WHERE THE WATER TURNED DEADLY
FLUORIDE SYSTEM WASN’T THE ONLY THING TO FAIL IN HOOPER BAY
Anchorage Daily News
September 22, 1992
Let’s say that you were very thirsty and wanted to drink a glass of water and the owner of the household wanted for you to help yourself. As you take their pitcher and are about to fill the pitcher and saw the brown residue in his container, I think you’d change your mind about having that glass of water. From a letter signed by 300 Hooper Bay residents and sent last winter to Gov. Wally Hickel, asking for upgrades to the village’s water and sewer systems
Dominic Smith didn’t realize that water from the village well was killing him. So he kept drinking.
The sicker he got, the more he drank. The more he drank, the sicker he got. All around his part of the village, his neighbors were falling sick, too.
By the next day, Smith was dead. His sister was in the hospital, critically ill.
Sometimes water and sanitation systems in Alaska villages fail. Sometimes village governments fail, too. So do government regulators.
All those failures combined Memorial Day weekend in Hooper Bay.
A system that pumps a fluoride solution into the town’s drinking water badly malfunctioned, poisoning a large portion of the population. Fluoride at levels 40 times what the federal government considers safe for deterring tooth decay were measured in drinking water, and epidemiologists later concluded that it was probably the most widespread fluoride poisoning ever documented, with more than 200 people estimated to have been stricken.
And while the same kind of accident involving fluoride in other villages seems unlikely, people familiar with what happened believe the Hooper Bay incident shows, dramatically, the difficulties in providing safe drinking water in Alaska’s far-flung villages.
Despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent to improve village water and sanitation systems, any number of things can go haywire and often do. Hooper Bay is just one of the worst and most recent examples.
“There are many, many obstacles to providing clean water in a place like Hooper Bay,” said Dr. Brad Gessner, an epidemiologist with the Alaska Division of Public Health.
“It’s not an easy thing to do at all.”
POPULATION BOOM IN THE BUSH
With nearly 1,000 people, Hooper Bay is one of the largest Native communities in Alaska. Except for a couple of dozen teachers, their families and two nuns stationed here by the Roman Catholic Church, nearly everyone is Yup’ik Eskimo. They live in dozens of homes scattered several miles across the tundra in new federally subsidized boxes or in the old gray shacks bunched together on a series of low knolls, the place known as Main Town.
The village has grown by nearly one-third during the past decade, part of a baby boom in the Bush that’s expected to double the Alaska Native population during the next 20 years. Advances in rural health care in the 1950s and ’60s produced a surge in the number of women of child-bearing age today, and even though families are smaller than 30 years ago, the population is rising rapidly.
It’s a village of children. Last year, the school had 262 pupils. Only 40 were in high school.
While Hooper Bay is larger than most villages, in many ways it faces the same problems lack of economy and opportunity, widespread alcoholism and violence facing many other rural Alaska communities today. Traditional Yup’ik life is still strong in many homes here, putting food on tables and providing a sort of social glue, but people young and old look at the future and it makes them uneasy.
The village has a 6,000-foot paved runway and microwave ovens and frozen pizzas, but for most people, no running water. The exceptions are the teachers, most of them white, who, as in most villages, live in modern apartments built alongside the school.
There’s also running water at the village clinic and in a washeteria, which has washing machines and showers.
Like many villages, Hooper Bay wasn’t settled with water and sewer service in mind. It was a good location for hunting and fishing, and grew rapidly after a Catholic mission was established early this century.
The big problem is fresh water: There’s not enough. The water table beneath the permafrost is shallow, and in places is heavily contaminated with salt water from the Bering Sea.
“There’s basically no way you’re going to support a piped utility system in Hooper Bay,” said Jim Crum, chief of facilities construction in Alaska for the U.S. Public Health Service, which has built systems in dozens of villages.
“Instead of using five gallons a day, like people do there now, you’d be using several hundred per household,” Crum said. “Very quickly, you’d have no water.”
The result in Hooper Bay is that, in virtually all the houses, people haul drinking water home in buckets and use honeybuckets instead of toilets.
