Potentially dangerous chemical builds up in airport water

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Buzz up!

The economic downturn at Pittsburgh International Airport has created another adverse consequence: a buildup of potentially dangerous chemicals in the facility's drinking water.
Airport and health officials said Friday the airport's water supply over the past year has exceeded legal levels for total trihalomethanes, or THMs, a by-product of chlorine or other chemicals used to disinfect water.

Because of the dramatic slump in passenger traffic at the Findlay-based airport in recent years, water sits unused in pipes, allowing the compound to accumulate, they said.

"The airport was originally designed for a lot more people than they're getting now," said Tom Forgrave, spokesman for the Allegheny County Health Department. "At first there were 16,000 badged employees; now there are only 8,000. ... The water's been allowed to run stagnant."

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Airport spokeswoman JoAnn Jenny said a July 2 test showed the water system exceeded federally mandated levels for total THMs by 0.001 milligrams per liter of water. The federal government limits the maximum amount to 0.080 milligrams per liter, or 80 parts per billion.
Jenny concurred that the downturn in business was a key factor in the THM buildup. The airport, built in 1992 to handle 30 million passengers annually, at its peak in early 2001 reported 21 million passengers. The post-9/11 struggles of airline companies, more recent runups in fuel prices and the bankruptcies of once-dominant US Airways have diminished annual passenger traffic to fewer than 10 million.

Airport employees and tenants were notified by e-mail about the water problem Wednesday, Jenny said, after required communication with the health department.

Extended exposure to excess THM can lead to ailments of the liver, kidneys or central nervous system and might increase cancer risks. Forgrave and Jenny said engineers are flushing the facility's pipes to dislodge the compound and might install extra fireplugs for preventative flushing. The water will be tested again in about two weeks.

Jenny said airline passengers never were at risk, because the compound is only problematic with repeated exposure over many years. Because the amount of excess THM was minute, and the lines are being flushed, Jenny said that the water is safe for airport tenants and employees to drink, and that she herself is doing so.

But not everyone at the airport endorses its tap water.

Leory Netting, a member of the organizing committee of the American Federation of Government Employees, said a similar incident occurred about three years ago.

"It tasted bad, it smelled bad," said Netting, a six-year Transportation Security Administration officer who said he was speaking as a union member and not on behalf of the TSA. "It's always been not really the best-tasting water."

At that time, Netting said, the airport's then-top TSA official brought in bottled water for his staff. That would be more welcome now, since even TSA workers are not permitted to bring bottled water beyond the security checkpoint.

Forgrave said some airport tenants were providing their staffs with bottled water. A TSA spokeswoman said such a move is being considered.

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