COLUMBIA — Every Monday at 9 a.m., two women meet in the conference room of a coffee shop in south Columbia for three hours. They discuss articles they've read, people they want to meet and their plans for the week.

The whiteboard on the wall opposite the glass door is covered in math equations from a previous occupant. The coffee shop music wafts, muffled, through the closed glass conference room door.

Sitting across from each other at a table for eight, the two discuss water quality issues, what city and county meetings they should attend and what experts they should sit down with.

Marie-Josee Brown, 45, has her iPad open, a steel thermos full of steaming coffee within arm's reach and her phone plugged into a wall outlet. Julie Walsh Ryan, 40, sits opposite of her — back to the door — a stack of 10 file folders to her left, a tablet in front of her and a planner and a hand-painted thermos of coffee to her right.

The two women make up the leading force of the COMO Safe Water Coalition.

Ryan, who lives in Thornbrook, started the group in September to improve Columbia's drinking water. Brown, who lives in The Pines, was quickly attracted to the cause, and the two have been hard at it ever since.

"I heard about the group (Ryan) started, and I just jumped right on it like a bulldozer," Brown said.

They talk every day and spend close to 30 hours outside of their Monday meetings researching and talking to experts.

"Sometimes I'll go to bed with research information," Brown said. "Sometimes I'll start reading at 8 p.m. and at 1 a.m., I'm still reading."

COMO Safe Water Coalition's goal is to persuade Columbia to stop treating its water with ammonia. Columbia Water and Light disinfects drinking water with chlorine and chloramine (a mixture of chlorine and ammonia). The city usually uses chlorine for four months and then switches to chloramine for the rest of the year, said Connie Kacprowicz, a Columbia Water and Light spokeswoman.

Trihalomethanes, a by-product of chloramine disinfection, have caused cancer in lab animals, according to the Water Research Center. Columbia's trihalomethane levels are below the Environmental Protection Agency's standards, but some experts say those standards aren't strict enough.

Water and health

Brown and Ryan became interested in drinking water quality and treatment after wondering what was causing health problems in themselves and their kids.

Ryan was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2013 and is now in remission. She had no genetic history of cancer so she started researching what else could cause it.

An estimated 5 to 10 percent of breast cancer cases can be attributed to specific genetic mutations, though researchers say there are other, as yet unidentified genetic mutations responsible for some breast cancer.

During her research, Ryan saw posts by Erin Brockovich, the environmental activist whose work on a water poisoning case was dramatized in the film bearing her name. That's how Ryan learned about chloramine and trihalomethanes.

She doesn't blame the city of Columbia for her cancer, but she believes the water quality played a role in her diagnosis.

"You can't point to one thing and say this caused it," she said. "It's cumulative, and it's from all sorts of places in our environment."

Ryan's kids also often have itchy and burning skin after taking showers, something that didn't happen when the family lived in North Carolina. They've also developed allergies since moving to Columbia.

Brown's daughter suffered from migraines and asthma.

"Those health issues could come from different places, but it seems that the water we had was, if anything, making it that much worse," Brown said.

After learning what Columbia puts in its water, Brown and her daughter began taking vitamins and reducing the amount of water they consume. The migraines and asthma have subsided.

Ryan started researching in the fall of 2015. Brown has been interested in the issue for about a year.

"As I did more research, I became more interested," Ryan said.

Brokovich's post in September pushed Ryan to create the COMO Safe Water Coalition Facebook group. There are now 212 people in the group.

Not experts

Ryan has a bachelor's degree in health communication and was a medical transcriptionist until her cancer diagnosis. She has focused on volunteering since. Brown is a self-taught artist with a studio in the Orr Street Studios complex. 

They know they can't possibly know everything about water quality issues, so they often turn to experts in the field to help understand studies and policies. They're also cautious of what websites and journals they get their information from; they stay away from those pushing opinion.

"I know I don't know everything, and I'm willing to say I don't know everything," Ryan said.

One of the experts the COMO Safe Water Coalition turns to is Enos Inniss, an MU assistant teaching professor in civil and environmental engineering. When Brown finds an interesting article, she emails it to Inniss to see what he has to say about the science behind it. Inniss informs Brown and Ryan about lectures at MU they might be interested in and sends articles their way when he thinks they will be helpful.

Inniss, Brown and Ryan are in contact with each other at least once a week. "(Inniss) has been really supportive in giving us some thoughts, articles, answering questions," Brown said.

COMO Safe Water Coalition also has Bob Bowcock, Brockovich's water expert, and its Facebook group members for support. They asked Bowcock to give a talk in November in Columbia about alternative water treatment systems.

"It's always nice to see that people are supportive and interested in more knowledge," Brown said about the Facebook group members. "It makes you feel like you're not crazy. It makes us feel like people want to see this through as much as we do."

Ryan wishes more Facebook group members were involved in her and Brown's efforts.

"I think it's easy to get into a Facebook group and say I want to hear the information others are curating," she said. "We'd love to see people become even more active and participate in the workshops and the meetings (Brown and I) have gone to."

Creating conversations

COMO Safe Water Coalition has encountered some resistance from city staff — not because they're talking about water quality issues, but because they're asking for change.

"People are afraid of changing their cable (TV service), and we're talking about changing water treatment," Ryan said.

The resistance is greater since Columbia meets federal regulations. "We're trying to get people to understand that there has been science that (Columbia's) regulations haven't caught up with," Ryan said.

Inniss said the coalition's information-focused plan is the best way to attack Columbia's water quality problem.

"They've talked about wanting to have conversations," he said, "Not necessarily trying to accuse people of wrongdoing or anything like that. I don't think there's a villain in this scenario."

For now, Brown and Ryan will focus on learning more and starting conversations. 

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

  • I'm on the Public Health and Safety team for fall 2016 and studying print and digital journalism and environmental science. You can reach me at katiepohlman@gmail.com or via phone at 301-529-9911.

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