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Cadaveric poison, feces, dirt: how the eerie contents of water towers are killing Americans

In March last year, residents of the small coastal village of Delray Beach, Florida, noticed something strange in the water coming from their taps. She was dirty and smelled bad, says Yahoo.

Photo: Shutterstock

Complaints from residents of the city led to the discovery of sediment that had accumulated inside one of the massive water storage tanks. The sediment has ended up with water in cups, dishes, ice trays and baths. This was not a strange incident or the result of some inevitable problem. Subsequent investigation found no record of the tank ever being cleaned since it was built in 1972.

Water storage tanks, especially those located on towers decorated with logos, serve as the most visible symbol of convenience that most Americans take for granted - clean water for drinking, cooking and bathing.

In the absence of centralized oversight, storage tanks are one of the most visible but most vulnerable parts of the water supply system, which most Americans take for granted. Although, according to experts, tens of millions of people fall ill from drinking water every year. Contaminated tap water causes tens of millions of diseases every year, killing 1000 Americans. No one is tracking how many of them are related to the pollution of the water towers.

Inspectors found bloated snakes, mice and raccoons swimming in water storage tanks after they passed through small holes and drowned. Pigeon droppings and other animal excrement also end up there.

An investigation by USA TODAY and the Indiana University Investigative Journalism Center found gaps in the oversight of water reservoirs that expose an unsuspecting public to a multitude of risks. In the absence of federal regulations governing the maintenance of water tanks, it is up to each state to determine how often this critical infrastructure is inspected and cleaned.

How water towers work

Some have no rules at all - no one checks them regularly. In some states, tanks are inspected during federal health inspections every three to five years. The surveys examine the entire water supply system: source, treatment plant, distribution, sampling program and general management. Water storage tanks are included in the inspection, but it is unclear how effective.

Even when states require regular checks and maintenance, compliance with these regulations can be lax. For example, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection states that water storage tanks must be inspected and cleaned inside every five years. But it took a flood of customer complaints and a city investigation to uncover a potential 50-year maintenance gap in Delray Beach.

On the subject: Florida is threatened by toxic algae: they kill fish and are dangerous to people

EPA has been in the know for many years

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has known for at least two decades that many of the nation's water storage tanks are deteriorating, but no specific rules have yet been developed for their maintenance. In a 2002 white paper, the EPA found that 1 out of every 4 tanks "has serious sanitary defects," and 9 out of every 10 have "minor imperfections that could lead to sanitary problems."

In 2015, researchers took sediment samples from 18 water tanks across the country and found the deadly legionella bacteria in two-thirds. The EPA estimates it will take water companies across the country about $ 47 billion over 20 years to fully upgrade their storage tanks and provide safe drinking water.

The agency collects information to determine if tank maintenance should be regulated. The agency held its first virtual public meeting in October but may not make a decision until 2024. Even if it does, the rules are likely to take effect only three years after that.

If the water reservoir is neglected, the results can be fatal.

In 1993, 650 people fell ill as a result of an outbreak of salmonella in Gideon, Missouri, after bird droppings entered a water tank through a poorly protected vent. Seven died, all residents of a local nursing home.

In Alamos, Colorado, about 1300 people fell ill and one died after an outbreak of salmonella in a municipal water storage tank in 2008.

And in Peoria, Arizona, two five-year-old boys died in 2002 after bathing in tap water contaminated with Naegleria fowleri, a microscopic organism that attacks the brain, destroying tissue and causing fatal inflammation. A "brain-eating amoeba" was found in a chlorinated water storage tank.

More common than the identified outbreaks, however, are the millions of cases of gastrointestinal or respiratory illness that no one suspected is due to drinking water.

Kelly Reynolds, professor of environmental health at the University of Arizona, says contaminated drinking water causes up to 21 million diseases and 1000 deaths each year, although it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how many problems are associated with contaminated reservoirs. Her data is consistent with research by others, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the EPA, which cite studies with estimates of up to 32 million diseases a year.

On the subject: Causes Acute Hepatitis: FDA Recalls Popular US Drinking Water

In 1989, the agency began requiring all water systems that draw water from rivers, streams, or lakes to add a disinfectant such as chlorine before distributing it to customers. Since then, an increasing number of states have required disinfection of systems that use groundwater. The EPA says about two-thirds of the water supply systems that serve 90% of Americans are currently being disinfected. Increased disinfection has helped prevent disease outbreaks, experts say. But this is not a panacea: rotting animals or foreign bacteria can still suppress water purification under certain conditions.

Snakes, mice in the water pipe

Water tanks are much more than just a million-gallon storage facility. The stored water helps utilities meet peak demand periods, especially in the morning when customers shower, brush their teeth and make coffee. They also create pressure throughout the system and are essential for fire safety.

However, for all their advantages, water tanks can be dangerous if not properly maintained. Tiny holes in roofs, walls, or screens pose a risk of entry for birds, vermin, insects and their faeces. This is why regular tank inspections are essential. Inspection is difficult and the smallest details can be risky. Moreover, eIf water stays inside the tank for too long, especially in hotter conditions, it may stagnate. Disinfectants decompose, bacteria and pathogens multiply, especially in deposits that can accumulate at the bottom of the tank.

Last year, a diver inspecting a water tank in Magna, Utah, found a dead raccoon in one of the city's 500 gallons (000 million liters) tanks. Fortunately, the animal was discovered before it began to decompose, so the only consequence for residents of the city west of Salt Lake City was the notification to boil water while the tank was being cleaned and disinfected.

In another case, documented in an EPA presentation, a federal inspector visited a water tank after fecal bacteria levels in drinking water rose for six months. The only wooden plank on the outside of the tank was missing. Inside, seven dead snakes and three bloated mice floated in the water.

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The American Plumbing Association recommends a set of best practices and standards that include inspecting water tanks every three years. But since there is no federal regulation or enforcement, there is no guarantee that this will happen.

Alan Roberson, executive director of the Association of Public Drinking Water Administrators, believes that "most" water systems have at least a visual inspection on a regular basis. But he acknowledges that the condition of the national water reservoirs “probably needs some improvement,” as water authorities do not always prioritize maintenance in the absence of federal regulation.

The Federal Environmental Protection Agency is currently reviewing regulations for water tanks, but the new regulations won't be in effect until 2027, and experts don't fully agree with each other on what to do.

During this time, America's water towers continue to age.

"The risks are on the rise, even though they are invisible to most people," said Kelly Reynolds, a health researcher based in Arizona.

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