‘I'd rather be safe than sorry,’ Donna Welter of West Toledo said as she loads up four cases of bottled water outside Kroger. Rumors that Toledo drinking water was again unsafe spread Thursday, promplting the city to issue a notice dispelling the information.
A new crisis has emerged from the one that occurred three weekends ago, when toxic algae had such a grip on Toledo’s tap water that the metro area’s 500,000 customers were told not to drink or touch it.
It is, according to Mayor D. Michael Collins, a crisis of confidence.
It goes well beyond a region licking its wounds and trying to remake its tarnished image after photos of vile-green goop spread like wildfire across the Internet, making Toledo — one of the most vital port cities along the water-blessed Great Lakes — a strangely ironic poster child for global water pollution, even in Third World Africa.
The hurt, he said, lingers in the hearts and souls of many metro-area residents who remain so skittish about the city’s tap water they had another run on bottled water Thursday — clearing out shelves of many local stores — in response to unsubstantiated rumors circulating across the Internet’s social-media platforms.
RELATED: Complete water crisis coverage
Tests showed Toledo’s tap water was fine. But hundreds of people — even some area school districts — took heed of those rumors, perhaps because they came days after the city teetered on the brink of declaring another state of emergency last weekend.
In an interview Thursday, Mayor Collins said perception has become more powerful than reality and that he understands why his city is on edge.
“The community lost confidence in us, and they should have,” he said, a moment of unusual candor for a big-city mayor. “Right from the start, people lost confidence in us, and I don’t blame them.”
‘Right from the start, people lost confidence in us, and I don’t blame them,’ Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins says.
The mayor said he didn’t go public with the June 9 letter from Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Director Craig Butler, in which state agency director said he “cannot underscore boldly enough the precarious condition of Toledo’s drinking water system and the imminent vulnerability to failure,” because he thought he had reconciled differences with the regulator and that both could move forward.
That revelation of past friction and an excessive backlog of repairs, detailed in recent articles The Blade has published after a public records request, has contributed to the crisis of confidence, Mr. Collins acknowledged.
“I think the community has lost confidence in our water system, and I respect that,” he said. “There has always been the expectation that our water is always safe and of a high quality. There’s never been a question about the quality of the water.”
Tale of microbiology
Scientists want the discussion to remain focused on western Lake Erie, the excessive phosphorus and other nutrients that have degraded it, and the multitude of sources that need to be investigated and, perhaps, regulated more heavily. Such sources include farm runoff; sewage spills; possible manure releases from concentrated animal-feeding operations, or CAFOs; the impact of invasive species, and open-lake disposal of dredged sediment from the Toledo shipping channel.
First, Mr. Collins said, he will require that the next permit the city issues for removal of sludge from the Bayview wastewater treatment plant on North Summit Street forbid the deposit of waste on the Oregon-area waterfront landfill known as Facility 3 — a small gesture, perhaps, but one he deems a step forward because he has long suspected that dump is leaching sewage residue into the lake’s Maumee Bay.
But insiders know the issue is not just about major policy initiatives or catching up on maintenance.
It gets down to microbiology.
It gets down to 1 part per billion, the rough equivalent of a drop of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
It gets down to a national debate over the best way laboratory scientists all across the United States — not just the Toledo area — should try to find traces of microcystin, one of the most potent toxins in nature and one the U.S. EPA states in scientific literature is one of the most difficult to detect.
Let’s begin with a simple explanation of lysing, a fancy scientific word that isn’t nearly as complicated as it sounds.
Think of lysing as the act of cracking open algal cells to get any toxin inside released.
In the case of microcystis, Lake Erie’s most prevalent form of cyanobacteria, the goal is to get out any toxin that might be inside of it, called microcystin.
Cyanobacteria, also known as harmful blue-green algae, aren’t actually algae.
But most people think it is because the bacteria look like and act like algae.
In the pretreatment process, a chemical called potassium permanganate is added at Toledo’s water-intake crib so the raw lake water is easier to treat when it arrives at the city’s Collins Park Water Treatment Plant about 6 to 12 hours later.
In the lab, samples of the finished product — the tap water the city is about to distribute — are typically frozen overnight, then thawed the next day to be tested.
That lyses, or cracks open, any cells that might have eluded the treatment process and still have microcystin inside of them.
The lysing process was developed about 30 to 35 years ago, when cyanobacteria research was in its infancy, said Dave Deardorff, vice president of marketing and sales for Abraxis LLC, a company in Warminster, Pa., that manufactures the microcystin-detection kits many labs use.
“It’s a lot more complex than anybody ever thought it was going to be,” he said.
In theory, one would expect a lysed sample to have the same or slightly higher microcystin content of an unlysed — unfrozen — sample, because the process of cracking open cells is meant to give a full picture of the sample’s poison potential, not just what it was at a specific point in time.
But for reasons unknown, Toledo generated higher results from many of its unlysed samples than its lysed samples during its state of emergency the first weekend of August, the opposite of what was expected.
City chemists and state EPA officials don’t know why. Nor does the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department.
“It’s counterintuitive to what you would expect to see. We have no definitive answer as to why it was [like that],” said Mike Baker, the Ohio EPA’s chief of drinking and ground waters.
The city’s preference to lyse — or freeze — samples for about six years leading up to the state of emergency quietly has raised questions about the integrity of water the city deemed safe during past algal blooms, especially during the record 2011 outbreak.
Were residents unknowingly exposed to contaminated water in the past?
Dr. David Grossman, Toledo-Lucas County health commissioner, said while that’s a fair question, there’s no medical or science evidence to support that.
