Sources, pathways, and relative risks of contaminants in surface water and groundwater: a perspective prepared for the Walkerton inquiry

Len Ritter, Keith Solomon, Paul Sibley, Ken Hall, Patricia Keen, Gevan Mattu, Beth Linton
Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health. Part A 2002 January 11, 65 (1): 1-142
On a global scale, pathogenic contamination of drinking water poses the most significant health risk to humans, and there have been countless numbers of disease outbreaks and poisonings throughout history resulting from exposure to untreated or poorly treated drinking water. However, significant risks to human health may also result from exposure to nonpathogenic, toxic contaminants that are often globally ubiquitous in waters from which drinking water is derived. With this latter point in mind, the objective of this commission paper is to discuss the primary sources of toxic contaminants in surface waters and groundwater, the pathways through which they move in aquatic environments, factors that affect their concentration and structure along the many transport flow paths, and the relative risks that these contaminants pose to human and environmental health. In assessing the relative risk of toxic contaminants in drinking water to humans, we have organized our discussion to follow the classical risk assessment paradigm, with emphasis placed on risk characterization. In doing so, we have focused predominantly on toxic contaminants that have had a demonstrated or potential effect on human health via exposure through drinking water. In the risk assessment process, understanding the sources and pathways for contaminants in the environment is a crucial step in addressing (and reducing) uncertainty associated with estimating the likelihood of exposure to contaminants in drinking water. More importantly, understanding the sources and pathways of contaminants strengthens our ability to quantify effects through accurate measurement and testing, or to predict the likelihood of effects based on empirical models. Understanding the sources, fate, and concentrations of chemicals in water, in conjunction with assessment of effects, not only forms the basis of risk characterization, but also provides critical information required to render decisions regarding regulatory initiatives, remediation, monitoring, and management. Our discussion is divided into two primary themes. First we discuss the major sources of contaminants from anthropogenic activities to aquatic surface and groundwater and the pathways along which these contaminants move to become incorporated into drinking water supplies. Second, we assess the health significance of the contaminants reported and identify uncertainties associated with exposures and potential effects. Loading of contaminants to surface waters, groundwater, sediments, and drinking water occurs via two primary routes: (1) point-source pollution and (2) non-point-source pollution. Point-source pollution originates from discrete sources whose inputs into aquatic systems can often be defined in a spatially explicit manner. Examples of point-source pollution include industrial effluents (pulp and paper mills, steel plants, food processing plants), municipal sewage treatment plants and combined sewage-storm-water overflows, resource extraction (mining), and land disposal sites (landfill sites, industrial impoundments). Non-point-source pollution, in contrast, originates from poorly defined, diffuse sources that typically occur over broad geographical scales. Examples of non-point-source pollution include agricultural runoff (pesticides, pathogens, and fertilizers), storm-water and urban runoff, and atmospheric deposition (wet and dry deposition of persistent organic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls [PCBs] and mercury). Within each source, we identify the most important contaminants that have either been demonstrated to pose significant risks to human health and/or aquatic ecosystem integrity, or which are suspected of posing such risks. Examples include nutrients, metals, pesticides, persistent organic pollutants (POPs), chlorination by-products, and pharmaceuticals. Due to the significant number of toxic contaminants in the environment, we have necessarily restricted our discussion to those chemicals that pose risks to human health via exposure through drinking water. A comprehensive and judicious consideration of the full range of contaminants that occur in surface waters, sediments, and drinking water would be a large undertaking and clearly beyond the scope of this article. However, where available, we have provided references to relevant literature to assist the reader in undertaking a detailed investigation of their own. The information collected on specific chemicals within major contaminant classes was used to determine their relative risk using the hazard quotient (HQ) approach. Hazard quotients are the most widely used method of assessing risk in which the exposure concentration of a stressor, either measured or estimated, is compared to an effect concentration (e.g., no-observed-effect concentration or NOEC). A key goal of this assessment was to develop a perspective on the relative risks associated with toxic contaminants that occur in drinking water. Data used in this assessment were collected from literature sources and from the Drinking Water Surveillance Program (DWSP) of Ontario. For many common contaminants, there was insufficient environmental exposure (concentration) information in Ontario drinking water and groundwater. Hence, our assessment was limited to specific compounds within major contaminant classes including metals, disinfection by-products, pesticides, and nitrates. For each contaminant, the HQ was estimated by expressing the maximum concentration recorded in drinking water as a function of the water quality guideline for that compound. There are limitations to using the hazard quotient approach of risk characterization. For example, HQs frequently make use of worst-case data and are thus designed to be protective of almost all possible situations that may occur. However, reduction of the probability of a type II error (false negative) through the use of very conservative application factors and assumptions can lead to the implementation of expensive measures of mitigation for stressors that may pose little threat to humans or the environment. It is important to realize that our goal was not to conduct a comprehensive, in-depth assessment of risk for each chemical; more comprehensive assessments of managing risks associated with drinking water are addressed in a separate issue paper by Krewski et al. (2001a). Rather, our goal was to provide the reader with an indication of the relative risk of major contaminant classes as a basis for understanding the risks associated with the myriad forms of toxic pollutants in aquatic systems and drinking water. For most compounds, the estimated HQs were < 1. This indicates that there is little risk associated with exposure from drinking water to the compounds tested. There were some exceptions. For example, nitrates were found to commonly yield HQ values well above 1 in- many rural areas. Further, lead, total trihalomethanes, and trichloroacetic acid yielded HQs > 1 in some treated distribution waters (water distributed to households). These latter compounds were further assessed using a probabilistic approach; these assessments indicated that the maximum allowable concentrations (MAC) or interim MACs for the respective compounds were exceeded <5% of the time. In other words, the probability of finding these compounds in drinking water at levels that pose risk to humans through ingestion of drinking water is low. Our review has been carried out in accordance with the conventional principles of risk assessment. Application of the risk assessment paradigm requires rigorous data on both exposure and toxicity in order to adequately characterize potential risks of contaminants to human health and ecological integrity. Weakness rendered by poor data, or lack of data, in either the exposure or effects stages of the risk assessment process significantly reduces the confidence that can be placed in the overall risk assessment. (ABSTRACT TRUNCATED)

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