Unknown to many Americans, when they’re drinking a glass of water, they’re also ingesting industrial or agricultural pollutants that are linked to cancer, brain and nervous system damage, developmental disorders, fertility issues or hormone disruption.
That’s the staggering and unsettling truth of the state of America’s drinking water as documented by non-profit environmental group, Environmental Working Group, after aggregating and evaluating data from nearly 50,000 public water utilities all across the country.
Majority of the country’s drinking water supplies notched a passing grade from federal and state regulatory agencies. However, a lot of the 250-plus pollutants that were identified through water sampling and testing are at levels that are completely legal under the Safe Drinking Water Act or state regulations, but well over the levels respected scientific research have determined to pose health concerns.
In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency has not updated a new contaminant to the list of regulated drinking water pollutants in more than 20 years. This inexcusable failure of the federal government’s responsibility to protect public health means there are no legal limits for the more than 160 unregulated contaminants the tests detected in the nation’s tap water.
Questions That Need Answers
Utility companies must treat their water to fulfill state and federal benchmarks before conveying it into homes, schools and businesses, but water treatment chemicals can also generate other possible dangerous pollutants. Utilities must also deliver annual water quality reports to their customers, but those reports leave many unanswered questions, such as:
- How did these contaminants get into drinking water?
- What’s the safe level of a contaminant – not just for healthy adults, but for babies and children whose brains and bodies are still developing, pregnant women and their developing fetuses, and people with medical conditions that make them more susceptible to chemicals’ effects?
- Why do regulatory standards focus on keeping treatment costs down instead of protecting public health?
- What contaminants are in the water that local utilities are not required to treat?
- How can individuals take steps to ensure that the purity and safety of their water goes beyond what the law requires?
We think that citizens have a right to know the complete story regarding the water they drink. We believe that the right information will lead to a boost in controlling pollution at its very source, more stringent regulatory standards, and augmentation of treatment plants, delivery pipes and other drinking water infrastructure.
A wonderful resource is the EWG’s Tap Water Database, which lets people enter their zipcodes to find out exactly what pollutants were found in their water, at what levels, and what the impact could be for their health. It delivers data on the most widespread and possibly dangerous contaminants and their sources – including agriculture, a foremost source of pollution in the country that is largely exempt from federal laws geared to safeguard drinking water.
Contaminants You Should Be Worried About
The environmental group gathered data from state agencies and the EPA for drinking water tests that were done from 2010 to 2015 by 48,712 water utilities in 50 states. In all, the utilities, which had the chance to examine the data for precision, tested for 500 various contaminants and determined 267. Contaminants that were identified included:
• 93 associated with an increased risk of cancer. More than 40,000 systems had detections of known or possible carcinogens that were in excess of established federal or state health standards – levels that pose only negligible health risks, but are not legally enforceable.
- 78 linked to brain and nervous system damage.
- 63 linked to developmental harm to children or fetuses.
- 38 that may result in fertility problems.
- 45 linked to hormonal disruption.
Back in the summer of 2015, the scandal of extremely high levels of lead found in the drinking water of Flint, Michigan – discovered only because a worried mother got in touch with the EPA after her children got sick – set off alarms all over the country and resulted in shocking revelations of lead contamination in various communities and schools all over the country.
There is no safe level of exposure to lead, especially for young children, who can suffer irreversible brain damage from drinking water with any amount of the poison. The data collected indicated that between 2010 and 2015, nearly 19,000 public water systems had at least one detection of lead above 3.8 parts per billion, the level at which a formula-fed baby is placed at risk for raised blood lead levels.
But the database also bared detection across the nation of other drinking water pollutants at levels that are legal but scientists and medical experts say are not completely protective of public health.
Here’s an example:
- Chromium-6 or hexavalent chromium – an industrial chemical made notorious by the film “Erin Brockovich,” but unregulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act – has been detected in drinking water supplies for more than 250 million Americans in all 50 states, at levels exceeding those California state scientists say pose a negligible risk of cancer for people who drink it daily for a lifetime.
- Tap water supplies for over 7 million people in 27 states had detections of 1,4-dioxane – an unregulated industrial solvent and an unwanted byproduct in consumer goods such as detergents, shampoos and cosmetics – at levels above those the EPA considers to pose a negligible cancer risk.
- In 2015, more than 1,800 water systems serving 7 million Americans in 48 states detected nitrates – chemicals from animal waste or agricultural fertilizers – at an average above the level the National Cancer Institute research shows increases the risk of cancer, which is a concentration just half of the government’s legal limit for nitrate in drinking water.
For the levels the database considers to be safe, we relied on the best science, going far beyond parameters that are usually driven by political concession with polluters rather than safeguarding public health. Moving forward, the group will determine and release wholly safe standards not only for toxic elements in drinking water, but also for those found food and consumer products.
Geographic and Salary Disproportions
The quality of drinking water can differ depending on not only its roots, but where you reside, which is often linked to income levels.
Pesticides and toxic byproducts from fertilizer and manure are discovered by water utilities in a lot of different areas of the United States, but are often detected in greater numbers and at higher readings by utilities that serve far flung communities in places where agriculture has a crucial presence.