For most of the year, when the ground is frozen, residents haul their own honeybuckets and empty them into sewage ponds on the tundra a few hundred feet behind the school. The city provides a haul service, but few people in town pay bills and the local government is essentially broke, so service is sporadic.
People keep clean by taking steam baths driftwood-fired saunas that are a nighly ritual in many households. To give a baby a bath, you heat water in a tub over a wood stove or electric range. The school rounds up elementary school children for showers once a week.
Drinking water is drawn from two public wells one at the washeteria in a subdivision of newer houses, the other in the old town site.
It was in the old part of town, at the old well, that the water system went haywire this spring.
‘A LOT OF UNHAPPY PEOPLE’
Maria Green grew up in Hooper Bay, went to college and now is a fourth- grade teacher, one of the few Yup’ik teachers here. One recent evening, she got up from the sofa, where she sat with her 3-year-old son, and walked into the kitchen and got a glass out of the cupboard.
She’s lucky. She lives in a teacher apartment. She turned on the tap.
The water that came out was the color of stout beer.
The school has a separate well from the rest of the village, but like the old town well, a quarter-mile away, the water is heavily mineralized, producing brown water. This in itself isn’t a problem, although some residents say it’s so foul-looking that they can’t stand to drink it.
The brown water doesn’t taste bad, though. Some residents prefer it to the water from the the other, newer well in town, which some residents say has a salty taste apparently the result of sea water seeping in.
“A lot of these villages, we’ve got some problems here,” said Green, who is vice mayor of the village.
“There are a lot of unhappy people in Hooper Bay. The lagoon smells. It floods in springtime. You walk along the road and it smells. We have dumpsters to put honeybuckets in. They overflow and they splash when they haul ’em off to the lagoon. Kids play where it splashes. The kids always get impetigo, that plus diarrhea. . . . There are so many flies.”
Last winter, Green and Patrick Lake, a young villager and family man who works as a teacher aide, wrote a letter to Gov. Hickel and passed it around the village.
“The conditions we live in can be changed by having a water and sewer system in this village. We, the people of this village, would not take this for granted. A water and sewer system would prevent epidemics and spreading of disease throughout the village.”
One of those who signed the letter was Dominic Smith.
TAINTED WELL WATER
Smith’s death came during the busiest time of the year in the Yukon- Kuskokwim Delta right after seal and duck hunting and just before herring and salmon fishing.
According to residents, village health aides and a lengthy report by state epidemiologists and Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation officials who later visited the village, Smith died within hours of drinking tainted water.
Smith, a sergeant in Hooper Bay’s National Guard unit, lived with his wife, Janet, and their six children in one of dozens of small wooden houses crammed together on the little rise that overlooks the bay. Like everyone else in that part of town, the family got their water from the nearby central well. Installed in the early 1970s, it was one of the oldest watering points in rural Alaska, and had been due for an overhaul this summer.
While minerals tainted its color, residents didn’t mind the taste. Periodic tests found it free of bacteria and other contaminants. As in other village systems, chlorine, to kill bacteria, and fluoride were added by pump, with a village employee resupplying the chemicals. Fluoride is added in 141 water systems around Alaska, with its use advocated by federal and state health agencies that build the systems as a way to reduce tooth decay.
Smith woke up the morning of May 22 and had a glass of water, pumped from the well the previous day. Within minutes of drinking the water, he got sick to his stomach and vomited. He drank more water. Within a couple hours, according to his wife, he felt weak and needed to lie down. He continued to vomit. He drank more water.
That evening, Smith’s children were sent for more water from the well. Smith drank four more glasses of water. He complained his muscles felt weak.
The next morning, Smith’s wife awoke and found her husband dead.
Smith’s sister, who lives nearby, drank water from the same well. She fell ill and was flown to Y-K Regional Hospital in Bethel, where she recovered within a few days. At least two other villagers reported neurological symptoms: tingling hands and feet. About two dozen other villagers went to the clinic feeling queasy. Many more said later that they felt ill.
It didn’t take long to figure out the problem. Virtually everyone who had gotten sick had drunk from the old well. It was shut down. Tests of water in the well’s holding tank and in people’s homes showed fluoride levels much higher than the federal government’s safe-water standard of 4 parts per million. Water from one home measured at more than 150 ppm.
