A North Hamilton County water treatment plant is shut down today as its operator, Darrell Burchard, replaces a cracked pipe in the pump room.
Mr. Burchard had suspected another cause for the leak: Fluoride, a caustic agent put into the water of North West Utility district in north of Chattanooga, Tenn.
By David Tulis
But no, this time it wasn’t that perilous additive, but a defect in the pipe.
Still, Mr. Burchard says, the extruded pipe shows fluoride damage.
Harm to pipes and fixtures is a routine problem for the district’s two plants — and people who run the plants have known the problem comes from fluoride.
The district is debating whether to ditch hydrofluorosilicic acid, an industrial waste product that for generations has been put into drinking water systems because it affects, among other things, bone growth and helps toughen tooth enamel.
But persistent concerns about neurological damage from the acid and persistent costs for a product not required by law is bringing fresh interest in its indiscriminate use. The district has imposed on all its customers 0.9 parts per million of fluoride, and is reducing that level to 0.7 ppm on advice of the U.S. environmental protection agency.
The district may join several others in Tennessee that have ditched fluoride, which in the U.S. began its use as a mass medical delivery system in 1945. The Tennessee board votes July 19 on a proposal by its general manager, David Collett.
Corruption of pipes
The plant has a happy circumstance as a source of water for drinking and bathing. It draws water from three wells whose heads are 20 feet or less above the water level underground. “It’s good water,” Mr. Burchard says. “We don’t have to do a whole lot to it to treat it.”
That water is clean and healthy, Mr. Burchard says. But following the lethargy of public policy and custom, it injects fluoride for all comers — families, shopkeepers, church pantries, schools, offices, restaurants, farmers, gas stations, clinics, business people, factories. Infants get the same dosage as adults. It’s no longer the earth’s water: it’s the plant’s altered water.
One additive is chlorine. Outside are two tanks for chlorine is injected into the water. Chlorine and water are required to sit in two tanks for at least an hour before the water goes out to customers. By the time water gets to these two “clear wells,” as they’re called, it has been injected with fluoride.
“There is no benefit to the utility” in fluoride, Mr. Burchard says. “There is some benefit for the customer. From the utility aspect of it, it only costs money from the repairs from the damage that it causes. *** It’s ate holes in the concrete here at the plant. It’s ate holes in a cast-iron six inch line.”
Liquid fluoride is dispensed from a large tank which is filled by the fluoride chemical provider. The concrete floor of the plant near the tank is pitted. One fluoride leak ate a 10-inch deep hole in the floor, one that has been repaired.
Mr. Burchard, 57, has worked more than three decades at the plant in Sale Creek. He says that he suffers a thyroid condition which his literature review suggests comes from exposure to fluoride. Mr. Burchard says his injury is not a workers’ comp claim, since he knows about the danger but remains an employee of the district.
Mr. Burchard, who is married and has five children ages 21 to 36, takes medication for the condition.
Fluoride costs more than F$20,000 a year to put into the water, Mr. Collett told the board at a recent meeting. More than half of that expense is for repairs caused by corrosion.
A third element is injected in the water, Mr. Burchard says. It’s a corrosion inhibitor, a blended phosphate that coats pipes and keeps lead from older pipes from leaching out into the water.