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Pennsylvania Allegheny County Water Story

July 2004

U.S. Water News Online

PITTSBURGH — The Allegheny County Health Department is investigating water quality at a suburban Pittsburgh office to determine whether there is any link between the water and the miscarriages of a number of employees.

The department is testing water samples from drinking fountains at the Comcast office in North Fayette for levels of trihalomethanes, a byproduct that occurs when water is disinfected with chlorine. Scientists for years have studied whether certain contaminants in water cause miscarriages. The issue has produced strong feelings on both sides and some studies have shown a correlation.

Dave Zazac, a county health department spokesman, said they were contacted by Comcast after the cable company used an outside firm to test its water, which is provided from the Western Allegheny County Municipal Authority. The firm, taking two samples, found levels of trihalomethanes, or THMs, of 100 parts per billion. The health standard is 80 parts per billion, based on averaging several samples a year, he said.

“This snapshot that you see is not going to tell the complete picture of what the water does contain in regards to trihalomethanes,” Zazac said. For example, the county recently found that water going to Comcast tested at 43 parts per billion, well within normal limits, and the authority’s water has consistently tested within state and national health standards, he said.

County authorities are also interviewing workers at the office and trying to determine if there are any other factors that could have contributed to the multiple miscarriages. Zazac said he’s not sure of the exact number of miscarriages among the approximately 200 employees in the office, but he’s heard that the number may be between five and 11 over the past three years.

“The water testing is just the initial phase of this investigation,” Zazac said.

Comcast officials said they don’t track information on employee miscarriages, and even if they did, they wouldn’t provide the information due to employee confidentiality. In a statement, officials said the investigation was the result of concerns raised by a few employees.

THMs form in drinking water when organic materials react with chlorine, which is added to drinking water to remove bacteria. People concerned about THMs in their water can refrigerate tap water in an open container before drinking it to allow THMs to evaporate, or examine the annual water quality reports for the local water authority, according to the Campaign for Safe & Affordable Drinking Water.

But proving that THMs could be the cause of the miscarriages in the North Fayette case won’t be easy, Zazac and others said.

Myron Arnowitt, western Pennsylvania director of Clean Water Action, an advocacy group, said it’s important for researchers to get good data about what’s in the water and not just look at a few samples. Most spontaneous miscarriages happen in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and unless officials are testing the water while someone is pregnant, it’s difficult to say whether water quality was to blame, he said.

“With miscarriages, studies have shown it doesn’t have to be at a high level for a long period of time” for a miscarriage to occur, Arnowitt said.

It’s also tough to conclusively prove a link because it’s difficult to track miscarriages, Arnowitt said. Many miscarriages happen so early that a woman might not realize she’s pregnant, or else she’s cared for in an emergency room, where usually miscarriages aren’t tracked, he said.

“If more samples are taken at this building, and they’re showing high levels, something should be done about that,” Arnowitt said.