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E-M:/ 500 Year Old Water: What's in the Saginaw Aquifer?

Enviro-Mich message from joonmck <joonmck@gateway.net>

Dear EMers, 
Tap water always contains much more than the two Hydrogens and one
Oxygen (H2O). Minerals, vitamins, bugs, and even low level contaminants
combine to give one's water a unique flavor. A cup from East Lansing has
a little less iron. Lansing's a dash more sodium. At MSU, the water
tastes a little more metallic.  

But what does the water look like BEFORE it enters the treatment plant?
In a still unpublished study that I conducted last year, I gathered all
available data to determine as best as I could, "what is in the Saginaw

Remember we're talking about one of the natural resource wonders of
Mid-Michigan. Pause for a moment and consider this: the water you had
this morning with your coffee may have been sitting underground for 500

The Details!	

In 1985, Garry Rowe, a groundwater specialist with the Ingham County
Health Department, produced a study, Report on the Aquifers of Ingham
County, which analyzed 33 different groundwater chemicals/features from
518 survey wells in the Saginaw Aquifer. Rowe surveyed mostly inorganic
chemicals like mercury and nitrate. He also did spotty sampling for
organic compounds, like pesticides, but the amounts were insufficient to
draw any conclusions. Rowe is very interested in replicating that study
and next time will thoroughly analyze organic chemicals in the survey.
In 1999, Rowe conducted additional research on arsenic, chloride and
hardness. This section summarizes all of Rowe's data.
Be aware that we shall begin to talk about microscopic particles like
parts per million (ppm). If you are skeptical about whether these
invisible-to-the-naked-eye levels can have any real affect on a person,
consider that 2 aspirin tablets in a 130 pound person is a concentration
of 11 parts per million. Most people believe in the power of such a
small quantity of chemicals to relieve headache, so, if you can, try to
be open minded (while retaining a healthy skepticism) about the possible
negative health affects of some of the chemicals. 

We'll organize the discussion by identifying those chemicals that 1)
exceeded the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL), which is an enforceable
limit; 2) Secondary contaminant levels (which is a non-enforceable
standard for taste, odor, or other aesthetic considerations); and 3)
parameters like hardness which have no federal guidelines.

The principle findings, in 1985, were that "the water has objectionable
hardness and iron levels for domestic use, and pH was slightly above
neutral." However, over the past fifteen years a number of EPA standards
have tightened and new ones have been created, so that, in the interim,
some readings now exceed safe levels. The updated data for 1999 revealed
new concerns, especially concerning arsenic.

It is important to keep in mind that Rowe's study did not sample areas
near known contamination sources, therefore the numbers below reflect,
to the degree possible, the state of the Aquifer is its "background"
state, though some human impact is assumed in certain areas. Rowe's data
shows that the condition of the Aquifer is entirely free (or well below
the maximum contaminant levels) of any dangerous contaminants in about
80% of the study areas. When the Aquifer is tested at or near polluted
wells, it is a much different story. 

Five of 15 regulated chemicals had some samples that exceed EPA
standards. Only one of them, arsenic, exceeded the MCL by more than 2%.
The EPA has issued a "health advisory" for another chemical, boron,
which is currently under review as a possible candidate for an MCL. 

Arsenic: According to 1999 data, about 10% of 1819 wells tested have
arsenic levels that exceed the EPA's newly proposed maximum contaminant
level of 5 parts per billion (ppb). One well had a reading of 422 ppb.
These areas are concentrated in central Delhi Township and around Lake
Lansing. For anybody who has a private well in these areas, you should
get your water tested.  In contrast, municipal water supplies are well
below the EPA standard. In Lansing's BWL arsenic is a "non-detect" as it
leaves the plant; it's 1 ppb at East Lansing/Meridian and 2 ppb at MSU.
The majority of arsenic comes from erosion from natural deposits, though
some arsenic in one specific area may be associated with a herbicide
application. For a fuller discussion of the health affects of arsenic,
please see http://co.water.usgs.gov/trace/arsenic/

Boron: In 1999 Rowe analyzed the water chemistry of 1,509 wells in
Ingham County and discovered boron was associated with soft-water
bedrock wells, which constituted about 15% of his sample. In 207 soft
water wells studied, the median boron level was 1.41 parts per million.
The EPA's health advisory of 0.9 parts per million. The elevated levels
were concentrated in a few pockets of the northeast quadrant of Ingham
County's groundwater. All three major municipalities recorded a
non-detect for boron in their distribution systems. For a fuller
discussion of boron, including possible health effects, please go to the
Enviro-Mich archives http://www.great-lakes.net/lists/enviro-mich/ and
type "boron."

