After a toxic algae bloom contaminated the water of 500,000 Toledo, Ohio residents this weekend, the mayor announced Monday morning that the ban was being lifted, but without releasing the testing data to the public.
“Our water is safe,” Mayor D. Michael Collins told the press.
Collins said all six test results came back with no problem whatsoever, but the results of those tests haven’t been made available to the public. “What exactly they’re doing is pretty much ambiguous right now,” said Andrew Whelton, an environmental engineer who recently conducted federally-funded research on the toxic effect of West Virginia’s massive chemical contamination, on Sunday evening. Whelton said he was troubled most by the fact that the public has been kept in the dark regarding which tests are being done and the data being used as the basis for official decisions. “The emergency response officials and the politicians have basically assumed complete control for all decisions of this process and there’s zero transparency,” he said.
Declaring the water safe for use, however, didn’t erase those concerns. “This incident has been fully been investigated behind closed doors,” Whelton said in a follow-up message Monday. “They lifted the ban according to media reports without addressing the question of safety. It’s striking.”
Birgit Puschner, a professor at the University of California at Davis who has studied toxic cynaobacterial algae blooms like in Ohio, said greater clarity regarding “what testing was conducted and what the actual results were would be helpful.”
Microcystin contamination is a serious public health concern, Puschner explained, “because the blooming algae that produce these cyanotoxins are known to have toxic effects on the liver, some on the skin and some on the nervous system.” Microcystins are not regulated by the U.S. EPA in drinking water, but the World Health Organization set a provisional guideline of 1 part per billion (ppb).
U.S. Representative Marcy Kaptur (D-Toledo) was critical of the lack of transparency regarding steps being taken to ensure the safety of the area’s drinking water, telling the Toledo Blade on Sunday evening that “in all of the meetings we’ve been in, we’ve been given nothing.”
Kaptur told the paper that during a conference call, an unnamed U.S. EPA official said “in passing” that the microcystin spike was as high as 3 ppb in tap water, three times the WHO recommendation.
“It’s really frustrating,” said 30-year-old Perrysburg resident Julia Halm shortly before the ban was officially lifted Monday morning. “I want to trust what they say, but at the same time, I need to know a little more.”
Halm, the mother of an 11-month-old and a two-year-old, said that even once the water was deemed safe for use, she’d have a lot of questions. “I wonder what we’re going to have to do to flush it out. I wonder what they’re going to do to treat this — is that going to be harmful? I think there are several steps that need to be taken before I’ll feel safe,” she said.
In a message following the mayor’s announcement, Halm said she plans to flush the system in her home, “but wait to drink until tonight or tomorrow” and will continue to use store-bought water to make bottles for her son.
Whelton also took to Twitter on Monday to express concern over the flushing procedures laid out for Toledo residents. The Toledo City Water Department told residents to run cold and hot water taps for 15 minutes each but Whelton noted that 15 minutes was insufficient for clearing West Virginia’s pipes in the aftermath of its water crisis. And without publicly available data supporting the testing and treatment procedure, it’s impossible to know exactly what precautions are being taken.
“I think any water body used for recreation or drinking water that has had blooms especially should be proactive in developing a regular testing scheme and be transparent in terms of results,” UC Davis’ Puschner said. “While we cannot avoid the blooms, I think we can increase testing and awareness.”
An employee who answered the phone in the Toledo mayor’s office on Monday morning could not give an exact time for posting the water testing data on the city’s website, but their hope was that it would be sometime today.
After initially leaving the do not drink advisory in place longer than Toledo’s, the city of Perrysburg gave its residents the all-clear shortly before 11 a.m. Monday. “The City of Perrysburg had not seen the results from the City of Toledo nor did we conduct [our] own water tests prior to lifting the water advisory,” city administrator Bridgette Kabat said via email. “The City received confirmation of the tests results directly from the Ohio EPA Director. This confirmation allowed us to have the assurances we needed to lift the water advisory for our residents and water customers.” Kabat also did not have any information regarding when the test results would be made public.
Rep. Marcy Kaptur told ThinkProgress on Monday afternoon that she’s concerned about the “very closed door” nature of the response thus far. “Today there’s a sense of relief but also there is a lingering doubt as to what’s going to happen now,” Kaptur said. “I really think we need a professional approach in engaging those who are the most knowledgeable and not secretive or obfuscating but enlightening the public because this is going to take a gigantic regional effort to prevent further damage.”