FIGURING OUT THE PROBLEM
What went wrong in Hooper Bay?
Mechanically, a pump broke. The mechanism that was supposed to lift water up the well and into the holding tank was working only intermittently, while at the same time, a separate device to inject fluoride into the water kept going at full speed. Water levels in the tank were low, but the fluoride kept flowing in as if it were full.
But there were other problems in Hooper Bay, according to the state’s investigation.
Three weeks before the poisoning, the village sent off a water sample to the regional health agency, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., and the test showed a level of fluoride five times what is recommended in drinking water by the federal government. Agency officials called the village and told the well operator to shut off the fluoride, according to the state report.
The fluoride, state investigators later concluded, apparently was not shut off until three weeks later, after people began getting sick.
Hooper Bay, like all villages, was supposed to submit monthly water samples for bacteria to the Department of Environmental Conservation, but hadn’t done so since 1990, according to DEC records. Chlorine and fluoride readings were taken more regularly and showed levels within safe ranges until early this year.
The village had been without a city manager for more than year. The water operator had little formal training.
Six weeks before the poisoning, DEC engineers doing work on the Hooper Bay well failed to notice the pump problems.
A lengthy report this summer by state epidemiologists outlined “multiple deficiencies that existed in design, operation, maintenance, training, communication, management and regulation of the water system.”
The malfunctioning well was rebuilt this summer.
Smith’s widow, Janet, filed a lawsuit last week against the regional health corporation seeking $3 million in damages, claiming the agency was negligent in not warning villagers of the poisoning threat earlier.
‘IT’S AN OUTRAGE’
“It’s easy to point at a place and say its dysfunctional,” said Gessner, the epidemiologist with the state Division of Public Health.
“But if you don’t have the money to hire someone who has much training to operate your system, and if you’re relying on someone who basically volunteers to do the work, it’s basically a situation of where people are doing the best with what they have.”
Roger Adams, principal of the Hooper Bay school, said: “Sometimes I have trouble understanding how, in 1992, you can have a community of nearly 1,000 people that doesn’t have something that’s considered perfectly normal anywhere else in the country.
“Think about it it’s hard to find a community anywhere today that doesn’t have running water. Out here, it’s common. It’s unusual to have it.
“When you think about it, to me, it’s an outrage. I mean, people aren’t out here on a camping trip. They live here. We’ve got 1,000 people in this town and we crap in a bucket. Really, there’s no damn excuse for it.
“If we can put a man on the moon, then jeez, we ought to be able to solve this.
Mysterious illness hits Hooper Bay
One dead, dozens sick
The Tundra Drums, Thursday, May 28, 1992
by Marc Cowart
One Hooper Bay man is dead, his sister is hospitalized and about 30 residents are sick in a mysterious outbreak of illness in the Bering Sea coastal community.
Doctors, epidemiologists, and public health specialists rushed to Hooper Bay on Wednesday to investigate the outbreak of illness, according to Ray Dronenburg, Field Officer for the Department of Environmental Conservation.
Dominic Smith, 41, died Saturday morning after becoming ill with vomiting, diarrhea, and tingling and numbness in his extremities on Friday, according to his wife Janet.
Smith’s sister Melba Joseph was transported to the Yukon-Kuskowkim Delta Regional Hospital critical care unit on Saturday with symptoms similar to Smith’s, according to Dr. Donn Kruse, medical director of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. Joseph was repored to be in good condition Tuesday, Kruse said.
Two other Hooper Bay residents reported having symptoms identical to Smith’s, however the did not require hospitalization, Kruse said.
About 30 people reported less serious “flu-like” symptoms, Kruse said.
The outbreak of disease has villagers very worried, according to Hooper Bay resident George Ford.
“People are scared, they don’t know what’s happening,” Ford said.
Hooper Bay officials shut down one of the two public wells in the village, the well where both Smith and Joseph drew their water in the main section of town, Ford said. Another well at the village washeteria remained open and some residents were drawing water at school, he said.
