The Toledo water crisis that wasn’t

Maggie Thurber
Aug 15, 2014 8:16 AM
The Toledo water crisis that wasn’t

By Maggie Thurber | For Ohio Watchdog

NO CRISIS: Sylvania City Councilman Doug Haynam says there never was a health crisis with Toledo water.

At 6:45 a.m. on Aug. 2, Doug Haynam was awakened by a phone call from his son.

“I’m in Perrysburg getting water,” his son said. “Do you want some?”

That’s how Haynam, a Sylvania city councilman, learned the water supplied to him and 500,000 other people across northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan was contaminated and that he shouldn’t drink, touch or boil it.

But by 9:30 a.m., Haynam was convinced the water was OK to drink and there wasn’t a water crisis.

The culprit, officials said, was a Harmful Algae Bloom — HAB — that produced a toxin called microcystin when it died. The toxin was present in both untreated and treated water coming from the city of Toledo Collins Park Water Treatment Plant.

Haynam said found various standards for microcystin and learned that the level Ohio had set for a public advisory was 1 part per billion.

“When I read the World Health Organization background information on how they came up with that, I was pretty sure we were all right,” he said.

Studies of the effects of microcystin on mice and pigs show that drinking contaminated water could lead to abnormal liver function, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, numbness or dizziness. No human fatalities have been reported.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has no limits, but the WHO devised a formula to determine a safe level for microcystin in drinking water. The calculation uses body weight, estimated water consumption and a recommended Total Daily Intake, which is the amount of a potentially harmful substance that can be consumed daily with “negligible risk of adverse health effects.”

“The WHO has promulgated a standard for exposure to microcystin, which is 1 part per billion,” Haynam said. “It’s a guideline value, which means that a 60 kilogram person can drink 2 liters of water a day for a lifetime that contains 1 ppb of microcystin without any threat to their health.”

He said 60 kg is about 135 pounds. According to Gallup, in 2011 the average self-reported weight of an American male was 196 pounds and 160 pounds for an American female.

The Ohio EPA used the same formula in its HAB response strategy, which calls for a do-not-drink advisory when the level of microcystin in treated water is above 1 microgram per liter, which is equavalent to 1 ppb.

“A lot of people roll their eyes when I talk about a guideline limit and danger level,” Haynam said, “But that’s the difference between there being a health care crisis or not — and in this case there was not. For 1 ppb, we know that that is safe for a lifetime of consumption. The Ohio EPA never had a result higher than 1.037 ppb. There was never any health risk.”

Haynam admits he’s a lawyer and not a toxicologist, but said his 30 years of practicing environmental and regulatory law has given him an understanding of such issues.

“I’ve spent a lot of time working on old hazardous waste sites and a lot of Superfund work, including assessing health risks from contaminated ground water and what future impacts would be on individuals,” he said.

“So if I was able to read all this and figure it out, you’d think  that someone in the health department or in the water system would be able to figure this out,” Haynam said. “And afterward, we were told to flush our systems and change out water filters in refrigerators, which was expensive and absolutely unnecessary.”

The drinking ban was lifted on Aug. 4 but residents were told that if they hadn’t used their water since the ban was imposed, they should run their taps for 15 minutes to flush the system.

NOAA Great Lakes CoastWatch Lake Erie MODIS image

ALGAE BLOOM: This satellite image shows the Harmful Algae Bloom (HAB) that officials say contaminated Toledo water.

Haynam, and others, were frustrated by lack of access to the water test results.

“It was particularly distressing that Toledo refused to release the results of their testing,” he said. “They weren’t sure it was accurate, and they didn’t want people to know how miniscule the levels were. Anyone looking at it would have quickly realized there wasn’t a health crisis, but there was a health scare.”

The results were released after the ban was lifted.

Haynam said he does not blame Toledo Mayor Mike Collins, but he does blame Toledo-Lucas County Health Director Dr. David Grossman for “playing the fear game more than the public health game.”

“I think (Collins) was relying upon people around him — as he is expected to — to tell him the facts,” Haynam said. “Our Lucas County health director should have known, or could have known, what the real risks were and could have been open and transparent about what the risks are, but he wasn’t and I hold him responsible for this. The health effects have been overstated purposefully to try to scare people into complying with their objectives,” he said.

He said he tried to contact Grossman on Aug. 5, but his call was never returned.

Neither Grossman nor the Ohio EPA responded to a request for comment from Ohio Watchdog.

Haynam said individuals at Ohio EPA did agree to talk with him “after everything calms down.” His goal is to get the 1 ppb changed.

“The difference between having a do-not-drink ban versus another type of advisory is huge,” he said. “The business we lost when we shut businesses down has huge repercussions and has lasting impact beyond the ban. The number of people who lost a whole weekend of work is unbelievable. They didn’t get paid last week and the impact of the ban means they’re not able to buy food or gas this week.”

The WHO report guideline say values “describe a quality of water that is acceptable for lifelong consumption,” but that does not mean drinking water “may be degraded to the recommended level. Indeed, a continuous effort should be made to maintain drinking water quality at the highest possible level.”