Local Environmental Toxins:

 

Health
What's in Your Pipes?
A mysterious TB-like bug called NTM is turning up in shower stalls and hot tubs across the South.
By CHRISTINE GORMAN

Jul. 1, 2002
Fern Leitman, 56, a longtime Florida resident, thought her repeated bouts of pneumonia were just bad luck. Doctors told Suzan King-Carr, 58, of Hobe Sound, Fla., that the spots on her lungs were probably cancer. Ida Mae Williams, 76, of Bogalusa, La., was informed that she had tuberculosis. Three women, three different diagnoses--all of them wrong. After years of ineffectual treatment, each woman learned that she, like thousands of other Americans, had developed a mysterious lung infection that mimics TB, seems to strike thin, white women in particular and can be permanently debilitating. Most unsettling of all, they could have developed the ailment simply by stepping into a shower.

Physicians don't know much about this mysterious illness. Like TB, it is triggered by a group of germs called mycobacteria. Unlike TB, it is not contagious, though it seems to thrive in hot, humid states in the U.S. Indeed, a recent survey conducted by health authorities in Florida found that hospitals in the region discharged far more patients with non-TB mycobacterial (or, as doctors call it, NTM) infections than with TB. And once you have NTM, it's tough to get rid of. "It takes three times as long to treat as conventional TB and relapses are common," says Dr. Michael Lauzardo, deputy TB controller of Florida. Drug costs alone run $5,000 a year, and a full course can last 18 months.

Not only does the number of cases appear to be growing, but the infection itself seems to be changing. Back in the 1950s NTM infections were rare, usually occurred in male smokers and were generally curable. In the 1980s NTM emerged as one of the opportunistic infections that AIDS patients developed after their immune system collapsed. (Combination-drug therapy has since produced a sharp drop in AIDS-related mycobacterial infections.) Now, the typical patient with a NTM infection is an otherwise healthy Caucasian woman who is usually middle aged and often thin.

What is unclear is whether the increase in reported cases is the result of better diagnoses or of some as yet undiscovered change in the bug or the environment it grows in. "That's what keeps me awake at night," says Dr. Gwen Huitt, a pulmonologist at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver. "These mycobacteria are everywhere." They thrive in what scientists call biofilms--pond scum and the slime inside faucets and showerheads.

Shower stalls are particularly suspect. Some doctors believe that mycobacteria from the pipes are becoming aerosolized in water spray. The more enclosed a shower stall, the greater the buildup of germ-infested spray. (A variant of the illness--sometimes called hot-tub lung--occurs when people develop an allergic reaction to the mycobacteria in indoor hot tubs.) Making matters worse, says Dr. Michael Iseman of National Jewish, "we have changed the way we treat our water." Since the 1970s, the temperature of most hot-water heaters has been reduced to 120[degrees] to save energy and prevent scalding--perfect conditions for mycobacteria. The result: we shower in a fine mist of mycobacteria that reaches deep into our lungs.

That can't be the whole answer, of course, since plenty of Americans take showers without getting sick. Studies show that nearly half of NTM patients are also genetically predisposed to lung infections. Some have inherited one of the genes for cystic fibrosis. Others have a defective alpha-1 anti-trypsin gene, a condition that has been linked to a high risk of emphysema. Perhaps it is a combination of bad genes and bad luck that is making people sick.

Things seem to be getting worse. Several doctors report that more and more of their NTM patients are infected with so-called rapid growers--mycobacteria that are particularly destructive and hard to treat. No one knows why.

One thing is certain: most people with NTM infections are not getting properly diagnosed. Their complaints tend to be general and vague: long-lasting fatigue and a cough that won't go away. A specialized sputum test can identify the infection--if one is ordered. Telltale signs will also show up on a CAT scan--if you know what to look for. That is why doctors and patients are trying to spread the word about this mysterious ailment. (Leitman's husband Philip has taken the lead in Florida, raising funds, organizing medical workshops and creating a website, www.ntminfo.com. Sometimes what you don't know can hurt you.

--With reporting by Michael Peltier/Tallahassee and Mary Sutter/Miami

 

 

 

Local Environmental Toxins:

 

ALGAE TOXINS FOUND IN TAP WATER; [Palm Beach Edition]
The Associated Press. South Florida Sun - Sentinel. Fort Lauderdale, Fla.: May 28, 2001.

Algae have left cancer-causing toxins in drinking water that goes to almost 185,000 people in West Palm Beach and three southwest Florida counties, a newspaper reported Sunday.

And biologists don't know how to get the poisons out.

Treated water from a plant on the Peace River tested at five times the World Health Organization's safe level for microcystin.

That tumor-promoting toxin damages chromosomes and causes abnormally small brains in lab tests on mice.

Scientists also measured microcystin at nearly twice the safe level in water flowing to 80,000 residents in West Palm Beach, the Orlando Sentinel reported Sunday.