Microcystin attacks the liver. County health records do not show any unusual rise in liver-related problems or other ailments typically associated with overexposure to microcystin, such as pain, nausea, and fatigue, Dr. Grossman said.
“Were we serving bad water all this time? I don’t know,” Dr. Grossman said.
The Ohio EPA’s Mr. Butler and Mr. Baker said they would have no idea if Toledo unknowingly distributed contaminated water in the past.
“We don’t do Monday morning quarterbacking,” Mr. Baker said.
Debate rages on
Area water plant operators, state and local officials, and key members of Congress, such as U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), have been calling on the U.S. EPA for months to expedite its review of the microcystin threat and establish a standard test for the toxin, as well as the safe drinking-water standard.
The federal agency has said microcystin is one of many toxins undergoing lengthy study.
Even now, the lysing vs. unlysing debate is hardly settled.
Fernando Rubio, Abraxis president, said the concept of lysing is solid because — in theory — chemists can see a more complete picture by cracking open cells and seeing how many toxins are in each sample.
He said he finds nothing wrong with the lysed protocol when, under normal circumstances, there’s time to freeze samples overnight and wait for them to thaw the next day.
The unlysed method saves time; it can be done in about four hours.
But Mr. Rubio and Mr. Deardorff said officials have focused too much on lysing and unlysing.
The most important thing to do, they said, is to immediately quench any residual chlorine in tap-water samples with sodium thiosulfate, a chemical that essentially stops chlorine from breaking down microcystin, giving lab chemists the best shot at real-time results.
Otherwise, sample results could be much lower if chlorine is allowed to keep breaking down the toxin.
Every minute is critical, as is the way in which samples are collected, prepared, transported, and stored. Any little variance — a plastic container instead of a glass container, for example — could throw off results, they said.
The Ohio EPA agrees with the emphasis on quenching chlorine.
“We scratched our heads early on in the event,” Mr. Butler said. “The most important variable was quenching. It has less importance if you lyse or unlyse samples.”
Although the Ohio EPA prefers unlysed samples — it made them a requirement of the new consensus for statewide testing that emerged from the weekend Toledoans were left without potable water — it eventually could reconsider its position on that, Mr. Baker said.
He said the Ohio EPA wanted Toledo to switch over to unlysed samples “as a matter of consistency” because that’s the method used by the Ohio EPA’s lab.
That request, Mr. Baker said, was made known to Toledo officials a couple of weeks before the state of emergency.
But it either fell on deaf ears or didn’t get to the right people.
Chemists at Toledo’s Collins Parks Water Treatment Plant continued to lyse samples until the evening of Aug. 1, when results were less than the World Health Organization’s 1.0 ppb standard for drinking water — but were steadily rising to a crescendo.
By 6 p.m., Ed Moore, Toledo’s public utilities director, knew a problem was emerging. He and other city officials conferred with the Ohio EPA, which told them in no uncertain terms to start drawing unlysed samples.
Don Moline, Toledo’s public utilities commissioner, and Mayor Collins said that was the first time the city switched course and went to the new sampling method — one which Mr. Collins suggested in recent interviews might have generated false positives. Those first unlysed samples triggered the state of emergency.
Toledo wasn’t required by law to do the unlysed tests, but did so because the state regulator insisted.
“It’s like when a policeman pulls you over and asks you to step out of your vehicle,” Mr. Moline said. “Do you really think it is a request?”
While nobody still knows exactly why many of Toledo’s unlysed tests came back higher than lysed ones that weekend — the opposite of what was expected — Dr. Grossman believes there’s a simple explanation.
They weren’t quenched properly.
Dr. Grossman, one of many public officials inside the command center during the crisis, said there were not consistent quenching procedures until later that weekend, after officials from various agencies crunched data and narrowed in on the chlorine effect.
One batch of earlier samples sent off to Lake Superior State University came back nearly undetectable for the toxin because it hadn’t been quenched at all.
The confusion over how each lab wanted samples prepared likely threw off some of the early test results, Dr. Grossman said.
A lysed and unlysed sample will probably never yield exactly the same result, he said. But if quenched properly, they should be so nearly identical that the difference is statistically negligible, Dr. Grossman said.
How safe is safe?
How safe is the World Health Organization’s standard, anyway?
“They work mostly with Third World countries,” Mr. Rubio said.
The WHO standard is the fallback most states use while waiting for the U.S. EPA to finish its review and attest to whether it is conservative enough, a situation that officials said helps demonstrate how the science of waterborne toxins is still emerging.
“That’s the main problem,” Mr. Rubio said. “There is no guidance from the U.S. EPA.”
States such as Minnesota and Vermont have taken it upon themselves to adopt stricter limits, Dr. Grossman said. Minnesota’s is a little over 0.40 — nearly 60 percent tougher.
Plant operators such as Kelly Frey, Ottawa County sanitary engineer, demand better science into what works best and why.
During his testimony before the Lake Erie Legislative Caucus on Aug. 15, Mr. Frey said he often is so frustrated looking for answers online that he searches Web sites of water plants and scientific organizations in foreign countries.
While many people believe the Toledo water crisis will prompt the U.S. EPA to move faster, Mr. Rubio and Mr. Deardorff said it’ll likely take even longer now because the federal agency will need to examine the science behind every step of the collection, packaging, storage, transportation, and testing.
But the longer the federal government takes, the longer Toledo’s crisis of confidence lingers.
“Necessity becomes the Mother of Invention,” Mr. Collins said. “I see this as the window of opportunity for science to come together and force the issue. If we wait until the spring of 2015 [the next time agricultural runoff peaks], the issues that contribute greatly to algae still won’t be addressed.”