What are we drinking?

By Meggan Gray - bio | email

JACKSON COUNTY, MS (WLOX) - Water. It's the basis of all living things. We need it to survive. Just think about how many times a day we use it to drink, to cook, to clean. But have you ever stopped to think about where that water comes from? The answer is about 800 feet underground.

Sam Vinson is an engineer with the city of Moss Point.

"The water that we have here actually falls on the ground several counties north of Jackson County, and it runs underground in what's called an aquifer or a sand formation," Vinson said.

Moss Point is just like every other city in south Mississippi. It relies on these underground aquifers for its public water supply. Water plant operator Jason Glass explains how we get water from those aquifers.

"We pump it from the ground using a well. As it goes from the ground, it goes up through these pipes behind me, and it is treated simply with chlorine, chlorine gas. And that acts as a disinfectant to kill any kind of bacteria or any kind of harmful substances that are in the water," Glass said.

Sounds pretty simple. Almost too simple. But wait until you hear how long that water has been down there.

"Thousands of years. Many thousands of years, and that's one of the things that most people don't understand about deep wells. It's been there for many, many thousands of years, and it's naturally purified," says Vinson.

So water that's 4,000 years old naturally purifies itself over time, as it makes its way through sand formations, and into these well-protected aquifers below our busy lives. There's just one problem -- although it's safe to drink, sometimes it comes out looking brown or dirty. And that's exactly what prompted Moss Point homeowners Thomas and Shelly Robertson to make a few changes around the house.

"It's just the color of it's kind of displeasing," says Thomas Robertson. "Makes you not want to drink it, so we normally just use spring water to drink. And we use the Moss Point water, filter it and cook with it."

The Robertsons decided to add filters to some of their faucets about two years ago, after their daughter Marley was born. Thanks to regular tests by the Health Department, they know Moss Point water is perfectly safe to drink, despite the unappetizing color. Still, the extra measures give them peace of mind.

Soon, though, they won't have to worry about cloudy water anymore. That's because in December, Moss Point will become the third city in our state, to use reverse osmosis - a highly filtrated purification process. Pascagoula was the first and our state capitol the second. Jeff Hutchison manages Pascagoula's reverse osmosis (RO) plants.

"Well, right now Moss Point has the water similar to what we used to have, which had the organic color in it. Once they go into RO that color will disappear. They'll have clear water then, and plus the water's going to taste better. That'll be the big difference."

Hutchison shows us the difference between raw groundwater and RO water in two buckets.

"What you're looking at here is our raw well water. Basically that's the kind of water we used to have in the past, all we used to do is chlorinate that. The water you see in the clear bucket is after it goes through the RO membrane process."

Reverse Osmosis takes ground water, and pumps it through a series of powerful filters, before pumping out purified water.

As Hutchison describes it, "Really what you're doing, is you're reversing nature. What was in the water, nature put in, you're taking out. Organic color, salts, chlorides, stuff that don't taste good."

Thomas Robertson can't wait for reverse osmosis to begin in Moss Point.

"It's been years in the making, so it will be really nice to have that and see the difference. My mother has it in Pascagoula, and we saw a big difference when they got it over there. So, we're excited that the water is going to be more pleasing to the eye and probably to the taste as well," Robertson said.

But what about all the things you don't taste or see right now? Microscopic organisms, or contaminants that may be lurking in your water? We're supposed to consume 8 glasses of water a day. So, it's only natural to wonder from time to time, what are we really drinking?

By law, the State Health Department is required to test every public water system to make sure what we're consuming meets the standards of the safe drinking water act. The state lab in Jackson tests for more than 150 different contaminants. The city water departments then publish their results in an annual report, so you can see what's in your drinking water. Looking down the list of contaminants, there are a few you wouldn't expect to see.

"You might have levels of mercury that's very low; it's way below natural drinking water standards." Hutchison said. "There might be even arsenic. You know a lot of this stuff is naturally occuring at these levels, real low."

Moss Point homeowners Thomas and Shelly Robertson were a little surprised to hear things like asbestos and cyanide may be floating around in their water.

"Well, I'm glad they're testing for it because if it's there, I'd like to know about it. But yeah, it does give you an uneasy feeling that it could even possibly even get into the drinking water to begin with. "

But experts say there's nothing to be worried about. Harry Howell owns Micro Methods Laboratory in Ocean Springs. His lab is the only one in our area approved by the State Health Department to test public drinking water.

"If you look at those reports, you'll find that they come back non-detect on probably at 130 of those components that they look at. Now I mean, this is just being precautionary. That's why they test for so much."

Actually, the folks monitoring our water are more concerned with harmful metals such as copper, lead and iron. I wanted to find out how South Mississippi's water measured up, so I took water samples at homes in Bay St. Louis, Gulfport and Moss Point. At each home, I collected two samples.

One to test strictly for traces of copper, lead and iron, which Howell explains, "Those elements would be more apt to be present in our water stratas down here, because we have real soft water. We're lucky to have low minerals, and if we have anything, we would have iron."

I collected water from kitchen sinks. Keep in mind, two of the metals I'm looking for would likely come from a home's plumbing. Older homes, such as the Robertson's 1956 Moss Point home, usually have copper pipes and lead solder which could lead to higher levels of those metals.

The second bottle I'm collecting is to check for total coliform, essentially any bacteria in our water. I'm collecting all of my samples using the same regulations set by the State Health Department, which means when I collect my bacteria sample, I want to make sure if we find any bacteria, it's from the water and not the spigget. So, in order to do that, we use heat, to first disinfect the area. This sample will also help us determine if there's any ecoli present.

I also ran some water from Thomas and Shelly Robertson's Moss Point home through a store-bought filter system, to see how that compared to their normal tap water. I brought my water samples, along with a store-bought bottle of water to Micro Methods Laboratory.

After five days of testing, I returned for the results. As far as the tests for coliform bacteria, owner Harry Howell tells us, "They're all negative, what we expected. No coliform. No ecoli."

And how did our city water measure up to bottled water?

Howell says, "We found traces of some copper and iron, of course, in the municipalities, the city samples, which is expected. You're not going to run a water sample through a piping system and not pick up some metals, but the concentrations we found were so low, it's negligible. Now I will say the bottled water, we didn't find traces at all. So I guess the filtration of the water made it just a bit purer."

Is there really that big of a difference between bottle water and tap water?

"Based on our analysis, no. Now in this case, the bacteria was good on all the water samples, and the metals were way below any EPA regulatory level. But the bottled water, as far as the metals, was a little bit cleaner," according to Howell.

But if you drink tap water is it going to hurt you in any way?

Howell says, "Not at all, not at all."

Also, our test comparing "filtered" water and tap water showed little difference.

For a closer look at my water test results, click here.

If you're interested in getting a copy of your city's last water quality report, click on one of the links below, or call your public works department.

∙ Gulfport

∙ Bay St. Louis -- (228) 467-5505
∙ D'Iberville -- (228) 323-5524
∙ Gautier -- (228) 497-4283
∙ Long Beach -- (228) 863-0440 
∙ Moss Point -- (228) 475-1157
∙ Ocean Springs -- (228) 875-3955
∙ Pascagoula -- (228) 938-6623
∙ Pass Christian -- (228) 452-3308
∙ Waveland -- (228) 467-9248