Are you drinking toilet water? It’s not as rare as you think

Feel like a nice cool glass of ice water? Before you take a sip, you might want to take a quick tour of your home. How’s the fill valve in your toilet? Do you have a vacuum breaker on your outside spigots? What about your boiler?

Without the right plumbing bits and pieces in place, you could be at risk of drinking toilet water, sipping lawn fertilizers or slurping hazardous chemicals. If they aren’t protected, cross connections between the drinking water in your home and nonpotable water sources can mean that dirty water gets mixed with the clean. It might take as little as a change in water pressure.

A review of state records by I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS shows that throughout Colorado, hazardous cross connections rate among the most persistent public-health risks in water-distribution systems.

I-News found that 30 percent of water providers inspected by the state since 2009 was found to be in violation for something related to cross connections or backflow – most often issues related to documenting or managing risks. And 9 percent of the water systems were found to have potentially hazardous cross connections.

Among schools operating their own small water systems, inspectors found cross connection issues to be even more prevalent. About 47 percent were found to be in some kind of violation of cross connection or backflow rules, while risky cross connections were found in 19 percent of the schools, according to a recent analysis by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

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Colorado Springs Cross Contamination Control Event

On Oct. 26, 2012 a cross connection was created at the Printers Park Medical Plaza in Colorado Springs. This cross connection contaminated the Plaza's potable supply system, primarily with propylene glycol. Twenty-six people got sick after drinking the contaminated water. The contaminant was believed to have come from the building's HVAC system where propylene glycol was present.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Water Quality Control Division with the help of El Paso County Public Health and information provided from Colorado Springs Utilities, responded and subsequently documented the event. The report Drinking Water Waterborne Disease Outbreak, Printers Park Medical Plaza, documenting the event, investigation, observations, conclusions and recommendations associated with the event is available on our website. While this was a waterborne disease outbreak, it did not occur because of a problem that a regulated public water system could control.

Propylene glycol, the presumed contaminant, drawn from a spigot in the Printers Park Medical Plaza mechanical room.

Per sources, 26 people got sick and the facilities were shut down for days:

City Shuts Off Water to Backflow Protesters

The Columbia Falls City Council weathered a mini-revolt Sept. 16. But instead of throwing boxes of tea into a bay, the protesters refused to pay inspectors to check equipment intended to protect the city’s water system.

The backflow prevention program began in Columbia Falls in 2000. The goal is to prevent organic or chemical contamination at residential, commercial or industrial sites from flowing back into the municipal water system.

“Columbia Falls is the only city in the Flathead that doesn’t chlorinate its drinking water, which is expensive and tastes bad,” city manager Susan Nicosia said.

For residential sites, the source of contamination could include underground irrigation systems, fish ponds or hot water heating systems. Owners must pay for both annual testing and repairs to ensure the devices are working.

Getting Serious

About 296 of the city’s 1,840 residential water customers have backflow prevention devices in place, including the hundred or so added last year when the city increased efforts to track customers.

Last year, the city also moved the inspection deadline to Aug. 1 to better coincide with the irrigation season and directed city staff to increase compliance. Some customers, however, are reluctant to comply, Nicosia said.

“This year, for the first time since the inception of the program, the Public Works Department enforced the code and shut off water to properties refusing to test their backflow prevention devices,” Nicosia said. “The city doesn’t like shutting off anyone’s water, but the codes are meant to be enforced in an equal and non-discriminatory manner.”

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