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State investigating complaints into Ponder's water supply

Update 11 a.m.: The first chart below has been corrected to show how frequently dibromochloromethane, a by-product of disinfectant, has been found in public water systems nationwide. 

Some Ponder residents say their skin burns and itches after exposure to their tap water, and a Denton Record-Chronicle investigation discovered that state environmental regulators found  small quantities of chemical solvents in  the public water supply last summer.

Residents became more vocal about their complaints last month, calling the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and descending on a Ponder Town Council meeting to ask for help. Residents say the tap water sometimes smells like chlorine or bleach, and other times like vinegar or sulfur. They share pictures of their rashes on a special Facebook group, The Water Fixers. Some of the photos depict red, bumpy rashes on young children and babies.

Ponder resident Meghan Avigliano said she first noticed the burning, itching rash about six months ago. She said she was one of at least two people who called state environmental officials to ask for help. 

"My skin is always a little bit itchy, but after a shower, or washing my hands, it's excruciating," Avigliano said. 

The Record-Chronicle spoke to two other Ponder residents who expressed fears about their water quality, but they declined to be interviewed or identified. The newspaper also filed a request under Texas open government laws and obtained records about last summer's investigation.

TCEQ officials confirmed the agency currently is investigating the complaints. Ponder’s public works manager, Gary Morris, declined to comment on the complaints.

“I’ve been advised not to interact on this until we’ve done some more investigation,” Morris said.

Morris said more information likely would become available at the next Town Council meeting Monday, March 12. 

The town of Ponder, about 12 miles southwest of Denton,  operates a public water supply for about 2,880 people that uses well water from the Trinity Aquifer.

State water sampling results from June 2017 show several types of solvents, including acetone, methyl isobutyl ketone, methyl ethyl ketone and tetrahydrofuran, in Ponder’s water. Previous samples from April 2017 found one of the solvents. Samples from 2016 did not detect these solvents.

The TCEQ, the state agency charged with protecting the environment, has not speculated about the source of the solvents and how they got into the aquifer. And Morris, the Ponder official, also declined to answer questions about where the solvents might have come from. 

Some of the solvents have been found in other public water supplies around the country, according to a recent analysis by the Environmental Working Group. After poisonous lead was found in Flint, Michigan's water supply in 2014, the nationwide tax-exempt organization compiled five years of public data in a user-friendly website to help consumers better understand what has been found in their drinking water.

State and federal law do not limit the amount of solvents in drinking water. The federal government has established legal limits for certain compounds, such as lead, in a public water supply. But hundreds of other compounds have no such limits, including those solvents detected in Ponder’s water supply.  

Acetone, for example, has been found in the public water supplies for 6.4 million people nationwide, about 5.3 million of them in Texas. Acetone can have negative effects on the central nervous system.

The two ketones are also found in public water systems, but less commonly so. Methyl isobutyl ketone has been detected in the water supplies for about 3.3 million people nationwide, about 3.1 million of them in Texas. The chemical is known to affect the kidneys. Methyl ethyl ketone has been found in water systems for about 908,000 people in the U.S., and about 38,000 in Texas. It is known to irritate the eyes and lungs.

Tetrahydrofuran has been detected in systems serving 169,000 people nationwide, nearly all in Texas. The chemical has been associated with changes in fetal growth and development, according to some medical studies.

TCEQ spokesman Brian McGovern said the investigation is ongoing. 

"Staff were back out at this system as recently as [Thursday]," McGovern wrote in an email. "TCEQ will draft a report at the conclusion of our investigation documenting our findings."

In the Know

The Environmental Working Group's Tap Water Database helps consumers know what's in their drinking water and how it compares to public water supplies elsewhere in the country. Below is list of certain chemicals recently found in Ponder's water supply and how they compare to others around the country. 

Chemicals found in Ponder water Found in other states Affected  water systems in U.S. U.S. population served by affected water systems
Dibromochloromethane* 48 18,310 199,000,000
Acetone 11 228 6,400,000
Methyl isobutyl ketone 7 157 3,300,000
Methyl ethyl ketone 5 36 908,000
Tetrahydrofuran 4 56 169,000

*A byproduct of chlorination from reaction with other compounds in the water.

