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Drinking Water, Is it Safe?

by Doug Pushard

How safe is your water? The EPA regulates tap water, but how well do they do their job?

In 2005, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit, non-partisan organization made up of scientists, engineers, policy experts, and computer programmers dedicated to protecting human health and the environment, performed the first truly comprehensive study of drinking water in the United States.

Enviromental Defense Fund

The study found 260 contaminants in tap water from 42 states. Of these, the EPA has set enforceable health limits (called Maximum Contaminant Levels, or MCLs) for only 114, and for 5 others the Agency has set non-enforceable goals called secondary standards*. That leaves 141 remaining contaminants with no health-based limits. These contaminate water serving 195,257,000 people in 2,614 communties.

In other words, over 60% of the current US population is being exposed to contaminated water!

The EPA failed to establish enforceable health standards and monitoring requirements for scores of tap water contaminants.

But it gets better, some other scary tidbits from the study:

  • 54 of the agricultural chemicals detected in tap water are unregulated
  • 94 of the industrial chemicals detected in tap water are unregulated
  • 41 of the urban and sprawl chemicals detected in tap water are unregulated
  • 24 of the chemicals used to treat water detected in tap water are unregulated

These contaminants include things like: MTBE, the gas additive; industrial plasticizers called phthalates linked to birth defects; pesticides; fertilizers, and arsenic.

Meanwhile, it is very ironic that as water utilities are forced to spend more and more on cleaning up tap water, they are increasingly turning to chemicals such as chlorine that are known to be carcinogenic or to pose other health risks. The complete study is available online (see related topics below) and features a comprehensive online database of information by state.

If all the above does not get you excited, below are some of the recent headlines dealing with water quality:

Welsh Crypto outbreak: 70,000 boil water
Pesticides found in most rivers, streams
Metabolites Of Pharmaceuticals Identified In Wastewater

This is just a recent sampling!

But don’t go out and drill a well or buy bottled water. A lot of these water sources are the exact same ones that are used by the city water departments. According to a spokesperson at EWG, bottled water providers sometimes use reverse osmosis to ensure a safer product, but not always. Plus, the standards for bottled water providers are lower than those of regulated water municipalities. They are regulated by the FDA, not the EPA, and therefore do not have the same reporting requirements.

A Harris Interactive Poll published in October 2005, found that Americans rank water pollution as the number one environmental concern, ahead of global warming, ozone depletion, and air pollution. If water quality is such a pervasive issue, why isn’t the public demanding attention to the problem? According to Tim Kropp, senior scientist at EWG and a PhD in toxicology, “The public must think someone is handling the problem; otherwise, this should be a front page issue in every major city.”

In fact, we are unaware of the lax standards coming out of the EPA, which has set safety standards for fewer than 20 percent of the many hundreds of chemicals that it has identified in tap water. Nearly 20% of the contaminants that the EPA is currently considering for regulation have been under study for 17 years. This is slow progress for a critical public health issue.

If you wonder what is in your public drinking water, ask your local water company for a complete listing of contaminants. Local water companies are required to test and submit water results to the EPA, this is mandated by the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).

If you wonder what can be done to improve the overall water quality, the biggest impact item would be to start cleaning up and preserving the areas around source water supplies. This would have the dual benefit of slowing the potential need for new, costly purification equipment and help the environment. Funding is available in the Clean Water Act State Revolving Fund, the public just needs to demand that it be spent on conserving buffer zones along streams and waterways.

In the meantime, rainwater catchment may be one approach to a safer drinking water supply; however even rainwater is not safe from all contaminants.

An upcoming series of articles will examine differing water cleansing alternatives. One thing is for sure - rainwater harvesting, water filtration and purification businesses are going to be growth industries for years to come as concerned individuals must fend for themselves in the face of EPA omissions.

More Info and Links

Complete EWG Study
Ultraviolet Water Purification
Suppliers of Filtration Systems by State
EPA published water standards
EPA budget to be cut

EPA Ground Water & Drinking Water site

*Source: EWG analysis of water utility test data for 1998-2003, compiled and provided to EWG by state drinking water offices. Note: EPA has set enforceable safety standards (called Maximum Contaminant Levels, or MCLs) for 80 chemicals or chemical groups, which are present in tap water tests analyzed by EWG as 114 individual chemicals or chemical variants called isomers. EPA has also established 15 guidelines called National Secondary Drinking Water Regulations (NSDWRs), five of which are represented in tap water tests analyzed by EWG

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