Imagine opening your tap to quench thirst only to burn your tongue at the first sip. Seems like a terrifying imagination out of a horror movie, right?
But some Michiganders were saved by a whisker from this terrible experience in real life.
On Wednesday, a chemical distributor, PVS Nolwood, a Detroit-based company, was blacklisted by Michigan for nearly contaminating a Metro Detroit community's drinking water with sulfuric acid.
Yes, you read it right. It was the deadly sulphuric acid.
The company that provides chemicals to as many as 10 municipal drinking water suppliers erroneously shipped four 55-gallon drums of sulfuric acid to New Baltimore with labels that wrongly identified the contents as hydrofluosilicic acid.
Water suppliers use Hydrofluosilicic acid to fluoridate drinking water, which prevents tooth decay. On the other hand, Sulfuric acid is a corrosive and toxic chemical often found in drain cleaners, fertilizers, antifreeze, batteries, and detergents and considered dangerous for human consumption.
Chris Hiltunen, Superintendent, New Baltimore Water Plant, said, "an employee was pumping hydrofluosilicic acid from a drum into a storage tank that feeds into the water supply that supplies nearly 14,000 residents when a chemical reaction occurred, and the contents became extremely hot. That's when the employee understood that something was wrong."
Luckily, the plant was shut at the time of the incident, so the chemical didn't get added to the water supply. The water supply plant immediately shut down everything and notified the chemical supplier, PVS Nolwood.
Based on the blunder, NSF International, a global nonprofit that establishes chemical standards added to drinking water, has stripped PVS Nolwood's certification.
"I guess I was a little surprised that they removed their certification that quick," said Hiltunen. "I appreciate it because I think the circumstances that happened and the issue that occurred is unacceptable. In our industry, that's not a mistake you're allowed to make."
As per Michigan law, all water suppliers have to comply with NSF International standards. So any Michigan communities that are purchasing chemicals from PVS Nolwood must now find a new source.
The decertification is a big blow to PVS Nolwood, as any company or government across the globe that desires NSF International safety compliance may no longer buy from the Detroit distributor or its global parent company.
Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) spokesperson Hugh McDiarmid Jr. said they had informed all Michigan water systems that PVS Nolwood has lost its NSF International certification.
NSF International completed its investigation of the error on Wednesday and forwarded the findings to EGLE. The full report and results haven't been made public.
"PVS Nolwood confirmed that only four drums were wrongly labeled, and all of them were sent to New Baltimore," McDiarmid said.
Hiltunen seemed cynical that the error only applied to his community's four barrels.
"My understanding is that they have a run of drums that they fill, 80 drums, and they print 80 labels, and the labels go on the drums as they fill," said Hiltunen, who's spoken with JVS Nolwood representatives. "They don't fill barrel by barrel because they bring a tanker on a train and fill drums from there.
"You can draw your own conclusion," he said.
EGLE said all Michigan water systems that use the supplier confirmed they either didn't have any of the mislabeled chemicals in stock or checked and confirmed each label's accuracy.
"They're not allowed to make a mistake that could potentially cause injury to my customers, the public, and ultimately my employees were at the greatest risk," Hiltunen said
There was no harm or injury to any water employees as a result of the mishap.
"We were fortunate that nothing made it outside the plant," Hiltunen said.
Hiltunen said that the problem was detected on July 11, and EGLE was notified immediately.
EGLE first notified the public of the issue in their Aug. 6th bulletin but said it quickly relayed the information to the Environmental Protection Agency, MIOSHA, and NSF International once New Baltimore alerted the agency.
Hiltunen said the New Baltimore Water Department would replace a storage tank and pump worth about $10,000. He received a $1,200 invoice for the mislabeled chemicals this week.
"I just sent it right back to them," he said.
New Baltimore has purchased chemicals from PVS Nolwood for at least 25 years. The community is now looking for a new supplier.
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