Tests so far no measure of effluent health risks

2012-09-30T05:00:00Z Tests so far no measure of effluent health risks Arizona Daily Sun
September 30, 2012 5:00 am

We suppose now that the Snowbowl controversy has made The New York Times, there will be no shortage of outside "experts" weighing in on the matter.

Mention "antibiotic resistant genes" (ARGs) in treated wastewater used for irrigation and snowmaking, and it's as though Flagstaff has become ground zero for a new way to introduce a deadly pathogen into the environment.

But as we reported earlier this month, there are quite a few scientists right in our own back yard who are full qualified to assess the risks known to date and how to proceed from here.

Here, for example, is Paul Keim, holder of the Cowden Endowed Chair in microbiology at Northern Arizona University and chair of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity

"The monitoring of ARGs is not a credible method for assessing risk to human health. This is a research tool that can be used to understand the usage of antibiotics upstream, but there is no established and, really no plausible, link to human health risk."


Other scientists, including the one from Virginia Tech whose study detected the presence of ARGs in Flagstaff's recycled wastewater pipes, agreed that there is no basis for declaring a health risk simply because the genes have been discovered.

"There is no immediate cause for alarm because this study did not examine any specific bacteria that cause disease," Professor Amy Pruden of Virgina Tech, told the Daily Sun. "It could be that all of the bacteria detected in this study, like most bacteria, are harmless to humans.

"Further studies are recommended to see if any known disease-causing bacteria are present.

"The bigger concern is not specific to the reclaimed water in Flagstaff, but is a larger global concern as more and more communities worldwide are turning to water re-use to save water."

That last point is important, lest Snowbowl's use of treated effluent be seen as an anomaly. The questions being raised about Flagstaff's reclaimed wastewater will apply to any other similar system -- they are focused here only because our "purple" pipes were the first to be tested for genes that previously were undetectable, given the limited technology available.


Indeed, Flagstaff and hundreds of other communities worldwide have been using treated effluent for irrigation for decades. As global warming proceeds and drought depletes natural water supplies in some parts of the globe such as the American Southwest, predictions are that even more communities will need to reuse their effluent. Although Flagstaff might be the test guinea pig today, the further studies called for by Pruden and others can be conducted on nearly any reclaimed wastewater distribution system.

Another concern by Keim and others is that chasing down ARGs in treated effluent used for irrigation and snowmaking is a distraction from research that really matters.

"There are large international studies that have identified the real threats to antibiotics as therapeutic agents," Keim told the Daily Sun. "These involve the misuse of these drugs in 1) animal food production and by 2) physicians in medical practice. In both cases, humans are forcing the evolution of new pathogens with multi-drug resistance phenotypes ...

"I worry this report misdirects our attention from the real threats. I am very worried about the development of drug-resistant diseases. Wastewater and environmental ARGs are not a problem relative the danger we face due to agricultural and medical practices with these very valuable drugs."

So what is to be done? Flagstaff officials note that the city's treated effluent meets all federal and state standards for contaminants. If, based on further studies, those standards are tightened, they say they will treat to a level that meets the new standards.


Some non-scientists contend that to allow snowmaking to proceed pending more testing presents the same risks that occurred with the premature use of DDT, Agent Orange, and other chemical contaminants that later proved harmful and were banned.

But presumably the scientific community is aware of those mistakes. Yet not a single scientist credentialed in this field has called a halt to the use of Flagstaff's treated wastewater for irrigation and snowmaking pending more studies of ARGs in the environment. Until such a scientist steps forward, we're comfortable from a health standpoint with decisions by the courts and federal agencies to allow snowmaking at Snowbowl to proceed this winter.

Our View: Scientists agree that, based on findings to date, there is no basis for assuming that antibiotic resistant genes in Flagstaff's reclaimed wastewater present a danger to humans

Copyright 2015 Arizona Daily Sun. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(12) Comments

  1. Bigfoot
    Report Abuse
    Bigfoot - October 09, 2012 8:30 am
    We've heard this all before. DDT is harmless. Uranium is harmless. PCPs are harmless. Thalidomide is harmless. Nuclear fallout is harmless. Basically, for anything that stands in the way of someone making some extra money off the unknowing public we're better off to side with business than with caution when it comes to public health. Just wait, in ten or twenty years, we'll look back and wonder how could we have been so stupid to ruin such a wonderful place...
  2. Ann Marie
    Report Abuse
    Ann Marie - October 08, 2012 5:26 pm
    A new scientific study has uncovered evidence suggesting a link between low levels of anti-depressants and other psychoactive drugs in recovered reclaimed drinking water supplies and the triggering of Autism.

