Contaminants detected in water samples throughout the country pose health risks but are perfectly legal under the Safe Drinking Water Act, according to data released Wednesday by an environmental advocacy group.
“Most people turn on their tap water and think: It’s clear, I live in America, we have these laws, I’m being protected,” said Nneka Leiba, director of the Healthy Living Science Program for the Environmental Working Group. “What people don’t realize is that there have been no additions to the list of regulated chemicals for drinking water since 1996.”
In 1974, Congress enacted the Safe Drinking Water Act, authorizing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set national standards for drinking water. However, it has been more than 20 years since the EPA has added a new contaminant to its list of regulated drinking water pollutants.
“The list of regulated chemicals has not kept up with our use of chemicals as a country,” Leiba said.
EWG collected data from drinking water tests conducted from 2010 to 2015 at more than 48,000 water facilities throughout the U.S., looking for 500 unique contaminants. The group found 267 present in water supplies, many at levels above what scientific studies have found pose health risks but are still legal under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
EWG's findings: 93 of the contaminants were linked to an increased risk of cancer; 78 were associated with brain and nervous system damage; 63 were connected to developmental harm in children or fetuses; 38 were contaminants that could cause fertility issues; and 45 were endocrine disruptors.
More than 40,000 water systems had levels of known or likely carcinogens that exceeded health guidelines, which were set based on recommendations by health and environmental agencies as well as EWG’s own research.
More than 19,000 public water systems had at least one detection of lead above 3.8 parts per billion (ppb), which an Environmental Defense Fund report said can put a formula-fed baby at risk for elevated blood levels.
In 2009, the California Office of Health Hazard Assessment set the goal for lead in drinking water at an even lower 0.2 ppb, based on studies showing that an increase of 1 ug/dL of lead in blood was associated with a decrease of one IQ point in children. The EPA’s legal standard for lead is much higher at 15 ppb.
“We know that no level of exposure to lead is safe,” said Jerome Paulson, a physician and emeritus professor in the Department of Environmental & Occupational Health at The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services. Lead exposure in children is particularly concerning because their brains are still developing and it is more readily absorbed in their stomachs than in adults, he said.
Tap water may be fine to drink in some cases, and if not, EWG recommends using a filter. It really depends on where you're located, Leiba said.
She said the concern isn’t so much that someone will get sick if they drink unfiltered tap water once or twice.
“The risk of that is low. What we are concerned about is long-term exposure, eight glasses a day, over a lifetime," she said.
Bottled water is not recommended, for several reasons. Unlike public water suppliers, manufacturers of bottled water are not required by law to disclose contaminant levels in their products. A 2012 report by EWG found that four out of five bottled water companies did not publish the results of their water quality testing. Bottled water may also be contaminated with plastic additives that can leach from the bottle into the water.
EWG has made its data available in the form of a public database. The hope is that after consumers see the data, they can decide what they want to do with it, whether they buy a filter or contact their local representative.
"Legal doesn’t necessarily mean safe when it comes to drinking water," Leiba said. "The main point for us is empowering people."
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