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."
'NO IMMEDIATE CAUSE OF ALARM'
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.
ENVIRONMENTAL CONTAMINANTS A DISTRACTION
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.
NO CALL TO HALT SNOWMAKING
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