Barium:. In the 1985 Rowe study approximately 1 percent of the
groundwater samples contained barium levels at or exceeding the then
standard of 1.0 parts per million. The highest level detected was 2.3
ppm. Since 1985, the standard for barium was relaxed to 2 ppm. Based on
this new standard, the percentage has dropped significantly below 1
percent. Barium block nerves and affects blood vessels, according to the
Michigan Public Health Institute (MPHI). To learn more about barium see:

Antinomy: Antinomy is a silver white solid used in alloys (and is
present in most computers).. Its sources are "rock, weathering, soil
runoff [and] mining," according to the MPHI. In animals it causes
decreased life-span and weight. When Rowe completed his original study,
in 1985, there was no EPA standard for antinomy. Since then a standard
of  0.006 ppm was established. Based on this new standard, about 1%
exceed the limit (the 99th percentile in 1985 was 0.05 ppm).
Importantly, more than 95% of wells tested did not detect any antinomy,
so this is not a concern to all but a few Ingham County citizens. For an
interesting discussion on the hazards and waste from computers, see
the    Electronics Sustainability Commitment project at

Nickel: The present standard is 0.1 ppm. In Rowe's study, 95% of the
samples were at non-detect, however there was one reading of 0.11 ppm,
exceeding today's standard. It is "rarely found in water supplies but
may occur due to human activities such as mining or smelting," according
to MPHI. Believed essential to humans in low doses, higher doses may
cause some health problems. Citizens who live near these wells should
have their wells tested. To learn more about nickel in groundwater see:

Rowe only sampled for 11 of the 16 inorganic chemicals that are now
regulated with enforceable MCL limits. This was probably because these
new chemicals were only recently added to the EPA list, or because the
available technology in 1985 could not detect these chemicals. He did
not test for asbestos, beryllium, cyanide, nitrite and total nitrate and
nitrite. None of the six other inorganic chemicals tested by Rowe
(cadmium, chromium, fluoride, mercury, selenium, and thallium) exceeded
the MCL. Most were not detected at all.

Rowe sampled for 9 of the 16 secondary maximum contaminant level (SMCL)
parameters. These aesthetic features are non-enforceable limits. Of
these, five exceeded the SMCL: chloride, copper, iron, manganese and

If you are on a public supply system, the iron, calcium and manganese,
(which constitute "hardness, " see below), is treated by limestone and
other products that soften the water. However if you own a private well,
you might experience odors, staining of bathroom fixtures and unpleasant
taste because your water is not so treated. Water will have a metallic
taste and fresh water drawn in a glass will cloud and form red or black
particles when left standing for a period of time. Private well owners
are also at risk of picking up bacteria that grow in iron, Sulfur and
Manganese. Iron bacteria can be introduced into the groundwater as part
of the well drilling process. They can cause staining and provide a home
for Sulfur Bacteria. Sulfur bacteria can clog or corrode pipes or can
give off a foul smell like rotten eggs. Manganese bacteria can cause
black staining and give your coffee and tea a bitter taste. Water
softeners treat iron well.

If you are on a public supply system, the iron, calcium and manganese,
(which constitute hardness, see below), is treated by limestone and
other products that soften the water. However if you own a private well,
you might experience odors, staining of bathroom fixtures and unpleasant
taste because your water is not so treated. Water will have a metallic
taste and fresh water drawn in a glass will cloud and form red or black
particles when left standing for a period of time. 


Saginaw water is very hard. Rowe called it "objectionable." Hardness is
due to excessive amounts of calcium and magnesium from natural deposits.
Interestingly, the concept was developed to measure soap requirements
for lather formation. The harder the water, the less clean you become in
the shower! There is no federal standard for hardness, but the Michigan
Environmental Health Association called levels above 150 ppm
"undesirable." Given this number, over 90% of the water is naturally
hard. Of the 509 wells tested, the median level (the middle value in a
value sequence from lowest to highest) was 291. The highest level, in
1985 was 700. 

Rowe would like to update his study, but needs about $50,000 to do so.
If anyone out there wants to write him a check, call me at 887-4568 and
I'll put you in contact with him!

In Solidarity,

Brian McKenna, Ph.D.
Anthropologist &
Public Citizen
"If there are connections everywhere, why do we persist in turning
dynamic, interconnected phenomena into static, disconnected things?"
            -- Eric R. Wolf, Anthropologist (1923-1999)
 "Insanity in individuals is rare, in nations, epochs
 and eras it is the rule."
            -- Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Philosopher (1844 - 1900)

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