Kansas City’s water may look murkier, but officials say tests show it’s safe to drink

Kansas City’s tap water is murkier than usual, but all indications are it’s still safe to drink.

That’s the bottom line for city residents after several days of alerts about the water supply — and complaints from residents who say it looks and tastes funny.

“We have been doing tests, as you might imagine, nonstop and we have not found anything unsafe in the water,” said KC Water spokeswoman Brooke Givens on Monday.

The city draws drinking water from the Missouri River and its recent flooding has put a strain on the water treatment system since late last week. But Givens and KC Water director Terry Leeds said the system is holding up in all respects except one: turbidity.

What is turbidity? Essentially it’s the clarity of the water, or how many particles are floating in it.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, turbidity “is not a direct indicator of health risk,” but studies show that the more murky the water is, the more likely it is that tiny microbes are hitching a ride on those particles and getting through the treatment process.

Turbidity is measured by shining a light through a tube of water and then assigning a number of “nephelometric turbidity units” or NTU to it. Leeds said that decades ago an NTU of 10 was acceptable, but standards have become much more strict, in part to prevent cryptosporidium.

Following a widespread outbreak of the parasitic disease in Milwaukee in 1993, Missouri started requiring water providers to alert customers when turbidity levels exceeded 0.15 NTU in more than 5 percent of tests.

KC Water exceeded that Friday night, which is why it sent the alert, Leeds said. Infants, the elderly or those with compromised immune systems were especially mentioned because it takes smaller amounts of microbes to make them sick. They’re encouraged to consult their doctors.

Symptoms of cryptosporidium infection include diarrhea, dehydration, weight loss, stomach pain, fever, nausea and vomiting.

Leeds said there’s been no indication of elevated microbe levels in the water.

“We do coliform tests regularly and our coliforms have been well below the limits,” Leeds said. “We have not had any problems with bacteria or anything like that.”

There is no boil water advisory for Kansas City at this time, but according to the Centers for Disease Control, boiling water for 1-3 minutes kills cryptosporidium and other microbes. Using reverse osmosis filters or those certified as NSF Standard 53 also works.

Officials from Blue Springs and Lee’s Summit said that although they’ve stopped taking water from Kansas City, it wasn’t because of safety concerns.

Water supply specialists from both suburbs cited KC Water’s request that customers conserve to help the treatment plant catch up, and added that they get plenty of water from other sources this time of year.

The alerts also don’t apply to Johnson County or Wyandotte County residents, who get their drinking water from other sources.

Leeds said turbidity levels are on the way back down at KC Water and taste and appearance should improve as the week goes on.

“If all goes well today we’ll probably lift the conservation request and then I’m thinking hopefully Wednesday or Thursday we’d do another announcement the treatment is back to normal,” Leeds said. “But that’s just me crystal balling you.”

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Kansas City Star health reporter Andy Marso was part of a Pulitzer Prize-finalist team at The Star and previously won state and regional awards at the Topeka Capital-Journal and Kansas Health Institute News Service. He has written two books, including one about his near-fatal bout with meningitis.