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October 9, 2003

Experts disagree on Grand Island water safety

Grand Island residents whose well water is contaminated with chlorinated solvents can use the water for general household purposes, as long as they limit their exposure and keep their homes ventilated, a Nebraska health expert said Wednesday.

But a local health official, who said he was uncomfortable with that advice, continued to recommend that people not shower or bathe with the contaminated water.

In the meantime, officials are studying whether affected homes should be equipped with whole-house, activated-carbon water filters while the city extends its water lines to the area.

"The speed with which we can address this is the key factor," said Jeff Walsh, a spokesman for CNH Global. "That's the immediate issue."

CNH Global, a farm equipment manufacturer more commonly known as Case New Holland, has been identified by state officials as a possible source of the contamination. Other companies may be responsible, state officials have said.

Late last week, the city and residents learned that a number of private wells had been contaminated with such high levels of solvents that local officials advised against bathing in the water.

By Wednesday afternoon, the number of wells with contamination above safe drinking levels had risen to 38, said Mike Felix of the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality. Most of these homes are in the southwest corner of Grand Island. Test results are pending on a number of others.

Sue Dempsey, who evaluates environmental risks for the Nebraska Health and Human Services System, said although the contamination carries some health risks, it is not such a high risk that people cannot use their water if they take protective steps. They include keeping windows open and operating fans.

Her recommendation is based on the assumption that the problem will be resolved soon.

"Everybody's level of comfort is going to be different," she said. "I make my recommendations based on what I would be comfortable doing. If I wasn't comfortable showering with that water, I would say so."

Suggestions at a City Council meeting Tuesday night that residents could resume showering in their homes didn't bring a lot of calm to one homeowner.

Andy Schwan said one solvent was about 38 times the safe drinking-water level, and another was about 25 times the standard.

"I'm sorry. At the levels we're at, I'm afraid to wash my hands," said Schwan, a computer software technician who has suffered from an auto-immune disease for the past 21/2 years. "When I first heard of this, my first thought was Love Canal."

Schwan and about 20 other Grand Island residents vented their frustrations at the meeting.

Dempsey, who studied the Grand Island case, will answer residents' questions at a meeting tonight in Grand Island.

The water is contaminated with several chemicals, chief among them tetrachloroethylene and 1,1-dichloroethylene, which can cause a variety of health problems, including cancer.

The current drinking-water limit for tetrachloroethylene is 5 parts per billion, and tests of the Grand Island wells have found it as high as 190 parts per billion. The drinking-water limit for 1,1-dichloroethylene is 7 parts per billion, and tests have found it as high as 170 parts per billion. Those drinking-water limits are based on what the federal government considers detectable and treatable.

Dempsey calculated that water containing 7 parts per billion of tetrachloroethylene or 261 parts per billion of 1,1-dichloroethylene would increase a person's cancer risk by one in 10,000 if that person drank the water or took a lengthy shower in it every day for 30 years.

In terms of drinking water, Dempsey advised that people use 7 parts tetrachloroethylene per billion as the cutoff for finding another drinking source. That is slightly above the federal drinking-water standard, she said.

Even though some of the readings for tetrachloroethylene are more than 25 times higher than the benchmark she used in her calculation, Dempsey said the water should still be OK to use in the short term.

Ryan King, environmental health supervisor at the Central District Health Department, which includes Grand Island, said he was uncomfortable with that recommendation.

"We're still recommending that you don't shower with it," he said. "It's always better to take the safer approach. It may be extreme, but you can sleep at night knowing you've been using a safe water source."

King emphasized that he was talking about bathing and showering. It is OK, he said, to flush the toilet, and wash dishes and clothes with the water, as long as the home is kept ventilated.

Walsh, the CNH Global spokesman, said the company does not think it caused the contamination but has agreed to provide residents with clean water until responsibility is sorted out. The company has been making farm equipment at the site since 1964 and used to burn and bury solvents on its property.

This month CNH will remove contaminated dirt from its property, following a previously scheduled cleanup plan. Trench work was to begin at the site by today, Walsh said.

A public meeting is at 7 p.m. Thursday in the community room of City Hall, 100 E. First St. in Grand Island.

World-Herald staff writer Paul Hammel contributed to this report.

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