Archived: Open Letter: Manganese Still a Problem in East Los Angeles Water

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It’s been over two years since I first wrote in an open letter of my concerns with the relatively higher levels of manganese in the drinking water of East L.A. (EGP News, June 19, 2008). Manganese is a metal that can be poisonous to a human’s brain and nerves, particularly for sensitive populations like the elderly and children, under certain conditions, if taken into the body in excessive amounts. Growing evidence suggests too much of it can lead to developmental or other neurological problems.

At that time, the California Water Service Company (Cal Water) was reporting that four local groundwater wells were the source of this contamination in East L.A. It typically gets into the groundwater from the surrounding soil. Cal Water claimed that the contamination was simply an “aesthetic issue” (manganese can cause staining of bathroom fixtures, laundry, etc.) and, therefore, not a health hazard for it to be in our drinking water.

Back then, I contested that conventional, albeit outdated, view espoused by Cal Water and others. The scientific evidence that was emerging weighed heavily in favor of taking a more proactive and precautious approach to the real problem of chronic manganese contamination of drinking water in unincorporated East L.A, at levels not found in surrounding incorporated communities. This contamination had been present for at least a decade and likely much longer given the age of groundwater wells.

Yet, few, if any, residents of East L.A., including its elected representatives, had any clue of the potential long-term implications of this issue. This burden on the health of our community resembles a silent one, veiled by misrepresentations, language barriers, esoteric technical jargon, lack of community discussion, and a practice of “dumping” on an underserved and disadvantaged community.

Thankfully, recognition is mounting that flaws in the “built environment” of a community do indeed play a crucial role in the health of a community. The water supply of a community forms a key part in the supporting infrastructure to a community’s physical environment. It can affect the health status of individuals or public health outcomes of those impacted.

For example, the Alliance for a Better Community (www.afabc.org), a non-profit, recently released a report, concluding its two-year community health assessment of Boyle Heights and East L.A. finding several “important environmental factors” like environmental toxins and called for “much needed improvements to and maintenance of community infrastructure.”

So what has happened with the manganese contamination issue in the last two years? Déjà vu. Scientific studies continue to support the case that excessive manganese in drinking water should be taken seriously given its potential to harm human health, not merely as a cosmetic problem of staining of bathroom fixtures.

In fact, environmental researchers at the University of Quebec at Montreal recently published a report on the neuropsychological effects (lowering of IQ, a standard assessment of intelligence) of manganese exposure from contaminated groundwater on children. Dr. Maryse Bouchard, the lead author and also on staff at the Harvard School of Public Health, stated, “We saw that the average IQ decreased with increasing tap water manganese concentration… And the difference between the least exposed and the most exposed was in the order of six IQ points, which is a very big difference.”

Further, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a federal public health agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, warns that “this substance may harm you” in its Public Health Statement for Manganese (September 2008).

So, should we throw caution into the wind and accept that chronic contamination of the drinking water in East L.A. as a non-issue? Is this community willing to accept a little poison in its water because an investor-owned, private water utility company says it’s OK? As in 2008, I say no!

The good news is that currently only one groundwater well in East L.A. remains a source of excessive manganese because of Cal Water’s infrastructure improvements, so the extent of the problem has lessened. The bad news is that a resolution has taken so long to come to fruition on this matter where time is of the essence and must go forward to completion in a timely manner to insure safe drinking water for this community.

Surprisingly, there is no health-based primary standard for manganese in drinking water in California, perhaps a case of outdated regulations lagging the science. Researchers of the Montreal report suggested that guidelines for safe manganese levels in water should be reconsidered, as reported by the Canadian Press.

In my personal opinion, more should be done to strengthen regulatory oversight of manganese in drinking water. Some touted that the Human Right to Water Bill (AB 1242-Ruskin), then supported by local state senator Gloria Romero but vetoed by the Governor about a year ago, addressed some of the related issues with water so that “every human being has the right to clean and accessible water on an equitable basis.”

I’m not sure if that was the answer, but I do know that safe water is key in the vibrancy of life for an individual or a community.

Salgado is a resident of East Los Angeles.

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