WASHINGTON — On Feb. 24, 2015, the House of Representatives came together to pass the Drinking Water Protection Act with a vote of 375-37: 199 Republicans and 176 Democrats voted “Yea”; 37 Republicans voted “Nay”; 8 Republicans and 12 Democrats abstained.
The Drinking Water Protection Act amends the Safe Drinking Water Act to “provide for the assessment and management of cyanotoxins in drinking water, and for other purposes.”
As their name indicates, cyanotoxins are a danger to public health. Some types of cyanotoxins, such as microcystin-LR, attack the liver, causing abdominal pain, vomiting and, occasionally, liver failure. More serious cyanotoxins, such as those from the anatoxin-a group, target the nervous system. In some cases, victims become paralyzed and suffocate.
Cyanotoxins are the products of cyanobacteria, waterborne algae-like bacteria that survive through photosynthesis. Normally, cyanobacteria are plentiful during the summer. However, warm temperatures and high concentrations of phosphorus (often because of fertilizers finding their way into the groundwater) can cause a “bloom.” During a bloom, the number of cyanobacteria rapidly multiplies, turning the water pea-green.
Last summer, there was a cyanobacteria bloom in Lake Erie. The bloom was so severe that the 500,000 residents of Toledo, Ohio were told that their water was unsafe to drink. This very bloom convinced Rep. Bob Latta (R-OH) to sponsor the Drinking Water Protection Act.
The Drinking Water Protection Act calls for a plan to identify, assess and manage the risks of “algal toxins in drinking water provided by public water systems.” The term “public water systems” refers to systems that provide water for human consumption through “fifteen service connections or to at least twenty-five individuals.”
The plan must contain the following elements. First, it must have a comprehensive list of algal toxins and describe how cyanobacteria produce cyanotoxins. Second, it must identify the health risks associated with algal toxins. Third, it must devise “feasible” methods to monitor the levels of algal toxins in water. Fourth, it must indicate possible treatments for ailments related to these toxins. Finally, the plan must lead the EPA administrator to establish “cooperative agreements” with affected states and provide technical assistance to them.
As the EPA formulates this plan, the bill encourages the EPA to work with multinational agencies, foreign governments and research and academic institutions.
Cooperation with these various groups will ensure that the data the EPA acquires will be shared with countries all over the world. Countries would then be able to use the data to devise their own strategies for managing cyanotoxins and preparing for cyanobacteria blooms.
Around the world, countries have grappled with cyanotoxins for years. To show how dangerous cyanotoxins are, the EPA described a 1996 bloom in Caruaru, Brazil that killed 76 people. In a 2005 report about cyanobacteria blooms in South Africa, there is an 87-year timeline showing when blooms killed scores of animals. For at least 18 years, the Chinese government has been struggling with controlling the effects of blooms in Tai Lake[i], which provides drinking water for 30 million people.
“[The Drinking Water Protection Act’s] thoughtful, robust approach adequately assesses and manages the risks of algal toxins in our drinking water,” said Rep. Latta, “and I am pleased that we could come together to pass this critical legislation in the House today.”
– Dean Delasalas
Sources: Chinese Journal of Oceanology and Limnology, Congressman Bob Latta, EPA, GovTrack, IDE-JETRO, Legal Information Institute, Nigerian Society for Experimental Biology, The Washington Post
Photo: The Ripon Advance