It’s not what’s visible during the water fluoridation process that should be a concern, it’s what the public doesn’t see that should give them pause for thought, says a well-known water expert.
Peter Van Caulart was part of a tour of the William Street pumping station in Waterloo recently organized by city Coun. Angela Vieth. The tour included Robert Fleming from Waterloo Watch, officials from the Region of Waterloo’s water department and the Waterloo Chronicle.
Van Caulart does environmental training for the province’s water and waste water operators and has been busy implementing updated procedures since more stringent standards have been put in place as a result of the Walkerton water tragedy.
He was invited to inspect the region’s water supply facility by Vieth and offer his insight into how fluoride is applied to the City of Waterloo’s drinking water.
In the pump room of the William Street well house there are two containers that feed into the local drinking water, one containing hydrofluorisilicic acid and the other containing chlorine on the opposite sides of the room.
Both chemicals are contained in double-walled containers to ensure that they never come into contact with each other. Combined they form deadly chlorine gas, so there are all kinds of precautions to make sure that never happens.
“They are well labelled,” said Van Caulart. “And you’ll see that the outer tank is actually the spill containment for the inner tank.”
With those safety redundancies in place there is also remote monitoring of the site, and there is no way anyone can dump something into the water supply allaying fears of intentional water contamination.
“It’s carried out as it should be as per industry standard,” said Van Caulart. “It’s pretty benign.
“That’s what most people don’t understand about water treatment — it’s boring. When you go through and look at the individual processes you don’t see anything.”
But there are also things his trained eyes see that the average layperson wouldn’t notice. Like the etching of the glass within the pump house, a sign that flourine gas is being produced. “That was not a frosted window,” said Van Caulart.
Or the telltale sign of corrosion of some of the brass fittings that also show contact with fluoride. Van Caulart said fluoride is one of the most corrosive elements in nature even when not combined with acid. It’s also very reactive with brass.
“You’ll see a white fuzz on most of the blue surfaces, on the black surfaces around the gages and on the valve stem,” said Van Caulart. “Those are accelerated corrosion products as a result of being exposed to small amounts of hydrofluorisilicic acid.”
There also are fumes in the facility that can cause some mild discomfort to individuals, as Vieth found out. She had to step out of the room for a second when she experienced bit of irritation in the back of her throat. “I started to feel ill,” she said.
She thought it was the chlorine that caused the discomfort, admitting a sensitivity to it, but Van Caulart said it was actually the fluorine gas in the air. He said chlorine would have smelled like Javex.
“And that’s after the building had been open and ventilated,” said Van Caulart. “If it starts to tickle where your nasal passages meet the back of your throat that’s fluoride.”
The other thing that was missing on the tour was a demonstration on how fluoride is transported. Regional officials said it is transported by tanker truck and delivered by a hose. That truck has to be rubber lined, said Van Caulart, as hydrofluorisilicic acid would eat through steel or even glass.
And the tanker truck operator has to take extreme precautions to make sure none of it would get on him. Van Caulart talked about cases of accidental contact with hydrofluorisilicic acid that turned fatal.
“They would have to wear chemical aprons, chemical shields, gauntlet-style gloves, full rain gear and high-rubber boots,” he said. “The idea is that if a splash occurs it’s not going on you, and you can hose a person down quite easily if it does occur.”
During the tour Fleming found it interesting how the material safety data sheet outlining the properties of hydrofluorisilicic acid has changed over the years. He found sheets from 1972 and 1980 that talked little of the potential health effects. They were much different from the latest material safety data sheet he received from the region.
In addition to its corrosive effects, chronic exposure can weaken and damage the bone structure, cause fluorosis, cause abnormal bone density, cause benign bony growth and contribute to kidney damage. It may also lead to heart, asthma, nerve, intestinal and rheumatism problems.
“This is wonderfully useful because we’ve been talking about the problem with bones,” said Fleming. “It’s remarkable that we’re just seeing this now. When you compare it to 1972 and 1980 we’ve come a long way since the public took their last vote.”
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NOTE FROM FAN: See these Waterloo Chronicle articles
– Interview with Robert Fleming: Welcome to state of ‘Fluorid-a’ (on hydrofluorisilicic acid)
– Guest Column by Robert Fleming: Water bottle ban just a cover