By RONNIE ELLIS
CNHI News Service
Kentuckians shouldn’t fear their publicly treated drinking water is unsafe.
That’s what Bruce Scott, commissioner of environmental protection, says after reviewing statewide data collected by the state Division of Water over a period of 12 years.
Scott requested the analysis in response to several scientific and health studies which appear to show a correlation between health and mortality risks and surface mining coal operations.
“A number of studies have suggested there are health problems in eastern Kentucky that we wanted to evaluate relative to public drinking water,” Scott said. “We didn’t do it to refute a study. It was done in response to concerns expressed by those studies.”
DOW didn’t independently test water samples. It reviewed data submitted to the state from 519 public drinking water systems across the state, focusing on two heavy metals known to be carcinogens: arsenic ad chromium.
“The analysis revealed that (arsenic and chromium) are not occurring in public drinking water systems at levels that cause health concerns and confirmed that Kentucky’s public water supply systems are producing consistently high-quality drinking water,” Scott said.
Scott said the study analyzed other metals, including beryllium, cadmium, mercury and selenium, and found they were also not present at unsafe levels.
The samples were collected by independent, certified laboratories and tested treated water not source water. The study did not examine private wells which are unregulated in Kentucky but Scott said another study on wells is underway.
West Virginia Professor Michael Hendryx authored some of the studies which prompted the DOW review. He has found a correlation between the presence of surface mining in the central Appalachian region and significantly higher death rates from cancer.
But Hendrxy’s studies focus on airborne particulate matter, small particles of dust and rock in the atmosphere, rather than on water supplies although he suspects water contamination too. The studies do not point to a single culprit in the correlation between surface mining and poor health.
Hendryx said his first reaction to the DOW study is that it “is grossly incomplete.”
He said other contaminants, including chemicals like ammonium or organic compounds, as well as contaminated well water and air pollution may be contributing to the high levels of cancer.
“Preliminary environmental sampling that we’re currently doing suggests that all three of these problems may exist,” Hendryx said.
In March, The University of Wisconsin and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released their annual County Health Rankings for all 50 states. The seven unhealthiest Kentucky counties in the RWJ ranking all have some surface mining and are located in the eastern and southeastern coal fields.
That study didn’t address surface mining, but it concluded many in eastern Kentucky are exposed to contaminated water.
“If you look at the preponderance of the data, it doesn’t support the conclusion that public drinking water is a contributor to cancer incidence in Kentucky,” Scott said.
Scott said his department looked at data from the National Cancer Institute and compared the rate of cancer incidence among regions of the state, including the eastern and western coal fields. The study concluded there is no correlation between the incidence of cancer and coal production.
But Scott conceded cancer death rates are much higher in the Appalachian coal fields than those in other regions of the state.
“That begs a whole other set of questions as to why,” Scott said.
The eastern portion of the state is generally less educated, has higher rates of smoking and other health risks and doesn’t enjoy easy access to medical care in all counties. But those factors are accounted for in the Hendrxy studies which nonetheless found higher rates of cancer deaths.
Scott said the DOW study did not differentiate between types of cancer. If pollution is creating higher rates of lung cancer which is harder to treat and more deadly, for instance, that could also be a contributing factor to the higher mortality rates.
But Scott is confident the data reveals that publicly distributed drinking water is safe and isn’t contributing to health problems.
Nonetheless, he encouraged anyone with concerns about drinking water to report them to their public water system or to DOW because isolated problems can occur.
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.