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In early June 2024, Arlington County issued a Boil Water Advisory as a cautionary measure after a water main break occurred at S Walter Reed Dr. The county advised everyone who lived in the affected area to bring water to a rolling boil for one minute and cool it before drinking, brushing teeth, making baby food and formula, washing fruits and vegetables, etc. Unfortunately, the public must adjust to Arlington’s tainted water source by taking all the necessary precautions.

A main water break occurs when water reaches the surface because of a hole or crack in the water main, which is an underground pipe. The water main usually runs under streets and sidewalks and carries water from an area’s water source. 

Main breaks are a normal part of the operations of a water utility, and they can happen because of different causes, including temperature changes, excavations, breaks in water main pipes, and sudden fluctuations in pressure. The result is always the same, though: water leaking from the main water pipe and running or pooling in the street. 

This issue with Arlington’s water main break has raised questions about the safety of the county’s drinking water supply. However, Arlington’s drinking goes through a rigorous process to ensure it is safe to drink.  

Arlington Tap Water is Tested Daily

As water flows over and through the soil, it dissolves substances, so raw water might contain contaminants. These contaminants can cause water to taste, look or smell differently, but this doesn’t pose health concerns. These contaminants or substances include microbes, salts and metals, pesticides and herbicides, naturally occurring radioactive substances, and organic chemical substances. To ensure tap water is safe to drink, testing and treatment are important in any water system.

In addition, water testing provides valuable information to certain groups of people who might be vulnerable to certain microbial contaminants, for instance, Cryptosporidium, which may be present in drinking water from the tap. These people include not only the infants and the elderly but also those who are immuno-compromised, who have immune system disorders, have undergone organ transplants, or are undergoing treatment with steroids. 

How Arlington Water is Analyzed

The water supply in Arlington consistently goes through quality testing to ensure that it passes stringent state and federal regulations. In particular, the county’s drinking water must meet all the safety standards of the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

First of all, Arlington’s water supply is tested several times a day, throughout the water treatment process and at various locations in the city. 

Testing is conducted by the city and the State of Texas, and they take thousands of samples to test for hundreds of substances. Based on the Arlington Water Utilities’ 2023 Water Quality Report, the analyses conducted by Arlington and the State of Texas showed that regulated substances were well below the established maximum contaminant levels. 

Arlington Water Treatment Process

The city’s water treatment is under the care of the Tarrant Regional Water District (TRWD). The county also partners with the Washington Aqueduct, DC Water and the City of Falls Church to ensure compliance to current and future regulations. These water treatment facilities all work together to ensure Arlington’s water supply meets safety standards. 

Arlington water comes from four reservoirs: Lake Arlington, Lake Benbrook, Cedar Creek and Richland-Chambers. Raw water from these sources goes through several processes before it becomes drinkable. 

1. Primary Disinfection

This stage of the water treatment process uses ozone as a primary water disinfectant. Ozone neutralizes biological matter and eliminates metals from the water. 

2. Filtration

The first filtration process uses aluminum sulfate and a cationic polymer. These substances are added to the water in order to encourage dirt and other particles to clump together and settle out. 

Another filtration stage follows, this time using granular activated carbon beds. This helps remove smaller particles and dissolved substances. 

3. Secondary Disinfection

Before water enters a clearwell storage facility where it is kept before distribution, it goes through another disinfection. At this phase, water is treated with chloramine, which is a mixture of chlorine and ammonia. 

Chloramine is a weaker disinfectant than ozone, but it is more stable. This means that chloramine’s disinfection extends through pipes and the rest of the water utility’s distribution system, so that water is kept safe until it reaches your faucet. 

Arlington Water Utilities use chloramine for most of the year. Many water systems in the country do the same, as it is a standard practice. 

What About PFAS?

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are man-made chemicals typically found in commercial and household products. They have been used in items like nonstick cookware, water-repellent fabrics, paints and fire-fighting foams since the 1940s. 

Because PFAS take a long time to break down and can build up in the soil, water and air, they are also known as “forever chemicals.” 

The problem with PFAS lies in the fact that when ingested, they can have harmful effects on people. Long periods of exposure can result in heart attacks, strokes and cancers. Those who are pregnant and breastfeeding are also more at risk. Exposure to PFAS during pregnancy can cause developmental problems especially with the birth weight of a newborn.

PFAS can enter the water supply through industrial and wastewater discharges. That is why, it is essential to keep PFAS levels within EPA standards. 

PFAS in Arlington’s drinking water supply

On April 10, 2024, the EPA finalized its National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWR) for six PFAS chemicals, namely, PFOA, PFOS, PFBS, PFNA, PFHxS and HFPO DA (GenX Chemicals).

Is Arlington water safe to drink?

In conclusion, to comply with regulations, Arlington has its water supply tested for PFAS by the Washington Aqueduct, in addition to tests done by Arlington Water Utilities. The former reported PFAS in Arlington’s water supply to be below the EPA’s standard detection levels. Meanwhile, the latter found the county’s water supply to be in compliance with the EPA’s safety guidelines.

In addition, sampling at the Pierce Burch Water Treatment Plant and the John F. Kubala Water Treatment Plant in 2023 showed that Arlington’s tap water complies with the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) set forth by the EPA. 

The City of Arlington even goes as far as saying that its tap water “meets and in many cases is much better than Texas and USEPA drinking water standards that are set after robust scientific research and standard setting procedures.”

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