Global Challenges report cites water stagnation in home plumbing

Jan. 27, 2009
Now more than ever, consumers should heed Grandma's caveat -- "let the water run a minute before drinking" -- as the nation copes with the largely unrecognized and totally unintended consequences of water conservation efforts, an authority on the quality of drinking water is advising...

WASHINGTON, Jan. 27, 2009 -- Now more than ever, consumers should heed Grandma's caveat -- "let the water run a minute before drinking" -- as the nation copes with the largely unrecognized and totally unintended consequences of water conservation efforts, an authority on the quality of drinking water is advising.

Marc Edwards, Ph.D., gives that advice in the Final Report on Global Challenges/Chemistry Solutions, issued today (Jan. 27) by the American Chemical Society (ACS) at a briefing at the National Press Club here. ACS, the world's largest scientific society, launched Global Challenges in June 2008 as a special series of 12 podcasts and Web sites describing how scientists are responding to enormous challenges facing 21st Century society.

At the briefing, ACS issued content from the award-winning project -- 30,000 words of text based on input from more than 125 specialists -- in an 80-page full-color book. Hard copies of the report are available from the ACS Office of Public Affairs.

>> Access an easy-to-read digital version

ACS President Thomas Lane, Ph.D., is scheduled to host the briefing, which features a panel of experts on the water quality challenges and shortages addressed in the series. Panelists include Margaret Cavanaugh, Ph.D., National Science Foundation, moderator; Marc Edwards, Ph.D., Virginia Tech University; William Ball, Ph.D., Johns Hopkins University and Engineers Without Borders, specialist in problems of the Chesapeake Bay; and Charles Haas, Ph.D., Drexel University, involved with government and academic efforts to keep America's water supply safe from terrorist attacks.

Edwards is a noted authority whom Time Magazine termed "the Plumbing Professor" and named as one of the top innovators of 2004. In Global Challenges, Edwards notes that reduced-flush toilets, low-flow showerheads and other well-intentioned water conservation efforts are allowing water to remain in household pipes longer. If water stagnates in pipes, it may develop undesirable characteristics and have unwanted effects on household plumbing, Edwards indicates.

With consumers using less for flushing of toilets and showering, water sits in household pipes for longer periods, said Edwards. Substances formed as chloramine, a disinfectant, breaks down can corrode plumbing and have more time to do so when water stagnates.

Edwards indicated that stale water also can loose the disinfectant added at municipal water purification facilities, allowing bacteria to multiply. "So just like milk can go bad if it stays around too long, so too can potable water go bad, and we are discovering this is a downside of water conservation," he said.

People in the United States generally enjoy tap water of "very good" overall quality, Edwards emphasizes. One exception involves relatively small numbers of children exposed to high levels of lead in their drinking water, he said.

Edwards describes newly emerging concerns, including tap water safety for individuals with weakened immune systems, home plumbing corrosion caused by water purification plants switching to chloramine disinfectant, and water stagnating in household pipes.

The water podcast describes an increasingly serious global shortage of clean drinking water, which claims a huge toll in illness and death in developing countries. It presents examples of scientific research that are reducing that toll today, and promise to have further impact in the future. Global Challenges describes one, for instance, as "The Miracle Packet." These pennies-a-piece packets work like a municipal water purification facility to kill germs, remove harmful substances, and make dirty water fit to drink. A second podcast describes advances in desalination technology that promise to convert seawater into a drought-proof supply of freshwater for drinking, irrigation, and industry.

Other Global Challenges topics include coping with climate change, combating disease, providing safe food, developing new fuels, preserving the environment, assuring personal safety and national security, and promoting public health.

The podcasts are available without charge for listening on computers and downloading to portable audio devices at iTunes (requires iTunes software ) and other podcasting sites. They also can be accessed on ACS's Global Challenges Web site . The site provides audio links and full transcripts of each podcast. Additional resources on each Global Challenges topic also are available, on the site, including information for consumers, students, and educators.

Updates to the original podcast series will be posted throughout 2009, presenting the latest scientific research findings on each of the 12 topics.

The American Chemical Society -- the world's largest scientific society -- is a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress and a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

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