A View From the Cheap Seats

May 6, 2009

Talking Trash – Crestwood’s Water “Scandal”

Filed under: Environment,Media — trzupek @ 10:10 am
Tags: , , ,

chicken_little_dvdEXAMINER PUBLICATIONS – APRIL 29, 2009

By Rich Trzupek

The April 19 headline was a classic. Indeed, anytime one can use the word “poison” on page one, one is pretty much guaranteed to sell a bunch of papers, and given the sorry state of the newspaper that used to be the Chicago Tribune, it’s not hard to understand why the editors of that once proud publication would resort to shrieking language that is normally the purview of the National Enquirer.

According to the Trib’s environmental reporter, Michael Hawthorne, the south suburban village of Crestwood had been poisoning its residents for years by providing them with “tainted” water. Politicians like Governor Pat Quinn and Congressmen Bobby Rush were quick to express their outrage, which was predictable, and Crestwood residents were angry, which is understandable. At a minimum, one does not expect one’s elected representatives to try to kill them.

Lost among all the righteous indignation and fear there was this simple, scientific truth: nobody was actually poisoned. And I get to say that, because, unlike Messr. Hawthorne, I actually have the credentials to do so.

Hawthorne has made a career out whipping up fear based on twisted-truths and ignorance, devoid of any scientific training of which I am aware. In contrast, as veteran readers of this column know, your humble correspondent is an actual chemist who has been practicing environmental science for over two decades. Hit pieces like this one sicken me.

The crux of the Trib’s story was that Crestwood – sometimes – blended well-water with Lake Michigan water and this well-water – sometimes – might contain up to seven parts per billion of vinyl chloride, which is a “toxic” chemical. Horrors! The obvious conclusion that readers were left to infer was that Crestwood residents could look forward to a lifetime of three-legged, one-armed babies whom would be lucky to live past their first birthday.

Hogwash. Without getting into a full-blown, and incredibly boring, scientific explanation of why (which I’ll be happy to do, by the way, if someone is interested in the dry details), there is nothing wrong with what Crestwood is accused of doing and the residents of that community were certainly not placed at any risk.

The physician Paracelsus famously said “the dose makes the poison”, and there’s not enough of a dose in this case to poison a guinea pig. Would I drink the water described in the Trib’s story? In a minute. Not only would I drink it, I would serve it to my daughter and I would confidently mix baby-formula with such water.

Now I don’t know much more about Crestwood than its location, which happens to be down the road apiece from the southeast-side Chicago neighborhood that gave the world the Trzupek clan. Crestwood may be a fabulously well-run community, and it may be an embarrassment. I don’t have a clue and frankly I don’t care.

What is distressing about stories like this, for me, is that they add to the climate of fear that defines more and more of our lives. It’s odd, isn’t it? We’re not supposed to use the phrase “war on terror” any longer, because doing so is supposedly alarmist. And that’s fine. But when it comes to our new, “green” world, no amount of alarmism seems to be off limits.

Is there a price to pay for this kind of fear-mongering? You bet there is. Hawthorne’s latest attempt to become Aaron Brockovich (yes, I know how her name is really spelled, it’s a pun folks) will surly cost many a suburb dearly. As long as that guy is running around with a notebook, do you think anyone is going to be using well-water around these parts? Hell no. There are parts per billion of this and that to be found everywhere, and why take the chance that the Trib is going to accuse your town of poisoning residents?

That leaves a single source of water for most suburbs: Lake Michigan. The City of Chicago controls that particular source of water and has been steadily raising the rates it charges for years. It’s nice to have a monopoly. In one stroke, the Trib has eliminated the only possible option for many suburbs, good old well water. No doubt Michael Hawthorne will win the Chicago Water Department’s coveted “Salesman of the Year” award.

We’ve come a long way in almost forty years of environmental protection. Though you would never suspect it based on the disinformation we see in the mainstream media, our country is far cleaner now than it was back in the seventies, when the first major environmental protection legislation became law.

It’s a testament to how far we have come that minutia like the situation in Crestwood can capture headlines. A sad testament, to be sure, but no doubt we’ll see even more of such silliness in this topsy-turvey world we live in today.



  1. ‘But when it comes to our new, “green” world, no amount of alarmism seems to be off limits.’

    With one exception: the mercury content of the new lightbulbs.

    I don’t think they pose any significant risk, but I think it’s instructive to contrast the eco-warriors’ dismissal of the one and alarmism over the other.

