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Water toxicology specialist questions West Palm Beach delaying water advisory

Toxins found 9 days before alert issued
West Palm Beach Water Plant
Posted at 5:21 PM, Jun 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-02 19:00:10-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Workers in West Palm Beach are still handing out thousands of bottles of water while the city remains under a water advisory for vulnerable people and pets.

Contact 5 took an in-depth look at the timeline of events surrounding the toxin and talked to one expert who says the city needs a better early-warning system.

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West Palm Beach's public utilities tested the city's drinking water on May 17.

The test results were returned on May 19 and showed the level of algae-related toxin was above the threshold for elderly, sick, very young, and other vulnerable people.

"When the first results came in over that threshold, should the public have been warned?" asked Contact 5 reporter Dave Bohman.

MORE: Questions surround 10-day lag after toxins first discovered

Dr. Frank Bailey, water toxicology expert at Middle Tennessee State University
Given the toxin levels in the water, Dr. Frank Bailey says the city should have issued an advisory earlier.

"My opinion is yes, it would be the appropriate thing to do," said Dr. Frank Bailey, a water toxicology specialist.

Bailey works at the Middle Tennessee State University and notes the levels of toxins tested in West Palm Beach were above federal limits for vulnerable people.

"It is a limit above which the chances of adverse health effects start to go up," Bailey said.

The city resumed testing for three straight days starting May 24, again finding toxins at potentially dangerous levels.

The city contacted the Florida Department of Health on May 28 to begin the process of telling the public the news of the tainted water -- nine days after the first test showed high levels.

MORE: Questions surround lag in issuing advisory after toxins discovered

City officials said they were following state health department rules.

"We're starting to see more and more of these blooms all over the country," Bailey said.

Bailey is developing protocols for the state of Tennessee for state and local governments on when to warn the public when the safety of the drinking water is questioned.

"[It's] to help officials know what to do, at certain times because they don't exist in many states right now," Bailey said.

City leaders have defended their actions throughout this incident.

The city emailed WPTV state environmental rules that appear to back up the city’s claim that the state department of health is the agency that determines the risk to the public. (Read Below)

During a Tuesday commission meeting, city officials discussed the timeline of the testing that prompted the advisory:

West Palm Beach officials lay out timeline that prompted water advisory

Below is the timeline of events, according to the city of West Palm Beach, that led officials to issue the water advisory on May 28:

  • May 17, 2021 | Public Utilities conducted tests during construction of its Powder-Activated Carbon Basin. Among the tests conducted was for cylyndrospormopsin, a toxin that is unregulated by the EPA. This test was conducted by the city out of an abundance of caution. The city is proactive in its testing.
  • May 19, 2021 | Results came back high
  • May 24, 25, 26, 2021 | The City wanted to make sure this was not an anomaly, so it tested again. The City wanted to test for 3 consecutive days and based on the outside lab schedule the samples were collected on May 24, 25, and 26, 2021.
  • May 27, 2021 | Results were formally received at approximately 5 p.m.
  • May 28, 2021 | The city contacted the Florida Department of Health to inform them and begin the process of public notification. The city’s notification required approval from the Florida Department of Health which was received late Friday night.