Dr. Kruse said the well water would be tested but by Wednesday there was still not enough information to determine the cause of Smith’s death or of the illness affecting others.
An autopsy was performed on Smith Tuesday, but autopsy results were not expected until Thursday, Kruse said.
Until the autopsy results are in, health officials don’t know if the illness was the cause of Smith’s death, Kruse said. “It could have been something like a heart attack or stroke, we won’t know until the results are in.”
Kruse said health officials were taking the illness outbreak very seriously. “We’re being very aggressive if people have symptoms. One person has died, we’re nervous about this.”
Hooper Bay illnesses may be tied to excess fluoride
The Tundra Drums, Thursday, June 4, 1992
by Marc Cowart
The death of a Hooper Bay man on May 23 and a flu-like illness which hit dozens of village residents may be linked to a faulty pump which put high concentrations of fluoride into the water of one of the communities two public wells, according to health officials.
An Anchorage doctor claimed fluoride is so poisonous it should not have been put in the village’s water in any amount in the first place.
Dominic Smith, 41, died after experiencing vomiting, diarrhea and numbness and tingling in his extremities.
Smith’s sister, Melba Joseph, also experienced similar symptoms and was hospitalized in the critical care facility at the Yukon Delta regional Hospital in Bethel.
Smith, Joseph, and about 30 other villagers who became ill with less serious flu-like symptoms all drank water from one of two public wells in the village.
State epidemiologist Dr. Michael Bellar said the illness experienced by the villagers and by Joseph were “consistent” with fluoride poisoning.
However, Bellar said he could not be sure fluoride poisoning caused Smith’s death until the final results of an autopsy were released. The autopsy results were expected sometime this week.
Bellar said extensive tests run on one Hooper Bay resident showed the person was ill “most likely from fluoride poisoning.”
Bellar said extreme symptoms, like those experienced by Joseph, required “very high dosages, (extreme symptoms) couldn’t occur without extremely high levels, hundreds of times the normal amount.”
Bellar said all of the villagers except Smith recovered and there were no further reports of illness once the well water was no longer being consumed.
Anchorage physician Dr. Robert Rowen, said fluoride is so toxic it should not be put in drinking water.
“There is no safe level of fluoride. It is one of the most toxic substances known. Natives are being poisoned by dumping this poisonous product into their water.”
Rowen pointed out sodium fluoride, the chemical used to fluoridated water, is the active ingredient in rat poison and some insect poisons.
Engineers from the Department of Environmental Conservation arrived in Hooper Bay last week to examine the suspect well. The engineers found a problem with the well pump and were able to duplicate the process which allowed large concentrations of fluoride into the water, according to department spokesperson Debby Bloom.
There are two pumps in the well, one to pump water and one to inject chlorine and fluoride into the water. The injection pump won’t come on unless the water pump switch is on, Bloom said.
However, engineers found the water pump was switching on but not delivering very much water. The injection pump injected chlorine and fluoride at levels used for normal water flow, leading to high concentrations of the two chemicals, Bloom said.
DEC engineers will be examining the water pump further this week to determine exactly how it failed, Bloom said.
The pump system in the Hooper Bay well is old and was scheduled to be replaced this summer. The well remains shut down and the new equipment will be installed before it goes back into operation, Bloom said.
Newer well systems like the system to be installed in Hooper Bay have an additional water flow sensor which prevents over-injection of chlorine and fluoride if water flow is reduced, Bloom said.
Villages having the older style well pump systems will be notified about the problem found in Hooper Bay, Bloom said.
Fluoride is added to drinking water because it helps prevent tooth decay, according to Dr. Bellar.
“It’s and overwhelming consensus (fluoride) is beneficial. Fluoride is added to many thousands of water supplies.”
State epidemiologist Dr. Brad Gessner said the effects of low levels of fluoride had been extensively studied.
Dr. Rowen disputed the beneficial effects of fluoride.
For everey study they have showing fluoride is good for teeth, there is another study showing it isn’t. There is no confirming evidence it reduces tooth decay.”
Rowen said fluoride is a cumulative poison which over time builds up in the body and can contribute to arthritis, heart disease, and cancer.
