Water expert says Columbia could be cheating water quality reports

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COLUMBIA – Water engineer Bob Bowcock visited Columbia today to assess the community’s water quality and infrastructure issues.

Julie Ryan and Marie Brown, co-founders of the COMO Safe Water Coalition, hosted Bowcock at the University of Missouri after communicating with him for about 6 weeks. Columbia residents have been communicating with him for about 2 years.

Bowcock is a water engineer for Erin Brockovich, a renowned environmental activist. Brockovich previously showed interest in Columbia's water issues, and sent Bowcock to check them out.

Ryan says having Bowcock inspect Columbia’s water issues will be helpful to the city because of his expertise.

“Having someone like Bob here who is experienced not only in the quality, but the infrastructure and all these different aspects of water really gives us a lot of background and a lot of knowledge," Ryan said.

One of the issues Bowcock found in Columbia's water is the use of chloramine in the water treating process. He said using less chemicals in the water treatment process makes the water safer for drinking. 

"If we clean the water properly, we don't have to use as many chemicals," Bowcock said.

Chloramine is a disinfectant added to Columbia. Bowcock said if the city took out organics from the water first, there would be no need for chloramine.

The City of Columbia's most recent water quality report said Columbia exceeds standards.

However, Bowcock went more in depth about how water quality reports can be misleading. Columbia changes its method of cleaning drinking water in the summer from chloramine to a free chlorine agent. Before this switch is made, the water is tested. Because the free chlorine has not yet entered the drinking water system and the chloramine is being flushed out, the water test is taken during the time the water is the most healthy. Bowcock says if the water sample was taken any earlier or later, the water quality test may differ, and he views this process as cheating, even though it is legal.

Another concern with Columbia water is the amount of trihalomethane. He said the city has met its requirements for the amount of trihalomethanes in drinking water, but the amount of trihalomethane that contaminates the air can still be dangerous. Bowcock said while the water may be safe for drinking, Columbia residents use the water for other things like laundry and showering that could put the dangerous carcinogens in the air. He said this is dangerous for everyone, but especially for pregnant women. He said research supports the idea that exposure to trihalomethanes over a 90-day period for a pregnant woman in her first trimester could cause miscarriages and low birth weight for pregnant women in their second or third trimester.

"It's not about those two or three or four glasses of water a day, its about all the way we use water in our homes," Bowcock said.

The city told KOMU it is waiting for the results of an epidemiological study from England on how chloramines impact people when showering.

Bowcock said he believes the most progress is made in a city with educated residents who are ready to make a change. He said he sees those qualities in Columbia and he is happy to help the city make a change.