Can Water Filters Remove Ethylene Dibromide? Kirtland Fuel Spill Update
The half-century old ethylene dibromide (EDB) fuel spill is continuing to seep into the ground, and it has yet to show up in groundwater supplies of Albuquerque drinking water. This is giving the Air Force, water and environmental experts a chance to prevent a catastrophe.
While EDB contamination may still be years away in Albuquerque, this doesn’t equate to complacency. Can we do anything to filter ethylene dibromide out of home water supplies where ever the risk may be?
In a recent PBS Newshour piece on the Kirtland Air Force Base jet fuel spill, the following exchange took place between special correspondent Kathleen McCleery and Tom Blaine, who is New Mexico’s Director, Environmental Health Division.
Mr. Blaine was discussing the process of a municipality removing EDB from municipality drinking water:
TOM BLAINE: You drop the water down through a column in a tube, and you blow air past it. And then you pass that water through that charcoal bed, which removes the rest of the EDB from the groundwater, from the drinking water.
KATHLEEN MCCLEERY: This is not so different from what I might do to filter my water at home?
TOM BLAINE: Oh, absolutely. You have a Brita filter on your tap, same thing. It’s an activated, granulated charcoal.
Of course the burning question for those at risk – or any of us drinking municipality water – is whether such an activated, granulated charcoal filter will in fact remove EDB from the drinking water.
What is the Kirtland Air Force Base Spill About?
This is the largest EDB fuel spill in U.S. history, estimated a few years ago at 24 million gallons, and now re-estimated to be 6 million gallons of jet fuel.
Since the 1950s, Kirtland AFB’s jet fuel was offloaded from railcars through underground pipes into fuel tanks. The pipes had holes in them, and this led to the leakage of fuel into the ground.
And because ground is porous, the plume of jet fuel has been steadily heading for the groundwater basin that sits below and around the base – the basin that feeds the Albuquerque water supply.
Ethylene dibromide (EDB) is a toxin that has been shown to cause liver disease, damage sperm production, create kidney problems and cause cancer.
As Dave McCoy of Citizen Action New Mexico put it:
“It’s toxic if it touches your skin. It’s toxic if you breathe it. You’re going to breathe it, you’re going to get it on your skin if you’re taking a shower with this stuff. If you’re drinking it, it’s toxic that way.”
Confirming this, in a study from the India’s Gwalior Hospital, case studies were reviewed from 64 patients admitted to the hospital with EDB poisonings. The research found that of the 64 patients, nearly 60% died of EDB poisoning within five days.
The researchers said the patients presented with heart palpitation, sleepiness, diarrhea, and oliguria (low urine). Liver and kidney damage, together with heart problems, nausea and vomiting were typical symptoms.
How much EDB will kill you?
The case studies allowed the researchers to calculate that a dose of 1.5 milliliters of EDB is fatal. About the only effective treatment known for EDB poisoning is therapeutic plasma exchange – where blood is transfused in as old blood is removed.
But that is still a shot in the dark. A study of 47 patients receiving EDB treatment resulted in a 39 patient survival rate – nearly 83%.
Will a water filter successfully clear out EDB from drinking water?
Yes and no. Many do, but their filter element will quickly wear out. A close inspection of the filter’s makeup and specifications will reveal whether or not the filter will be able to withstand the incoming EDB for long.
Certainly if a simple pass-through filter would remove EDB from municipal water such a fuel leak wouldn’t be a problem. The problem, however, lies in the amount of active filter element is available to screen out the EDB.
Even if a filter may be rated to be able to remove EDB by say, 99.9%, the filter also has to be resilient enough to withstand the amount of water coming in to filter. When a filter becomes loaded up with contaminant it has to be either changed or cleaned.
Thus a filter supplier needs to special how many gallons of water that filter will remove contaminants at the specifications shown.
While most activated and multi-stage filters have to be replaced, some ceramic filters can be reused after washing – though at some point replaced too.
While activated carbon filters and ceramic filters have dominated the market over the past few years, the technology has been evolving, and new multi-stage filters are available that will screen out 99.9% of EDB with decent durability.
Before buying a water filter, request a lab test of the filter’s ability to screen out toxins – this should come with the specific chemicals. If the manufacturer doesn’t supply this, look elsewhere. EDB should be included on the list if that filter does screen out EDB.
Singh N, Jatav OP, Gupta RK, Tailor MK, Jain R. Outcome of sixty four cases of ethylene dibromide ingestion treated in tertiary care hospital. J Assoc
Physicians India. 2007 Dec;55:842-5.
Pahwa N, Bharani R, Jain M, Argal S, Soni H, Kosta S, Kumar R. Therapeutic
plasma exchange: an effective treatment in ethylene dibromide poisoning cases. J Clin Apher. 2013 Oct;28(5):374-7. doi: 10.1002/jca.21284.