Villages have the option of using or refusing fluoride in their water supply. “If they’re smart, they would get (fluoride) out,” Rowen said.
Fluoride was discussed at a Lower Kuskokwim School District School Board meeing on Saturday.
School district engineer Mike Franks said the school district has never put fluoride in any village school water supply “just to avoid a similar situation.”
Bethel pump house operator Billy Stuart said the Bethel water supply has been fluoridated since about 1981. However, Stuart said he had misgivings about fluoridation.
“I didn’t want it in the first place.”
Officials still awaiting autopsy results in Hooper Bay fluoride incident
The Tundra Drums, Thursday, June 11, 1992
by Marc Cowart
The death of a Hooper Bay man last month and an illness experienced by several dozen villagers was probably the result of abnormally high levels of fluoride in the water, according to one state agency.
However, health officials are waiting for final autopsy results before definitely linking the death to fluoride.
Dominic Smith, 43, died May 23 after experiencing severe vomiting, diarrhea, and numbness and tingling of the extremities. Four other villagers experienced similar symptoms while about 30 villagers experienced less serious flu-like symptoms.
An investigation by the Department of Environmental Conservation revealed “too much fluoride was released into one of the two water sources that supply the small village in Western Alaska,” according to a department press release.
The department release also said the death and illnesses were “probably as a result of abnormally high levels of fluoride in the water.”
However, officials from the state Division of Epidemiology were still reluctant to blame Smith’s death on fluoride pending final autopsy results.
Epidemiologist Dr. Michael Bellar said the final autopsy results may not be in for another two weeks.
There are no laboratories in Alaska with the equipment to test human tissue samples for fluoride, so samples were sent to a laboratory near Philadelphia for analysis Bellar said.
Bellar said urine samples from about 40 Hooper Bay residents were also being tested.
The state office will issue an interim report on the Hooper Bay incident sometime this week. But a final report and official cause of Smith’s death will not be released until the autopsy and analysis are completed, Bellar said.
DEC has linked a faulty relay switch to the excess fluoride pumped into the Hooper Bay water system, but a final report on the cause of the fluoride mishap won’t be released until next week, according to Ray Dronenburg of the Bethel DEC office.
Report says fluoride killed 1, sickened 260 in Hooper Bay
The Tundra Drums, Thursday, July 2, 1992
by Marc Cowart
Fluoride poisoning has been established as the cause of death of a Hooper Bay man in May and was also the cause of an illness suffered by more than 260 villagers, a number nearly 10 times more than previously reported according to a state report.
The Hooper Bay illnesses represent the largest outbreak of fluoride poisoning ever reported, the study said.
The state Department of Health and Social Services issued the preliminary report on Tuesday which covers the investigation “following an outbreak of acute fluoride poisoning, which resulted in the death of a Hooper Bay resident in May.”
Hooper Bay resident Dominic Smith, 41, died May 23 after experiencing vomiting, diarrhea and tingling and numbness of the extremities.
Smith’s sister also experienced similar symptoms and was hospitalized the same day. She fully recovered.
More than 260 other Hooper Bay residents also became ill with flu-like symptoms. The original reports of the incident only listed about two dozen residents as having been affected.
Smith and all who became ill had one thing in common, they had all drunk water which had come from one of the villages two public watering points. The water from the watering point was later found to have high concentrations of fluoride.
Although the final pathology report and death certificate for Smith have not been completed, fluoride poisoning as the cause of death is “very, very likely,” according to epidemiologist Dr. Mike Bellar.
“The pathological diagnosis is not completed, but the preliminary findings pointed to one cause,” Bellar said.
That cause “is consistent with fluoride poisoning,” Bellar said.
Urine samples taken from villagers who became ill also showed “high levels of fluoride,” Bellar said.
The preliminary report on the incident states the poisonings occurred “because of a series of events over a period of several months ending in an outbreak of fluoride poisoning from a public water source.”
Those events were cause by multiple mistakes by several different agencies, according to epidemiologist Dr. Brad Gessner.
“What our epidemiological team found was the existence of multiple deficiencies in the design, maintenance, operation, regulation and management of the Hooper Bay townsite water system,” Gressner said.