Microcystin isn't the only algae-produced toxin in Florida drinking water.

Three plants on Lake Okeechobee had higher levels of cylindrospermopsin in treated water than in the lake itself.

Scientists presumed treating water killed the slime and its poisons. Now they know filters and chemicals rout algae but not always the toxins.

The biggest question facing scientists: Are small amounts of algal toxins dangerous or fatal to humans over time?

The data come from a St. Johns River Water Management District study last year that has yet to be made public. All these water plants had one thing in common: They draw from surface waters -- all plagued by algae blooms that usually come and go.

Of the 422 samples scrutinized between February and October 2000, two plants emerged with particularly high levels of toxins -- the one on the Peace River and the plant in West Palm Beach.

The manager of the West Palm Beach plant said he struggles to keep the drinking water clean -- workers spend the day checking the swampy basin for everything from eels to garbage.

"Were drinking the same water that the dinosaurs drank," Jim Blakeney said. "Over time, it is getting much harder to treat."

 

Local Environmental Toxins:

 

STATE SAYS GAS TANKS LEAKED INTO 25,000 SITES ; MANY SITES IN DADE, HILLSBOROUGH; [Broward Metro Edition]
The Associated Press. South Florida Sun - Sentinel. Fort Lauderdale, Fla.: Jul 8, 2002.

Buried gas storage tanks have leaked hazardous material into at least 25,000 sites around Florida, causing concern among scientists that the state's absorbent, sandy soil may be in danger, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said.

Scientists said the pollution is a result of Florida's excessive use of gas. The state ranks third after California and Texas in gas consumption, burning nearly 20 million gallons a day, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

About 22,000 of the leaking sites have been petroleum leaks near gas stations and other facilities, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Many of the leaks are occurring in areas with a drinking-water water source, scientists said. Only California has more contaminated fuel-tank sites than Florida, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. However, in California, there is less potential for drinking-water contamination, the EPA said.

Seventeen million Florida residents use water from public wells within a half-mile of leaking tanks, state environmental officials said.

"People don't realize when they are filling their cars with gas that they are handling a hazardous substance -- gasoline is explosive and it can cause cancer," said Michael Ashey, chief of the Bureau of Petroleum Storage Systems for the Florida environmental agency.Many cleanup sites are in Miami-Dade and Hillsborough counties. Leaks have contaminated drinking water in 38 counties and surface water in 42 counties, according to environment agency records.

State officials are trying to clean up more than 3,000 sites and more than 10,000 sites are awaiting cleanup.

In addition, Florida has tried to contain leaks by requiring double-walled petroleum-storage systems to replace older tanks by 2010.

"Florida has the most stringent storage-tank restrictions in the nation," said storage-tank bureau administrator Marshall Mott- Smith. "We have to because we depend on groundwater more than anywhere else."Florida collects up to 80 cents per barrel of petroleum products produced or imported into the state to fund cleanups. The state spent $151 million last year to expedite cleanups, but officials say they need more money to reduce the backlog.

The cleanup work is expected to take 20 years.

 

 

DISCOVERY OF BURIED DRUMS RAISES CONTAMINATION FEARS; [Broward Metro Edition]
DAVID FLESHLER Staff Writer. South Florida Sun - Sentinel. Fort Lauderdale, Fla.: Apr 19, 2001.

A mysterious row of metal drums was discovered beneath the floor of an abandoned factory Wednesday, forcing Broward County to scramble its hazardous materials team and shut down a nearby drinking-water well.

The drums were found at the former Plastiline Inc. factory off Dixie Highway in northern Broward County, where there have long been rumors of buried barrels of chemicals.

The long, pale yellow building, at 1251 NE 48th St., was being renovated by its new owner when workers discovered the drums under the concrete floor. Some workers experienced nausea and vomiting, but none needed medical attention after being decontaminated, said Todd LeDuc, spokesman for Broward County Fire-Rescue.

The contents of the drums are unknown. Some were empty. And it is unclear how many drums remain. LeDuc estimates up to 40 could be buried in a trench covered at the rear of the building. The drums will be tested during the next two days, and specialists will remove them to prevent spills.

"Since this was previously a plastics manufacturing site, we're treating it with a high threshold of concern," LeDuc said, as workers stood behind a fence topped with barbed wire and firefighters walked in and out of the building.

The discovery of the drums comes as a vindication to neighborhood residents, who had complained for years that the county ignored reports of pollution and groundwater contamination at the factory.

Twenty years ago, when the company was still in operation making plastic pipes, neighbors tried to collect information on what sort of pollution it was producing. They tried to obtain manifests of what chemicals were being discharged and where they were going.

"A lot of employees said it had been hauled out, a lot said it had been buried," said Lillian Larson, now head of Highland Neighborhood Watch.

