City water tests exceed EPA level for contaminant

Columbus City Utilities is testing water samples from the city’s water plant and wells after an environmental group said the city’s water had a higher-than-recommended level of 1,4 dioxane in its drinking water four years ago.

The man-made chemical, commonly used in industrial applications as a solvent or a cleaner, tested at .48 parts per billion in Columbus’ water system in 2013, when the city sent its water to be tested for the contaminant through a special federal program, said Keith Reeves, utilities director.

Columbus participates in a program through the federal Environmental Protection Agency testing for unregulated water contaminants every five years, Reeves said. The EPA’s recommended level for 1,4 dioxane is a maximum of .35 parts per billion, Reeves said.

Environmental Working Group, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that works on environmental issues, released information Wednesday saying that more than a million pounds of 1,4 dioxane was produced in the United States, or imported here in 2015, and 675,000 pounds of the substance has been released into the environment nationwide.

The group says the chemical also is a common impurity in cosmetics and household cleaning products, as the byproduct of a process called ethoxylation. Products in which 1,4 dioxane contamination is found include shampoos, foaming soaps, bubble baths, lotions and laundry soaps. But the Food and Drug Administration does not require it to be listed on product labels, according to the group.

For example, dioxane levels of 85 parts per million are found in children’s shampoo, an exponentially higher level than found in the drinking water through the tests, a city news release states.

Columbus is one of several Indiana cities that tested above the .35 parts per billion EPA limit, Mayor Jim Lienhoop said. According to the environmental group’s map, cities testing above the limit in addition to Columbus included LaPorte and Evansville.

However, many Indiana cities did test positive for having the substance in their water, although under the .35 parts per billion level, including a large cluster around Indianapolis, the environmental group’s website shows.

Because the chemical is man-made, it would be detected in the groundwater, and is not related to the issue Columbus utilities recently had with a well near the fairgrounds that tested positive for e coli bacteria, which led to a boil order for the city and taking the well offline for repairs.

Since the early 1950s, Columbus has obtained all its public drinking water from groundwater resources. This groundwater is obtained using 22 gravel-packed wells and two filtration plants, according to the city utilities annual report.

Water samples have been collected from the city’s wells and filtration plants and have been sent to a state lab for testing for 1,4 dioxane, but it is unknown how long the testing will take, Reeves said. The utility is not required to routinely test for 1,4 dioxane, Reeves said, and tested for it four years ago because it was on the list the EPA sent out as part of its program.

The city has 15 to 20 wells in its southern well field and city utilities officials will attempt to determine if the 1,4 dioxane contamination is isolated to a certain well, or well area, and make adjustments from there, Reeves said.

If the city is unable to isolate where the groundwater may be contaminated with the chemical, utilities officials will need to investigate treatment options for removing the chemical from the water at the plant, which could be difficult, Reeves said.

Reeves said typical household filters probably do not have the capacity to remove the dioxane chemical from drinking water.

EPA officials said water at the .35 parts per billion level of 1,4 dioxane would cause one cancer case in a lifetime, meaning a .48 per billion reading represented a slighter higher risk. Environmental Working Group’s news release said the chemical can lead to cancer, liver or kidney damage, lung irritation and eye and skin irritation.

The chemical is not a regulated contaminant for drinking water under federal or Indiana drinking water regulations, Reeves said.

Columbus’ water complies with all current standards in place for drinking water, Reeves said. The utility serves about 35,575 customers in Columbus and 8,445 for the Southwestern Bartholomew Water Co., which obtains its water from Columbus.

The city utilities were currently preparing for the next round of testing of the EPA’s five-year rotation of unregulated contaminants, and Reeves said it is unknown whether 1,4 dioxane would be on the tests for 2018.

Resources on drinking water quality

For more information about the Environmental Working Group’s report on Columbus’ drinking water, visit

For more information about Columbus drinking water, including the 2017 water quality report, visit

Author photo
Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at or (812) 379-5631.