“This outbreak resulted in the tragic death of one resident. It is even more tragic because the water system that failed was scheduled for replacement this summer. Had the new equipment been in place, this very unfortunate incident might not have occurred.”
The preliminary report also makes several recommendations to prevent such an incident from recurring. The recommendations include reviewing existing routine tests from public water systems to identify communities which have not submitted reports and a review of all village water systems to identify any which are not using “state of the art” water safety equipment.
Smith’s death is the first ever reported in the U.S. where ingesting water from a public water supply caused fatal fluoride poisoning, Bellar said.
YKHC sued over fluoride poisoning
The Tundra Drums, Thursday, September 10, 1992
by James McPherson
The wife of a Hooper Bay man who died last May of fluoride poisoning in the village is suing the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation for more than $3 million.
In a complaint filed in Bethel Superior Court last week, Janet Smith is charging that YKHC, which supervises the village’s water system, was negligent for failing to warn users of high levels of fluoride in the village’s water supply.
Dominic Smith, 41, died May 23 of fluoride poisoning after drinking water from the village’s public water supply a day earlier. His was the first fluoride-related death ever reported in the United States due to a municipal water accident. And, approximately 260 of the village’s 845 residents became ill from drinking the village’s water in what state health officials say is the largest outbreak of fluoride poisoning ever reported.
Smith and her attorneys, Myron Angstman of Bethel and Eric Sanders of Anchorage, are alleging that YKHC officials knew the village’s water system was dispensing high levels of fluoride for more than a year prior to the death of Dominic.
As a result of YKHC’s alleged negligence, Dominic Smith “experienced extreme pain and mental suffering in contemplation of his death” and his wife and four children “have been deprived of descendent’s love, comfort, support and society,” the complaint said.
YKHC officials could not be reached for comment.
According to a report by the Alaska Dept. of Health and Social Services, the fluoride poisoning occurred because of “multiple deficiencies that existed in design, operation, maintenance, training, communication, management, and regulation of the village townsite water system.”
Both state and federal agencies were involved in some way with the village’s water system. Angstman said those state and federal agencies may also become involved in the lawsuit. Additionally, he said several other community members who suffered fluoride poisoning may have begun making claims with attorneys, although no complaints have been filed yet in court.
Hooper Bay well shut down
The Tundra Drums, Thursday, December 31, 1992
by James McPherson
Hooper Bay has closed a water well that led to the fluoride-related death of one man and the illnesses of hundreds of others even though the state says a $75,000 overhaul has made the well safe.
The city council, after hearing community comment, voted to close the well to all uses except fire fighting. Residents told the city council they also want a new well built at a different location.
Dominic Smith, 41, died in May of fluoride poisoning from drinking the well’s water. His was the first fluoride-related death ever reported in the United States due to a municipal water accident.
Fluoride in the drinking water also made 260 of the village’s 845 residents ill. State officials said the incident was the largest outbreak of fluoride poisoning ever reported in the United States.
The Alaska Department of Health and Human Services said the poisoning occurred because of “multiple deficiencies that existed in design, operation, maintenance, training, communication, management and regulation of the village town site water system.”
State engineers then spent $75,000 rebuilding the well, removing the fluoridation system as villagers requested, said Steve Weaver, a design engineer with the state’s Village Safe Water program.
Weaver said the well’s water has always been safe, and that the illnesses and death occurred when too much fluoride was added when the water left the ground.
Ironically, the village’s primary water source now is at the local washeteria – and it is mechanically fluoridated. Most villagers, however, seem unaware of that.
Water at a third well, located at the village school, meets drinking water standards but is brown, Weaver said.
Many village residents do not use any of the established water sites. They collect rainwater and snow, and boil it before use, instead.
Weaver said studies by hydrologists show there may not be enough fresh water sources available in the village to build an entirely new well.
The newly refurbished well “has the best water quality, hands down, and it’s the best resource for quantity,” Weaver said.
Weaver said he has met several times with village leaders to explain the refurbished well is safe and contains no fluoridation. He plans more sessions but said convincing villagers to use the well could be difficult since Mayor Nile Smith is the father of the man who died from the fluoride poisoning.
