How to Ensure Accuracy in Detecting Contaminants

By Theresa Bellish

Worldwide, water utility managers must constantly pivot as external factors affect our water sources. Emerging contaminants like PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) and chemicals coming from illegal dumping and accidental leaks have become more prevalent as climate change causes extreme weather in the form of droughts, flooding and hurricanes.

It has never been more important for utilities to remain agile to protect the communities they serve. While we have more technology than ever to treat water for drinking water use, proper education and planning for different contaminant treatments, in addition to having the first step of water quality testing be accurate through certification to NSF P524: Water Quality Test Devices for Drinking Water, is crucial in determining which treatment methods must be used.

Climate Change’s Threat to Water Quality

Climate change threatens every area of our lives, including our drinking water quality, as floods and droughts carry more contaminants, pathogens and pesticides to water sources. According to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, states in the Southwest including New Mexico, Arizona, Idaho and California all had their third-driest July on record while Northeastern states including Michigan, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Vermont all experienced their second-wettest July on record. As climate change contributes to rising ocean levels, utilities near oceans must keep a heightened awareness of facility conditions so seawater flooding won’t damage critical infrastructure. Finally, chlorine and chloramine are commonly used water treatment chemicals, however, climate changes may impact the levels needed to appropriately treat water.

The Silent Impact of PFAS

Forever chemicals are found worldwide, including in the United States, contaminating at least 45 percent of the nation’s tap water (USGS). While their use has decreased because of our growing awareness of their harmful effects on human health, they are not easily destroyed, making it difficult to treat the water they contaminate. The EPA recently released lower PFAS requirements, meaning water utilities must adapt to meet the new limits. Currently, low-pressure reverse osmosis (RO), granular activated carbon filtration, ion exchange resins and membrane filtration serve as options for utilities to filter these contaminants. In addition to these treatment options, if possible, utilities may need to consider diluting contaminated water with uncontaminated, nearby water sources.

Chemical Catastrophes

Industrialization has created an unfortunate reality of far too frequent chemical leaks and illegal chemical dumping that impact everything from our air and land to our water. Depending on the chemicals that were leaked or illegally dumped, the treatment process at water utilities may need to be adjusted. Utilities need a plan for chemicals determined to be most frequently encountered, including arsenic, chromium and radionuclide contaminants, for example. The plan should include what disinfectant dosages, coagulants and other treatments may need to be modified to neutralize and remove the contaminants to allow them to act quickly to treat the water in the event of chemical contamination.

Verifying Water Quality Test Devices’ Performance

These external threats to our water sources require water utilities to have an accurate reading of what is in the water to treat it properly. With so many contaminants coming from numerous external threats, water quality test devices (WQTD) must work in effectively evaluating water contaminants so utilities can treat them. Devices certified to NSF P524 provide assurance that these crucial devices perform according to the manufacturer’s claims. P524 was launched by NSF in 2023 and is the first protocol that provides third-party validation of a WQTD’s performance.

Flowing with Change

It is an interesting time for water utilities as our water sources’ quality is ever-changing and facing constant external threats. Utility managers can remain agile in ensuring the utility’s water is safe for public consumption with proper knowledge and planning of different contaminants. It is critical to face these contaminants head-on by leveraging a certified P524 WQTD to manage the ever-evolving task of water treatment.

Theresa Bellish is senior director of commercial water, NSF. She has more than two decades of experience in testing, auditing and certification services for drinking water treatment chemicals, distribution system components, recreational water products, onsite wastewater treatment systems and electrical safety services.

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