  3. Sasquatch
    Report Abuse
    Sasquatch - October 04, 2012 2:48 pm
    Yes we are not drinking RO water.
  4. Ann Marie
    Report Abuse
    Ann Marie - October 02, 2012 3:19 pm
    The reclaimed water from the wells caused delayed reactions and increased infertility in the amphibians and animals tested. The Flagstaff WELL water. Three headed babies and monstrosities? Is that where we are going to draw the line? What has happened in Flagstaff? Who are we? This reclaimed water needs another level of treatment and more testing. In the meantime, we need to stop drinking it. If Arizona Snowbowl visitors contract bugs that cannot be treated who is liable for their care?
  5. Ann Marie
    Report Abuse
    Ann Marie - October 02, 2012 3:14 pm
    The local tourism industry languished during February, with revenues from the city's Bed, Board and Beverage tax down 6 percent compared with last year.
    Hotels were the hardest hit, with sales down roughly 13 percent -- an estimated $512,000 from the previous year.
    Restaurants and bars also saw a decline during the month, down by roughly 3 percent.
    Snowfall Totals at the Arizona Snowbowl:
    February 28, 2011 4" 192"
    February 20, 2011 27" 160"
    February 9, 2011 2" 128"
    February 1, 2011 7" 126"
  6. Judy__
    Report Abuse
    Judy__ - October 02, 2012 1:05 pm
    I can take tapwater from the Flagstaff system and culture it - overnight - various organisms result. I do nothing special like keeping the culture warm, etc. Most of the organisms are some sort of algae but others are nasties. No special equipment is needed. And that is the "potable" water.

    Needless to say I boil water before using for food or drink and run it through some extra filters to catch at least some of the junk. I wish I still had my old water distiller.
  7. Ann Marie
    Report Abuse
    Ann Marie - October 02, 2012 11:21 am
    It was disappointing that the Daily Sun did not report of William Lowell Putnams findings with regard to actinic rays. Those who are working to protect the Earths coral reefs are interested in Lowell Observatories scientific knowledge with regard to how actinic rays are disinfecting our reclaimed water. Perhaps the Sun and Mr. Putnam could shine some light on Lowell's knowledge and studies of these actinic rays. How are they disinfecting our oceans and protecting the Earths coral reefs?
  8. Ann Marie
    Report Abuse
    Ann Marie - October 02, 2012 11:11 am
    September 3, 2010 – The Flagstaff City Council voted 5-to-2 not to sell potable water to the Arizona Snowbowl. September 7, 2010 the Flagstaff Council voted for potable water customers to see higher rates for usage, and for reclaimed water users to have decreased rates. New rates: residential customer 1 acre foot $3292.25 Arizona Snowbowl $383.50. July 10, 2010 City:either direct-delivered reclaimed or recovered reclaimed water present an identical impact on our water supply. What?

  9. NotASheep
    Report Abuse
    NotASheep - October 01, 2012 6:51 pm
    Dude seriously your throat hurts after you drink Flagstaff water? You should go to the wastewater treatment plant, where you would learn your entire "toxic wastewater" thesis is a red herring. Better yet, go take a few classes at NAU, they have an excellent Environmental Science program. If I recall correctly, you tour that plant in the 101 class.
    As far as names go, I have a professional job and I'm surrounded by hysterical people that think treated wastewater is toxic, LOL..
  10. redpatch
    Report Abuse
    redpatch - September 30, 2012 10:34 pm
    Snowbowl couldn't have written a better PR piece... oh wait.
  11. RudyPreston
    Report Abuse
    RudyPreston - September 30, 2012 6:51 pm
    I always wonder why nobody will put their name to these opinions. I also would like to see the entire interview with the Virginia Tech. Scientist, not just the parts that fit your opinion. And finally, how come local residents who line up in the hundreds to say "NO" do not matter because they have no credentials. I get a sore throat every time I drink Flagstaff water for any length of time. I think it is because of the wastewater that is coming through our taps. It is time to stop the nonsense.
  12. seldom
    Report Abuse
    seldom - September 30, 2012 10:41 am
    The NYT article was a hatchet job with no indication that the writer had any objectivity that is the hallmark of credible journalism. If this stuff is so dangerous, shouldn't we immediately close all parks and facilities where landscaping is watered with this poisonous and deadly substance? And isn't reclaimed water already entering the acquifer after discharge from the treatment plant? Where are all the three headed babies and deformed monstrosities created by this toxic exposure?
Add Comment
You must Login to comment.

Click here to get an account it's free and quick

Featured Businesses