Updated: Sunday, Feb. 28, 1999 at 22:45 CST

Health officials praise sanitizing public water


By Jennifer Radcliffe
Star-Telegram Staff Writer

The same $1.50 that can buy a gallon of bottled water can pay for 1,000 gallons of tap water.

And although some consumers cringe at the idea of drinking tap water, officials say that the improvements made to public water supplies exceed all other health advancements this century.

Despite controversy about additives such as chlorine and fluoride, cleaning up the water system has saved thousands of lives in the United States, said Bob Jones, an epidemiologist with the Texas Department of Health.

"Water sanitation has been the greatest advancement in public health and has been the most instrumental thing in protecting public health," Jones said.

Chlorine was added to most water supplies to kill bacteria and waterborne diseases earlier in this century. It was highly effective in eliminating outbreaks of cholera and typhoid in the United States, Jones said.

Fluoride was added to many public water supplies to help fight tooth decay. The American Medical Association approved the addition in 1951, and the Fort Worth Water Department began adding fluoride in the 1970s.

The Trinity River Authority, which supplies water to Bedford, Colleyville, Euless, Grapevine and North Richland Hills, added fluoride in 1993, said Bill Smith, manager of development for the authority's northern division.

"We were probably one of the last major water systems in the Dallas-Fort Worth area to add fluoride," he said.

Advancements are still needed to get smaller water suppliers up to speed, said David Jefferson, environmental health manager for the Texas Department of Health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that each year 1 million people become ill and 900 people die as a result of contaminated drinking water.

Many of these problems occur in smaller systems that are not monitored closely, he said.

Even large systems such as the Fort Worth Water Department are constantly trying to make improvements, officials said.

"There's no doubt that the water treatment industry has come a long way," Smith said. "People in the water industry want to produce the best available water supply. We go out of our way to make sure it's as safe as possible."

As part of that effort, work is under way to find better ways to disinfect water and to ensure that consumers are not exposed to high concentrations of additives.

Studies since the 1970s have shown that chlorine and its byproducts in concentrated amounts may cause cancer, health and water industry officials said.

That doesn't justify eliminating the disinfectant that helps prevent major epidemics, public health officials said.

"Even if chlorine kills one out of a million, cholera would kill 900 of a million," Jones said.

But in a search for better ways to disinfect water, many water suppliers have started using a combination of chlorine and ammonia. This combination is just as effective and produces fewer harmful byproducts, officials said.

Other suppliers, such as the Fort Worth Water Department, are beginning to use ozone gas instead of chlorine to disinfect water. The Arlington Water Department is installing ozonization equipment its two plants, officials said.

"It works very quickly to kill bacteria," said Charly Angadicheril, assistant director of production at the Fort Worth Water Department. "In the future, we will have that at all our plants." The long-term health effects of this method are being studied.

"There are no perfect absolutes, but if we stop disinfection, you can think of how horrendous that would be," said Mike Howe, executive director of the Texas section of the American Water Works Association.

The benefits of getting the right amount of fluoride are obvious, said Dane Hoang, a pediatric dentist with Hyde & Bailey in Hurst.

"There's a big difference in fluorinated and nonfluorinated areas," she said. "It's very beneficial. It strengthens your teeth."

But excessive amounts can be a health concern. Children who drink fluorinated water, use toothpaste with fluoride and are given fluoride supplements may be getting too much -- especially if they are swallowing the toothpaste, Hoang said.

The advancements made in municipal water systems this century have allowed Americans to turn their attention to other areas, officials said.

"If we didn't do it, we would not be the civilized country we are," Howe said. "Cities would have never grown."

The Metroplex would be a much different place without the advancements in water distillation, Jefferson said.

"I think we would have a whole lot more hospitals," he said. "We would have a lot more doctors treating people, and a lot more people would be extremely ill -- all of which would be unnecessary."

Jennifer Radcliffe, (817)685-3875