Last week Dane County released its first-ever Environmental Report Card, which assessed several key quality-of-life issues, including water quality. Dr. Thomas Schlenker, director of the City-County Public Health Department, gave the county a B.
Schlenker, 57, was named head of the newly merged health department in October 2005, after prior stints as head of the Salt Lake City-County Health Department and chief medical officer at Children's Hospital in Kenosha.
The environmental Report Card gave the area generally good marks for its air, water, and food quality, but raised concerns about an increase in foodbourne illnesses, lack of lead testing for small children and high levels of nitrates in private wells.
Schlenker spoke with The Daily Page about what the report means, why local wells aren't tested more regularly and how a centralized approach to water quality management would benefit residents.
The Daily Page: How much stock should residents put in the Environmental Report Card and how accurately does it gauge where we are at?
Schlenker: The data presented in the report is very accurate. There are many things it doesn't address, but the things it does are both accurate and selected because they are important measures that tell us about things that really do matter. I think people should put quite a bit of stock in it, and hopefully will follow it from year to year so that we can determine whether the measures are getting better or worse.
What are some the areas that aren't addressed in the report?
There's not a whole lot in there about surface waters, and that's an area I think we'd like to look more deeply into. It does, for example, measure the salt content of our local lakes and in particular shows that Lake Wingra's salt content is steadily increasing. It is, at this point, not at the level where it would be of any human health threat or cause significant changes to the ecology of the lake, but what it does show is that run-off from our increasingly urbanized culture is affecting local lakes.
Water utilities are required to test for heavy metals and organic materials once every three years. Now, as a guy who drinks tap water, I think that seems like something that should be checked more frequently. Why the lull?
Well, those are federally established standards for public water utilities. I agree: I don't think it's adequate enough to guarantee the kind of water quality we should have here in Dane County. There should be more frequent testing. There should be quality control of both the laboratory aspect of the testing to make sure it is accurate, and also the sampling methodology, that samples are collected in a way that would guarantee that they're truly representative of the water being delivered.
In addition to quality control, there does need to be a direct communication link between every public water utility in Dane County and the public health agency, which there isn't now, so we would, at a minimum, be informed of exceedences of standards, and any other problems they may encounter that may conceivably impact human health.
Two other areas where I think there needs to be a direct link is risk assessment and risk communication. First you need to assess the risk, then you need to communicate that risk in a way that is accurate, understandable and actionable to everyday people. And that's what public health is especially good at and we want to play that role.
Had it been in place, how would that link have changed the way the city grappled with the Well No. 3 issues last year?
Well No. 3 was contaminated with hydrocarbons that had seeped in to the groundwater from industrial waste in the past. In fact, we were involved in that at the back end. We helped the Madison Water Utility assess the risk of the levels they found and described for them the potential effects of hydrocarbons on the health of human beings.
Then we were also present at community meetings where we were able to explain to people the risk. Both of those components were essential in that process. Ultimately, the decision was made to shut down the well, which had huge ramifications, financial and otherwise. That decision, and I think correctly, was based on risk assessment that was substantially provided by Public Health to the Water Utility.
Do you drink unfiltered tap water?
Yes, I do.