January 17, 2003

Ithaca, Cornell Fail Water Standard Test

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A Dec. 23 University-wide e-mail alert informing residents about Ithaca’s drinking water may have gone unnoticed during the hustle and bustle of the holiday season.


The message was sent to notify the public of a recent violation of drinking water standards by the City of Ithaca and Cornell University water systems. Each year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculates the average levels of haloacetic acids in public water systems. The notice explained that the Ithaca and Cornell water systems have average levels of haloacetic acids that are slightly above the maximum allowable by federal standards.

City officials also assured residents that the water violation is not a cause for alarm and does not pose a health hazard, even to excessively thirsty Ithacans.

Haloacetic acids (HAA5s) are a byproduct of the water disinfection process. Many water suppliers add disinfectants like chlorine to make drinking water safe by killing germs such as giardia and e. coli.

Haloacetic acids are formed when chlorine reacts with naturally occurring organic matter in untreated water.


“Some people who drink water containing haloacetic acids in excess of EPA standards over many years may have an increased risk of getting cancer,” according to the EPA.

Haloacetic acids began to be regulated in January 2002. The maximum amount of haloacetic acids allowed in drinking water by federal standards, called the maximum contaminant level, is 60 parts per billion (ppb). According to the notice, the City of Ithaca’s current annual average is 78 ppb and Cornell’s is 72 ppb.

“The disinfection byproducts are always there at some level. This is the first year we were required to officially sample for the HAA5s,” said Charles Baker, chief operator of the City of Ithaca Water Treatment Plant.

In order to correct the problem, either the level of organic matter at the disinfection site must be lowered or the disinfectant must be reduced. But water plants can’t simply stop using chlorine, and alternative disinfectants create byproducts too.

“This is not a problem you simply fix,” Baker noted. “We are currently looking at some short-term ways to help lower the levels, but they may not be as effective as we hope due to the natural substances that the disinfectant reacts with, being in a dissolved form.”

The city and the University each operate individual water plants, so each might approach the problem differently. According to John Andersson, the director of environmental health for the Tompkins County Health Department, both the city and Cornell are working with consultants to look at short-term and long-term changes.

“We expect that we will have a schedule of actions in the next few weeks, with some phases completed this year,” Andersson said.

To measure for haloacetic acids, samples are taken from four locations in the water system each quarter. After four quarters, the quarterly averages are then averaged for a running annual average — this is the number that is over the standard.

Corrective measures aside, officials anticipate another violation in haloacetic acid levels next quarter.

The level this quarter won’t bring the average below 60 ppb, even though this quarter’s results will likely be below this level,” which means that residents of Ithaca will likely receive another notice next quarter, according to Andersson.

“There are no home devices that we know of that specifically say they will remove HAA5s,” Baker noted. “We actually plan on testing a carbon filter ourselves to see if any removal does occur.”

To avoid disinfection byproducts, the best alternative is to drink commercially-prepared bottled water, according to Andersson.

“However, the Health Department is not recommending that anyone needs to take this precaution,” Andersson said. More information will be made available by the Tompkins County Health Department when the water plants have firmer plans, he said.

Archived article by Adrianne Kroepsch