Water Quality

PWD Director of Laboratory Services to EPA: Update Drinking Water Standards!

Water at the Bureau of Laboratory Sercives - PWD

Here at PWD, we have some of the nation's foremost thinkers and practitioners on water safety and quality.

One of those is Gary Burlingame, our Director of the Bureau of Laboratory Services. Gary oversees a staff of 120 people and an annual budget exceeding $10 million focused on drinking water, source water, wastewater, sediment, sludge, and more. He is a thought leader in the industry, widely published on the topic of the sensory aspects of drinking water—what you see, taste and smell in your water—having written about the topic for more than 25 years. He recently co-authored a report in the American Chemical Society’s journal Environmental Science and Technology, with Virginia Tech Professor Andrea Dietrich, calling for the EPA to improve its 50-year-old purity standards to catch up with what today’s technology allows us to detect and treat.

The report calls out the EPA for having outdated standards that don’t match advances in sensory science, changes in treatment practices, and modern attitudes and health expectations. It urges the EPA to review and rethink what are known as “secondary maximum contaminant levels” which provide guidance on the color, odor and other characteristics of drinking water not directly associated with health risk but still very important to the consumer. 

According to Burlingame and Dietrich, the EPA’s secondary contaminant standards are designed “to be a viable assessment of consumer acceptability and a means to instill confidence in tap water.” If consumers judge water that meets these standards as unacceptable, then it’s time for the standards to change.

PWD is proud to lead the way on drinking water quality. Burlingame’s work is one of many reasons why PWD has consistently been recognized with EPA Partnership for Safe Drinking Water awards for providing drinking water at purity standards higher than required by federal law. For us, the opinion of our customers about the quality of our water is a priority.

You can read more about Burlingame’s work with Professor Dietrich on Virginia Tech’s website or check out the report in its entirety

Endangered Shortnose Sturgeon Returns to the Schuylkill


Shortnose sturgeon
Shortnosed sturgeon, Acipenser brevirostrum. Author: Karen Couch, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Last summer, just below the Fairmount Dam on the Schuylkill River, an angler managed to catch a shortnose sturgeon, a species of fish that has been on the endangered species list since 1967! While sometimes found in the Delaware River, the shortnose sturgeon has never been found in the Schuylkill—at least not on record. PWD regularly samples fish in the Schuylkill and in their 14 years of sampling below the dam, they have not seen this species.

Spotting this shortnosed sturgeon not only indicates that the species could be coming back, it also indicates that the water quality of the Schuylkill is improving. Researchers have long used levels of dissolved oxygen to gauge water quality—oxygen deficient water is not good for aquatic life. The sturgeon is extremely sensitive to low levels of dissolved oxygen, so finding one in the Schuylkill indicates that the dissolved oxygen levels are on the rise.

If you’re lucky enough to catch a sturgeon, remember it is a protected species and that you should quickly return it to the water. To learn more about the shortnosed sturgeon and other species (not all good!) that inhabit the Schuylkill River, check out this article in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

An Inside Look: PWD’s Bureau of Laboratory Services

A glass of water to drink, a hot morning shower, water for the backyard plants – we use water every day without thinking about it. From river to home, water takes an incredible journey through human invention and ingenuity. At the same time that you take that early morning shower, scientists across the city rise early to take daily samples of Philadelphia’s drinking water. The engineers, chemist and biologists that work at PWD’s Bureau of Laboratory Services (BLS) are the ones who help make sure our water remains clean and safe, so we don’t have to think about it every time we use the tap.  

BLS tests water in all of its stages of treatment, and in many places as it flows from the treatment plants to homes and businesses. The technology in the labs ranges from state of the art equipment that can detect very small concentrations of chemicals to tried and true taste testers! The gas chromatograph can detect the presence of organic compounds at a concentration of one part per trillion. This is the equivalent of one penny in ten billion dollars. In addition, BLS has a trained panel of taste and odor experts that use their noses and tongues to detect certain flavors in Philadelphia’s water.

BLS staff work with regulatory organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as other city entities like the Health Department and Licenses and Inspections to protect public health. Philadelphia’s water consistently exceeds federal drinking water standards.  In addition to testing water, BLS also tests materials used to make water pipes, or the compost made from sewage wastes. Finally – BLS helps out other City Departments, testing firefighters coats or paint for airport runways.   

BLS laboratories are located across the city, in inconspicuous buildings that mean more to the safety of this City than you would guess from the exterior. The next time you run the water, think about the incredible journey of water and thank the Bureau of Laboratory Services for keeping it clean and safe. You can read more here.

photo courtesy of: www.wada-ama.org

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