Meghan Avigliano stands in front of a water tower near a playground in her neighborhood in Ponder.

Avigliano states the tap water she uses to wash her hands is causing her skin to break out in rashes.  Residents in a Denton County neighborhood say their tap water is causing itchy, burning rashes as well.DRC
Meghan Avigliano stands in front of a water tower near a playground in her neighborhood in Ponder. Avigliano states the tap water she uses to wash her hands is causing her skin to break out in rashes. Residents in a Denton County neighborhood say their tap water is causing itchy, burning rashes as well.

A state investigator came out Feb. 1 and took samples to check chlorine levels in the distribution system, according to TCEQ records obtained by the Record-Chronicle.

Public water suppliers add a small amount of chlorine to water to keep harmful bacteria from growing in the water as it moves from system to tap.

Avigliano said she offered a state investigator photos of the rashes she, her husband and her two children experienced,  but she said the investigator refused to take them. 

In an email, McGovern clarified. 

"A complainant asked the TCEQ investigator during a telephone call if the investigator wanted photographs of the rash they had," McGovern wrote. "The investigator stated that they did not think the photographs were necessary at this time as they were still conducting their investigation of the water at the Town of Ponder. However, if the complainant wanted to submit the photographs, they had the investigator's contact information to do so." 

Megan Davidson, the TCEQ investigator, found no residual chlorine in the system, which is a bad thing because chlorine is needed to kill bacteria.

Davidson contacted the town of Ponder to advise officials of the findings and the need for another check, TCEQ documents show. She returned a week later and found sufficient chlorine in the system. In addition, follow-up tests by TCEQ found no E. coli or coliform bacteria in the system.

TCEQ decided not to fine the town because it had taken corrective steps to make sure there was enough chlorine in the system. But Davidson also recommended Ponder flush the water system in one neighborhood and find an additional monitoring site for future tests.

Davidson did not test the water inside Avigliano's home, even though Avigliano offered her a sample. 

McGovern said investigators aren't equipped with home test kits, but the investigator did provide information on certified labs that could provide testing for homeowners. 

Avigliano said she is watching developments closely. She took her 3-year-old daughter to her well-child check this week and discussed her concerns with the pediatrician.

Her daughter complains about how her skin feels after she takes a bath, Avigliano said. Her pediatrician, Dr. Jannette Bushard, wrote an open letter about the rash on Feb. 28, saying that the possible source deserved investigation.

"The history of cause and effect of rash after contact with the home's water system should be investigated," Bushard wrote.

Avigliano said she has heard from at least 20 neighbors with similar skin problems, but she’s unsure how widespread the effects have been.

“I’m just trying to get the word out,” Avigliano said.

She also noted similar complaints about water systems in Wise County two years ago that were widely reported in the media. 

McGovern said those investigations, too, are ongoing. 

Avigliano is taking another cue from her daughter, she added, in trying to get the problem fixed.

“She tells me, ‘Mommy, can you fix the water? It’s so itchy,’” Avigliano said.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881.

By the Numbers

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality regularly publishes results of water sample testing for public water supplies on its Drinking Water Watch website. Here are certain results for recent water samples from the town of Ponder's public water supply. (All measurements are in micrograms per liter. A "less than" sign indicates levels too low to be detected.)

Chemical May 2016 April 2017 June 2017
Dibromochloromethane* 4.29 1.12 2.15
Acetone < < 15.7
Methyl isobutyl ketone < < 0.518
Methyl ethyl ketone < 0.58 2.61
Tetrahydrofuran < < 0.825

*A byproduct of chlorination from reaction with other compounds in the water.

FEATURED PHOTO: Meghan Avigliano washes her hands in her kitchen at her home in Ponder. Avigliano states the tap water at her home is causing her skin to break out in rashes. Other residents in a Ponder neighborhood say their tap water is causing itchy, burning rashes as well. Jeff Woo/DRC