An example is water tests in Topeka, Kansas found at least four pesticides were utilized on corn fields, which included atrazine – the second most-widely used weedkiller in the U.S. – which studies discovered can turn male frogs into females after exposure to levels of the pesticide usually found in drinking water sources throughout the Corn Belt.
And then, in Iowa, the Des Moines Water Works battles each day to prevent nitrate levels from uncontrolled farm pollution just below the EPA legal limit of 10 parts per million, or ppm, in local drinking water. Based on the conclusions of the National Cancer Institute, EWG’s health guideline for nitrates is at 5 ppm, but the average level found in 2015 by the Des Moines utility was over 7 ppm.
Among the largest utilities, the East Los Angeles Water District identified the most contaminants of concern overall, with 14 various pollutants in its 2015 water tests above recognized health guidelines. The district serves 115,000 people in an area whose median household income in 2010, the most recent year for which information is accessible, was more than 20 percent lower the nation’s average.
In contrast, the water system for Merrick in New York, which serves 117,000 citizens on Long Island, is one of the tidiest in the entire country, identifying only one contaminant, chromium-6, above health standards in 2015. Merrick’s median household income in 2010 was more than two-and-a-half times the national average.
What Should Americans Do?
Citizens can take measures to make sure they and their loved ones are drinking the safest water possible. The right in-home water filtration system can substantially lessen the presence of many contaminants utilities detect.
But drinking water contamination is not just a personal matter. It impacts everyone in the United States. Americans should take safe drinking water seriously and must get informed on what is actually coming out of their taps, and the pollutants that are sullying bodies of water and then take action. Making sure that your water supply is safe is a basic responsibility of government, and we must assert that our public officials step up and find a solution to this inefficient and at times, broken system.
United States President, Donald Trump has pledged to make safeguarding the nation’s drinking water a major priority of his administration. But he and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt have taken or recommended a series of disturbing actions that would further undermine the government’s capacity to actually deliver on that promise, including cutting and vanquishing programs and resources for water protection.
Safe drinking water isn’t a privilege, but a right. In the most progressive country on Earth, every American – rural or urban, affluent or lower-income – should be able to be at peace knowing that the water in their homes, schools and public places is clean and safe to drink.
Fixing the Nation’s Drinking Water Policy
To improve the safety of American drinking water, both federal and state policies need to be amended.
Federal laws that are regulating the quality of both drinking water and surface waters, which supply many utilities, must be bolstered to restrict tap water contamination and to update our aging water infrastructure. In the absence of federal leadership, states should take measures to establish and enforce drinking water standards that are more stringent and health protective than those mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency. Common-sense modifications must also be made to the federal farm bill to lessen agricultural corruption of drinking water. It is crucial that the federal and state agencies that have the responsibility of protecting our drinking water have enough resources and power to make and implement safeguards.
Increase Drinking Water Safeguards
Strengthen Drinking Water Laws to Protect Children’s Health
The Safe Drinking Water Act, passed in 1974, is the main federal law that regulates drinking water. It was set up to safeguard drinking water, in part, by setting legal limits – Maximum Contaminant Levels, or MCLs – for specific chemicals known or suspected to result in harm to human health.
These criteria – covering about 100 contaminants – are supposed to be examined and updated every six years but that has not been the case. As a matter of fact, despite comprehensive information indicating health harms of currently unregulated contaminants, in the more than 20 years since the passage of 1996 Safe Drinking Water Act amendments, the EPA has not regulated a single additional contaminant. The law also mandates that every five years the EPA release a list of no more than 30 unregulated contaminants to be examined by public water systems, based on the greatest potential for causing harm.
More disturbing is the fact that the EPA has not applied the intention of the Safe Drinking Water Act, which remarks that drinking water regulations should take into consideration the effects of contaminants “on groups within the general population such as infants, children, pregnant women, the elderly, individuals with a history of serious illness, or other subpopulations that are identified as likely to be at greater risk of adverse health effects due to exposure to contaminants in drinking water than the general population.”
Safeguarding children’s health is a crucial part of the EPA’s mission. A rising body of research determined that pregnant women, infants and children are especially susceptible to the effects of environmental pollutants. Early-life exposures can have enduring effects on health and should be prohibited to the extent possible. Research of tap water contaminants such as lead, nitrate and disinfection byproducts indicate that tap water in a lot of communities hold pollutants in amounts that may lead to health harm, even when the tap water is observing legally mandated drinking water regulations.
Research conducted by the EWG shows that existing MCLs are out-of-date and must be updated and strengthened. It also indicated that the EPA-mandated tests of tap water all over the country have bared a number of unregulated contaminants in concentrations a lot higher than what the best science states is safe for both adults and children.
The EPA should refresh current MCLs and make new regulations for unregulated water contaminants. The agency’s supervising regulations should also be bolstered to require more frequent and targeted testing to quickly and accurately identify problems.