Fluoride prompts restrictions at Anchorage bases
The Associated Press
Published: April 28th, 2010 11:21 AM
Last Modified: April 28th, 2010 11:21 AM
ELMENDORF AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska – Officials are telling personnel, residents and visitors to an air force base and adjacent Army post in Anchorage to not drink water from base sources.
Elmendorf Air Force Base officials say workers found elevated level of fluoride at the Fort Richardson Water Treatment Plant early Wednesday morning. The plant provides water to both Elmendorf and Fort Richardson.
Base officials say no one should drink water from the base supply while testing is being conducted.
Excess fluoride taints water at Anchorage military bases
POISONOUS: High levels can lead to stomach ailments and even death.
By ELIZABETH BLUEMINK
Published: April 29th, 2010 10:59 AM
Last Modified: April 29th, 2010 11:00 AM
Military officials said Wednesday they hope to restore clean drinking water to Elmendorf Air Force Base and Fort Richardson soon.
But as of Wednesday evening they were warning anyone who lives, works on or visits the two posts in Anchorage not to drink the water due to excess fluoride in the supply.
The water also should not be used to brush teeth and wash or cook food. Any ice cubes made since Tuesday should be thrown out, according to the Fort Richardson Water Treatment Plant. The fluoride cannot be boiled out of the water, according to Fort Richardson medical staff.
The fluoride problem was discovered at about 3:30 a.m. Wednesday at the plant but it is possible that it began as early as Tuesday afternoon, said Bob Zacharski, site manager for Doyon Utilities, a Native corporation subsidiary that runs the Fort Richardson plant, which supplies water to Fort Richardson and Elmendorf.
He and Fort Richardson officials said the fluoride levels in the utility’s drinking water are tested daily at noon and were safe as of Tuesday’s test.
Early Wednesday, a plant worker adding fluoride to a device that injects it into the water grew suspicious that the system had malfunctioned and was demanding too much fluoride.
Emergency testing determined that the level of fluoride exceeded the state’s safety threshold. The utility then notified the bases and began frequent testing of the water and flushing it out of the drinking-water system.
The bases started notifying workers and their families early Wednesday morning about the fluoride problem via phone calls and notices posted in buildings. The bases provided alternate water at dining halls, schools and the hospital.
Some testing by the utility showed that its water contained more than double the amount of fluoride considered safe for drinking. The safety threshold for fluoride in water is 4 parts per million but the utility’s water contained as much as 11 parts per million, he said.
It’s unlikely, however, that 11 parts per million of fluoride would cause anyone to suffer symptoms associated with fluoride poisoning, said Dr. Paul Friedrichs, commander at the Elmendorf hospital.
Those symptoms can include an upset stomach, vomiting and diarrhea.
One of the worst fluoride poisonings in U.S. history happened in Hooper Bay in 1992, when one man died and more than 200 were sickened. Tests showed more than 40 times the safe amount of fluoride in the village drinking water supply.
Fluoride is added to the water at drinking-water plants throughout the United States, including the one at Fort Richardson, to prevent tooth decay. But fluoride levels have to be monitored carefully because chronic ingestion of fluoride is a proven cause of tooth enamel damage in children.
Elmendorf health suggestions
Do not drink tap water or use it to cook or brush teeth until further notice.
It is OK to use tap water to wash hands, clean food-preparation areas (dry them before using), do laundry and use the dishwasher. Dishes should be dried off before using them.
It is safe to use ice made before 4 p.m. Tuesday and to eat fruit or vegetables washed and dried since then. Any food washed under tap water after 4 p.m. Tuesday should be thrown away.
If you show any of the symptoms of fluoride poisoning (nausea, stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhea), contact your primary care doctor. Go to the emergency room if symptoms are severe (uncontrolled vomiting and diarrhea).
For questions about water safety at the two bases, call 552-3985 or 552-3965. For questions about food safety in relation to fluoride, call 551-4000. Contact a primary-care doctor for personal health queries.
