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Officials work to allay residents' water fears

Many people were spooked by reports of algal toxins in other areas' drinking water, officials say.

By ANGELA MOORE

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 1, 2001


TAMPA -- County health and city water officials issued a joint statement Thursday meant to assure the public that Hillsborough County's drinking water is safe.

The statement comes after the Orlando Sentinel on Sunday published the results of a study that found unhealthy levels of algal toxins in treated drinking water throughout the state.

Although some water departments across the state participated in the study voluntarily, the Tampa Water Department withdrew from the study before tests on its water were completed.

John Burns, the lead researcher for the study, commissioned by the St. Johns Water Management District, said he fielded calls from worried Tampa residents after the results were published Thursday in the Tampa Tribune.

Some water departments were listed in the study as having poisonous levels of algal toxins in both their raw, untreated water and their water treated and ready for consumption. If it's in their water, worried Tampa residents asked Burns, couldn't it be in ours, too?

"You don't know what's in that treatment plant until you sample their water," Burns said. "If you don't test it, you don't know."

On Thursday, Mike Bennett, a manager for the Tampa Water Department, said Tampa's untreated water had been tested in the St. Johns study and was found to have toxin levels well within the safe zone suggested by the World Health Organization.

He said the Tampa Water Department pulled out of the study because it disagreed with the way it was conducted.

First, Bennett said, a preliminary report completed midway through the study was released without the usual scientific peer review. Second, the researchers admitted they gathered some highly variable data that changed depending on which lab was doing the analysis.

Because Tampa withdrew, toxin levels in treated water were never tested. In other municipalities in the study, toxin levels were much higher in treated water compared with untreated. Burns said that's because blue-green algae only release toxins when they die.

Algae that release toxins include microcystis, anabaena and cylindrospermopsis, all common in Florida for thousands of years. Scientists think ingesting them or bathing in them could cause damage to the nervous system and the liver. Toxins were blamed when 140 children and 10 adults fell ill in Australia after an algae bloom. But so far in Florida, no one has become sick from the toxins, although they are suspected in the illnesses of several alligators.

Bennett said in part because of the public's concern over algal toxins, the Tampa Water Department and the Hillsborough County Health Department along with the EPA will be working together to develop their own tests of toxins in Tampa's water.

"We're going to jump on this rascal, find out what the toxin levels are and get a handle on it," Bennett said. "I've got three young boys ... I'm not about to let anything happen to their water."

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