Millions of Americans don’t trust that the water coming out of their taps is safe to drink. New research by Environmental Working Group (EWG) suggests that for many, there’s good reason to be concerned.
Over the last three years, EWG assembled an unprecedented database of 20 million tap water testing results from water utilities across the country. It shows that the utilities’ own testing has detected a total of 316 pollutants in U.S. drinking water since 2004. More than a third of those contaminants were sometimes in water at levels that exceeded the federal government’s health-based advisories.
Equally troubling is the fact that more than half of the pollutants detected are completely unregulated. For these, there are no health guidelines, let alone mandatory standards. In most cases, no one knows whether their presence in drinking water might pose a health threat — because no one has done that assessment. The US government has not set a single new drinking water safety standard since 2001.
When it comes to pollutants for which the federal government has done the work of setting mandatory health standards, utilities on the whole perform well. Across the country, 92 percent of people supplied by community water systems received drinking water that met all standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the period covered by the database.
Ranking the Biggest Water Utilities
EWG assembled water-testing data for 48,000 communities in 45 states and the District of Columbia for its drinking water quality analysis. EWG was unable to obtain data in affordable, usable form from the others.
For utilities that supply cities of 250,000 or more residents, EWG also developed a unique ranking system. The 10 top-rated and the 10 lowest-rated city water systems are shown in these lists. In addition, consumers in these 100 cities can look up how their water system stacks up nationally by using EWG’s user-friendly, searchable database. Some people will be surprised, and disturbed, by what they learn.
EWG’s new resource includes an analysis of household water filtration systems that can help consumers who want extra protection decide what filter will best serve their needs. There are far more choices than most people realize.
The good news for people who live in areas served by the top-ranking water systems is that those utilities test for many more chemicals than the federal government requires and that their tests show relatively low levels of the most common toxic pollutants, substances such as arsenic, the fertilizer ingredient nitrate, and trihalomethanes, which are byproducts of water utilities’ own disinfection processes. The three top-rated water utilities in EWG’s rankings were those serving Arlington, Texas; Providence, R.I.; and Forth Worth, Texas.
The lowest-rated water utilities all reported concentrations of various pollutants at levels exceeding government health guidelines. That’s bound to be worrisome for people living in areas supplied by the lowest-ranked systems, including Pensacola, Fla.; Riverside, Calif.; and Las Vegas.
Where Do the Pollutants Come From?
These results don’t mean that Americans face the same problems as people in many developing countries, where drinking tap water can lead to immediate intestinal trouble and exposure to dangerous parasites or other infections. But over the long term, some of the chemicals found regularly in U.S. drinking water raise significant health concerns. Arsenic, for instance, is a well-known poison and carcinogen; nitrate, a fertilizer ingredient, is harmful to infants; and the disinfection byproducts called trihalomethanes are also cancer-causers. In the case of many of the pollutants detected, however, it is impossible to gauge the seriousness of the risk because no one has done the necessary studies.
The 316 contaminants identified in EWG’s drinking water database come from a wide variety of sources. The testing detected:
What Americans Think of Their Water
There is plenty of evidence that Americans already have doubts about the safety of their drinking water. In March 2009, a Gallup poll found that Americans rank water pollution as their #1 environmental concern. A startling 84 percent reported being worried “a great deal” or “a fair amount” about contamination in drinking water. No less than 80 percent worry that the water supply infrastructure is not being adequately maintained.
And, of course, millions of Americans have taken to buying bottled water in the misguided belief that it’s safer, even though the source of many very popular brands is nothing more than treated tap water. The enormous growth of this market contributes greatly to the nation’s huge solid waste problem as consumers dispose of countless plastic water bottles.
What Needs to Be Done?
As a result of this research, Environmental Working Group recommends six steps to policymakers: