On Thursday, people in Auburn received formal notices in the mail from the Auburn Water District warning them about a violation of drinking water standards.

The letter, crafted by the Environmental Protection Agency, was technical. Too technical.

“For haloacetic acids, EPA has established a maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 60 parts per billion.” In Auburn, the MCL was found to be 65 parts per billion.


The average customer doesn’t know what haloacetic acids are, what maximum contaminant levels are or how the district controls disinfection by-products. However, they know what cancer is.

The letter, under federal public notification rules, warned customers that people who drink water “containing haloacetic acids in excess of the MCL over many years may have an increased risk of getting cancer.”

Nothing about that sentence means anything until you get to the word “cancer.”

The letter, which was written Jan. 22, then approved by the district, approved by the state, forwarded to the printer and then mailed out to customers, contained a warning that was three weeks old by the time customers opened their mail. That, coupled with the cancer threat, resulted in a rush of phone calls to the water district Friday and widespread concern among users.

The fear could have been contained.

While the EPA may require certain language in these violation notification letters, perhaps it should have been included in fine print with the body of the letter written by the district in easier-to-understand language.

What customers really needed to know is that disinfection by-products, which raise MCL – maximum contaminant level – is what is created when the district’s chlorination system is combined with organic matter. While the district didn’t have any spikes in chlorine, there was a spike in organic matter in the water which created greater-than-normal by-products.

According to Mary Jane Dillingham, the “increased risk of cancer” is 1 in 10,000 people, assuming tap water consumption of 8.5 cups per day for a 154 pound adult over a lifetime. That’s a lot of water over an enormous amount of time, which, had customers known the definition of “increased risk of cancer,” it would have been clear this was not an immediate threat to life.

What happened in Auburn was a 2002 fourth-quarter MCL level above federal standards. The high level was found during routine testing at the end of the year and the level was determined, not based on fourth-quarter levels, but on the entire year.

Dillingham assures customers that if the threat had been acute, the district would have issued a more immediate warning, perhaps even knocked on customers’ doors.

The district intends to re-test next week and report to its trustees on Wednesday.

The elevated contamination levels are not immediately life threatening. Auburn customers needed to know that by the time they finished reading the letter. And, yet, cancer is what anyone reading the letter stopped on and the rest of the message was lost.

The Auburn Water District can obey its obligation to the EPA by using federal language, but it has an obligation to its customers to better explain exactly what threat they face.

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