"We were trying to find out because we had wellfields in the area. When you startmanufacturing PVC, it's not a healthy environment, particularly when it's that close to our water."

At a neighborhood meeting in 1998, Broward County's top environmental officials assured neighbors that the site was clean. Residents brought up reports that barrels of solvents had been buried at the site, and Steve Somerville, the county's environmental director, asked that any witnesses contact his office.

"No one came forward," said Rick Wilkins, Broward County director of pollution prevention and remediation.

But residents say the county brushed off their complaints of noise, odors and groundwater pollution.

"The county said everything is fine," Larson said. "The county would never listen to us. They said there's nothing wrong there. Nothing was ever buried there."

Her group plans to discuss the discovery of the drums at a meeting April 26 at the Highland Community Center at 7:30 p.m.

Ginger Alvarez, secretary of North Broward Citizens Action Group, said, "This comes as no surprise to us because we've been griping about it for years, and we haven't been able to get anyone to move on it."

Wilkins said the county had done extensive testing of water in the area and found no problems. He said that the county's assurances at the 1998 meeting referred specifically to an oil spill on the site that had been cleaned up.The discovery of the drums Wednesday has forced the county to take precautions.

When word of the discovery reached Tony Hui, who runs the county's drinking water system, he shut down Well No. 7, located just 200 feet from the factory. The well formed part of a system that serves Coconut Creek, Lighthouse Point, Cresthaven and unincorporated sections of northern Broward County.

The decision to shut the well was merely a precaution, and there is no danger to customers, Hui said. The wells are monitored constantly and no contamination had shown up, he said.

"All of our drinking water meets all primary and secondary drinking water standards," he said. "There's no health issue with our drinking water at all."So far, five or six drums have been taken out. Hazardous materials workers have inserted a probe into another drum that's still buried and have discovered it contains something, but they're not sure what, Wilkins said.

The site has a long history of pollution problems. The company, which made plastic pipes out of polyvinyl chloride, was fined $3,000 in the early 1980s after county officials found drums of hazardous waste and soil drenched with oil. The county hauled 10 truckloads of soil away. The company declared bankruptcy in 1982.

While it was probably illegal to bury the drums, depending on their contents, it will be difficult to find who is responsible, Wilkins said.

"Plastiline was in business from the 1960s to the mid-1980s," he said. "Whether there's any entity to go after will be pretty doubtful."

The new owner of the factory is American Pavers Manufacturing Inc., of Pompano Beach. The company was renovating the factory to build bricks, said Jeffrey Ross, compliance manager of Atlantic Industrial Services Inc., which is handling the recovery of the drums for the company.

He disputed the Fire-Rescue account that workers had gotten sick. "Nobody's had any symptoms," he said. And he stressed that there's no evidence that the drums contain hazardous waste."They could contain oil or water," he said.


 

EPA TO CHANGE RULES FOR ARSENIC IN WATER; [Broward Metro Edition]
JOHN HEILPRIN The Associated Press. South Florida Sun - Sentinel. Fort Lauderdale, Fla.: Apr 19, 2001.

The Bush administration, under fire for scrapping former President Bill Clinton's standard for arsenic in drinking water, announced plans on Wednesday to set a new standard within nine months.

Christie Whitman, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said she was asking the National Academy of Sciences to examine the effect of a range of possible reductions. The new standard could be higher or lower than that set by Clinton.

President Bush drew heavy criticism from environmentalists and others last month when his EPA killed a Clinton administration regulation that would have tightened the standard to no more than 10 parts of arsenic per billion in drinking water. The current standard, set in 1942, is 50 parts per billion.

Whitman said she wanted a panel of scientists at the academy to examine a standard in the range of three to 20 parts per billion.

"The Bush administration is committed to protecting the environment and the health of all Americans," Whitman said in a written statement, promising a final regulation within nine months.

She said the decision to seek a report from the academy would "ensure that a standard will be put in place in a timely manner that provides clean, safe and affordable drinking water for the nation and is based on the best science."

The Bush administration's decision on March 20 to stop the regulation put into place three days before Clinton left office created an uproar, and the latest action was seen by critics as further delay.

"That is a huge step backward, no matter how they try to spin it," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. "The Bush administration should be ashamed that it has taken this course and all the more ashamed that it was announced on this Earth Day weekend."

Whitman argued there was insufficient scientific evidence to justify the $200 million annual cost to municipalities, states and industry of meeting the new Clinton standards by 2006.

The administration plans to issue a new regulation that still meets the same time frame for compliance as the Clinton standard.

In 1999, the National Academy of Sciences said that arsenic in drinking water can cause bladder, lung and skin cancer, and might cause liver and kidney cancer.

The Clinton EPA had initially proposed setting the standard at five parts per billion last year in response to a lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defense Council, but then settled at 10 parts per billion.