Water at local military bases declared safe to drink
FLUSH PIPES: Officials say to run all taps for 15 minutes before use
By ELIZABETH BLUEMINK
Published: 04/30/10 1:39 pm | Updated: 04/30/10 1:39 pm
Defense officials announced Thursday evening that it is safe to drink tap water at Fort Richardson and Elmendorf Air Force Base.
For about two days, the water supply for the two bases was contaminated with excessive amounts of fluoride.
Starting Wednesday morning, base officials warned people who live and work at the two installations against drinking, brushing their teeth or cooking with the tap water.
In a press release issued at 5 p.m. Thursday, Elmendorf officials said people at home at both facilities should turn on all of their hot and cold water taps and allow them to run for 15 minutes to flush out any old water that remains in the pipes.
The faulty equipment that caused the fluoride contamination has been removed from service, according to the Elmendorf release.
Fort Richardson Water Treatment Plant workers discovered early Wednesday morning that the level of fluoride in the water exceeded the state’s safety threshold. That threshold for fluoride is 4 parts per million but the water contained as much as 11 parts per million, a utility official said.
The water is now testing below 2 parts per million, defense officials said Thursday evening.
High Fluoride levels temporarily shut down Old Harbor water system
Kodiak Daily Mirror, Thursday, May 20, 1993
by Neli Waage
Old Harbor residents could not use water from their city supply for several hours Wednesday after a routine sampling showed high levels of fluoride.
A Public Health Service (PHS) sample of water taken May 10 showed a fluoride level 20 times higher than normal, Bruce Erickson, DEC environmental manager, said.
“Those levels are of extreme concern to us,” Erickson said. He said the department’s main concern is taking steps to prevent such high levels from happening again.
Levels in the 20s can cause illness and could indicate even higher levels in the system, Erickson said.
A Hooper Bay man died after drinking water with high fluoride levels last year.
Bill Rieth, environmental engineer with the DEC in Kodiak, said that by Wednesday afternoon, tests showed safe levels of fluoride in the water then in the system.
Reith and a PHS official were dispatched to the village Wednesday morning to investigate after the high levels were found.
The emergency response was activated by the DEC after the report that levels of 22 to 24 parts per million of fluoride had been found.
Officials warned that the more water with elevated fluoride a person drinks, the worse the danger becomes. Boiling water does not help and, in fact, may concentrate the fluoride even further. A normal fluoridation level is 1.1 parts per million.
Old Harbor city clerk Wanda Price said most residents were notified by phone after the warning was received by the city. A warning was also aired by KMXT public radio.
Rieth said investigation showed the fluoridator appeared to be operating normally. However, it was unplugged from the system until authorities discover what caused the problem.
Daily sampling is required. However, Erickson said, the testing kit being used by the operator was missing parts and not operating properly. Therefore the high fluoride levels earlier this month were not discovered until the sample sent to the PHA lab was processed.
No illness was reported in Old Harbor in connection with the high fluoride levels, Erickson said.
Toxic Waste Becomes Product for Two Bits
The Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman
By Valerie Meehan
WASILLA – One hundred pounds of slightly soggy fluoride were sold to the city of Palmer this week by the city of Wasilla. The price? 25 cents.
Wasilla originally wanted to give away the fluoride, since it is not putting it in its water anymore. But a state official told the city if the chemical was not sold, it could be classified as a hazardous waste by the federal government. To forestall that possible complication, city officials charged Palmer a quarter. The chemical was transported to its new home Thursday.
Department of Environmental Conservation field officer Joe LeBeau said Thursday that according to federal regulations: “If Wasilla gives it away and then Palmer doesn’t use it it’s a hazardous waste.”
“If they sell it, it’s a product. If they give it away, it’s a hazardous waste,” LeBeau said. Wasilla city officials stopped fluoridating city water Wednesday, following a 6-1 city council decision Tuesday Night. City Councilwoman Pat Hjellen was the dissenting vote.
In an advisory ballot Oct. 2, Wasilla voters vetoed fluoridation 261-250. Also at Tuesday’s meeting, the council voted to put the issue of fluoridation before the voters next October.
*From the Fluoride Free Fairbanks Web Archive