    Comment by Mike Kriskey — May 6, 2009 @ 11:17 am | Reply

    • Don’t know if you’re old enough to remember Mike, but I recall very clearly rolling balls of mercury around in the palm of my hand during Chemistry labs.

      This may explain my current state of befuddlement…

      Comment by trzupek — May 6, 2009 @ 3:45 pm | Reply

      • Nah, they evacuated the classroom when someone dropped a thermometer. Which also befuddled me because my mother had told me about playing with mercury.

        She just turned 77, and is doing fine.

        Comment by Mike Kriskey — May 6, 2009 @ 4:15 pm

  2. There are a few flaws in your argument. The US EPA says that there is no safe amount of vinyl chloride to ingest. The IL EPA allows 2ppb, not because it has anything to do with safety but it would be economically prohibitive to purify the water any lower.

    For twenty years the people were exposed to a dangerous chemical at some level.

    Their government lied to them, told them ALL of their water came from Lake Michigan and charged accordingly. It was a crime, it was a fraud, it was inconsiderate and it was bad government.

    And they did it all to save money.

    This we know for sure, the officials lied to the IL EPA and deceived the people and illegally used a contaminated well.

    This alone should send them to prison for a very long time.

    Comment by Resident — May 6, 2009 @ 12:37 pm | Reply

    • Dear Res,

      Thanks for your comment. I was hoping somebody would make that point: “The US EPA says that there is no safe amount of vinyl chloride to ingest.” That is certainly the spin that Messr. Hawthorne and the Trib put on the issue, but that’s not quite the real deal. It takes, unfortunately, a long, rather dry dissertation to explain why.

      You can’t actually set a limit at “zero”, particularly in water, because “zero” is an impossible number to achieve and an impossible limit to comply with. Given a large enough sample, and enough cash, we could find vinyl chloride – or any number of chemicals – in any water supply on earth. Getting down to parts per trillion, or parts per quadrillion, is just a matter of concentration and time (and money of course). What zero really means, in regulatory-speak, is that you have to be below what is called the “Practical Quantitation Limit”, or “PQL”. The PQL represents a de-facto limit, without forcing EPA to admit that they have set a limit. Is a way of saying: “if the actual concentration you find is below this number, we’ll consider it zero.” These days PQL’s have nothing to do with the capabilities of the instruments or the labs, they’re just a way of setting a limit without actually having to say that you’re setting a limit.

      In the case of vinyl chloride in water, the PQL is: 2 ppb. According to the Trib, Crestwood – at one time – took well water that had a maximum of 7 ppb and diluted it 4:1 with Lake Michigan water. Ergo, the final concentration of vinyl chloride would be 7 x 1/5 = 1.4 ppb, which is below the 2 ppb PQL and is thus, in the regulatory sense (which is what matters) zero. 1.4 ppb, by the by, is the equivalent of about 2 drops of vinyl chloride in 25 10,000 gallon tank cars of water. I would not, as I said, hesitate to drink such water every day of the week.

      At this point, you’re probably saying “you’re just playing numbers games!” This is true, but it’s a numbers game with a point. That being, when EPA picks a limit (which is what a PQL is) it is based on extensive risk assessment. That risk is supposed to correspond to a 1 in a million risk factor. In actual practice, however, it’s a much more stringent risk assessment than that. As you go down the line, from lab testing through analysis to final publication of a limit, everybody puts cushions in their numbers, because nobody wants to be the guy who underestimated the risk. Thus, the stated 1 in a million risk factor is more like a 1 in 100 million risk factor, or a 1 in a billion risk factor. At the end of the day, residents of Crestwood are much more likely to lose their lives to a bolt of lightening (a risk of 1 in 32,000) than they are to drinking their water.

      Were Crestwood officials deceptive? Perhaps. But I don’t know of many places where, if you dig hard enough, you could not come up with a similar scary story that would not stand up to rigorous scientific analysis. Many communities that use well water, for example, dilute down to try and meet radium limits in water and some still can’t make it. The air immediately adjacent to some local dry cleaners would, if analyzed, show a “hazard” associated with perchloroethylene.

      My objections to stories like this is that they are pure sensationalism without a shred of context. Hawthorne specializes in whipping people up with a modicum of facts and no perspective. There’s nothing special in doing so – he could (and probably will) target any community and do the same thing. But there’s no science in it either and, as scientist, that’s troubling to me.



      Comment by trzupek — May 6, 2009 @ 3:44 pm | Reply

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