of people at heart (Big Tobacco, Big Oil, Monsanto) or that they aren’t being paid to obscure information. This also doesn’t mean that all scientists are out there to be deliberately dishonorable and make money — but that they are people. People can sometimes make mistakes or have different belief systems. Or live in an area without standards.
How can we find the “right” information?
Ask questions from people who have studied extensively in those fields. Be prepared to find contradicting information sometimes, as scientists are often learning new information about our world. Check with your local and state governments to find out what the regulations are. And, in the case of some states who don’t have anything on their books— if you want to be safer, then you may have to take the extra steps to test your own water and soil and protect yourself.
We shouldn’t necessarily distrust the systems that we rely on but gather new knowledge to learn about our world. We’re all in this together, and we can make it a better place.
US Environmental Protection Agency. “Drinking Water Health Advisory for Manganese.” EPA.gov, Jan 2004, https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2014-09/documents/support_cc1_magnese_dwreport_0.pdf
Swistock, Bryan & Sharpe, William PhD. “Iron and Manganese in Private Water Systems.” PennStateExtension, 6 Jun 2016, https://extension.psu.edu/iron-and-manganese-in-private-water-systems
Busch-Blaurock E. “The Clinical Effects of Manganese.” Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients, 2002, http://www.tldp.com/issue/180/Clinical%20Effects%20of%20Mn.html
Dvorak, Bruce, Skipton, Sharon, & Woldt, Wayne. “Drinking Water: Iron and Manganese.” University of Nebraska Lincoln, Feb 2014, http://extensionpublications.unl.edu/assets/pdf/g1714.pdf
Ngo, Sheiresa. “15 Jobs That Put You at a Higher Risk of Cancer.” Cheatsheet.com, 26 Feb 2018, https://www.cheatsheet.com/money-career/jobs-put-higher-cancer-risk.html/
National Cancer Institute. “Cancer Clusters.” United States Health and Human Services, 29 Aug 2018, https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/cancer-clusters-fact-sheet
Associated Press. “Clean Air Costly for Arizona Town : Closure of Copper Smelter Will Slash Jobs, Tax Revenue.” Los Angeles Times, 5 Jan 1987, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1987-01-05-fi-2300-story.html
CNN. “Flint Water Crisis Fast Facts.” CNN US Edition, 14 Jun 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2016/03/04/us/flint-water-crisis-fast-facts/index.html
“Manganese in Drinking Water.” Minnesota Department of Health, 21 Jun 2018, https://www.health.state.mn.us/communities/environment/water/docs/contaminants/mangnsefctsht.pdf
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