Also of note, the EPA must give consideration to the exposure and toxicity of drinking water contaminants for young children. Drinking water standards should be established so that children are safe when they drink a glass of water. Yet current national drinking water criteria were made for an adult that weighs 70 kilograms, or 154 pounds, not for any child or infant. The EPA should make child-specific criteria for drinking water contaminants that will consider a child’s unique sensitivity to toxic and dangerous elements.
Without federal regulation, states should enact stricter standards when it comes to regulating contaminants in drinking water. States can enact their own standards and goals for drinking water that are more rigorous than federal standards. Without health-protective federal standards, state regulations must be reinforced. For the many unregulated chemicals of concern in drinking water, the environmental group is calling on state regulators to examine the latest science on drinking water contaminants, and refresh or apply their own standards.
Invest in Proper Infrastructure and Strict Enforcement
Old, deteriorating pipes, and outdated treatment centers can also compromise the safety of drinking water. Congress should substantially raise federal funding to switch up worn water lines, many of which are leaking, almost breaking, or have toxic metals like lead. Congress also needs to earmark funds to update water treatment facilities, many of which lean on older technologies which were not geared to take away many of the toxic chemicals and pathogens that are in water today.
Congress should also improve federal funding allocated to states to pay for and supervise these infrastructure improvements. It should raise funding for investigations, monitoring, enforcement, and record-auditing at both the state and federal levels to increase observance and arraign bad actors. Congress should also safeguard and expand funding chances for rural communities to upgrade their drinking water infrastructure and water treatment centers.
Increase Source Water Safeguards
The most efficient way to safeguard clean tap water is to protect water from pollution before it gets to the water treatment plant.
The Clean Water Act protects surface water bodies such as rivers and lakes. Under the law, industrial polluters and municipalities must obtain permits before they can discharge waste containing certain pollutants into water. Those permits dictate exactly how much of a pollutant can be released into water. The EPA can also set a limit on the total amount of a substance that can be found in a particular body of water.
However, these permits are often too slack and are not always sufficiently enforced. The EPA and states should collaborate to bolster permitting requirements to lessen the amount of pollutants that are making its way into the water before it gets treated and conveyed into homes. Restricting the Clean Water Act jurisdiction over federal waters, as the Trump administration has recommended, would compromise the drinking water of over 100 million American citizens.
But wastewater discharges are not the only way water bodies become polluted. Pollutants can also get into water bodies from runoff, rain, snow, drainage, seepage and deposition from air pollution. As water moves over land it can pick up fertilizers, pesticides, animal manure, oil, grease, heavy metals, bacteria and whatever else might be in the soil – eventually getting into rivers, lakes and coastal waters.
States are primarily responsible for controlling localized surface pollution. States should continually study pollutants found in runoff and set, revise, and enforce their standards. Furthermore, Congress should appropriate more funding for grants to states to implement and enforce these standards.
Farm pollution is largely exempt from the Clean Water Act. While this can – and should – be changed, in the short-term Congress should take a second look at the federal farm bill to increase and alter voluntary conservation programs put in place by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. To be more specific, Congress should reform USDA conservation programs to better focus conservation expenditure on practices that safeguard and better the quality of surface water and groundwater that delivers drinking water to community water systems and domestic wells.
Conservation practices that safeguard drinking water sources by improving the management of crops and livestock production systems, a reducing fertilizer, pesticide and manure pollution should also be prioritized. The USDA should also go into long-term contracts for land and water conservation practices, and long-term, permanent easements for land restoration, in lieu of short-term contracts that don’t really offer enduring benefits for source water protection.
Additionally, Congress should expand conservation necessities for farm subsidy recipients to mandate source water protection as a condition of receiving subsidies, including federally subsidized crop insurance. In general, Congress should no longer provide subsidies to farmers who pollute drinking water sources.
Don’t Undermine Lawmakers
Don’t Pass Misguided “Regulatory Reform” Bills
At the moment, both the House and Senate are taking a look at a number of misguided bills that would block federal efforts to establish new drinking water standards. Among the most worrisome is the so-called Regulatory Accountability Act, or RAA, being evaluated in both chambers.
A reason water protection measures are so inefficient not to mention not enough is that regulators at the EPA and USDA already have to jump through many hoops put new rules in place. It can take quite some time to establish a single drinking water standard. The RAA and other suggested reforms would make the process more challenging by necessitating the agencies to conduct endless studies of alternatives, dragging out the process a lot more. The bill would also give industry more authority to confound or undermine regulation-making by subjecting proposed rules to arduous administrative hearings. The RAA would also require the EPA to choose the most “cost-effective” regulation, meaning the regulation most favorable to polluters.
Don’t Slash Funding to the EPA and USDA
In order to bolster drinking water safeguards, the EPA and USDA must have enough resources. Existing budget proposals would substantially cut funding to both agencies.
If implemented, those cuts would be disturbing to these agencies. It would be even more challenging for the EPA to refresh current drinking water standards or issue new ones. The USDA would have less capacity to back farmers when they take measures to lessen farm pollution into drinking water supplies or help rural communities meet their drinking water challenges. Congress should instead maintain or raise funding for both agencies, especially for programs that protect drinking water quality.