October 1998 - Columbus, Ohio: Pollutants in rivers and other source waters throughout Ohio are contaminating drinking water statewide, a citizen monitoring project has found. Tap water in a dozen Ohio communities is contaminated - at levels well above federal safety standards or guidelines - with pesticides, chlorinated compounds and other chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects and other illnesses, according to tap water tests commissioned by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Ohio Citizen Action.
A total of 20 different contaminants were detected in tap water across 12 Ohio communities this summer, including pesticides, components of gasoline, fertilizer ingredients, and by-products of chlorination. A single sample of drinking water from Defiance contained 16 separate contaminants.
The results were revealed at the launch of the latest EWG/Ohio Citizen Action report "Full Disclosure" at a press conference in Columbus today.
"Despite vigorous efforts of drinking water providers, tap water made from dirty rivers and lakes is often host to multiple toxic chemicals, or ends up being contaminated with the by-products of the clean-up process," said Jane Houlihan, author of the report. "Water suppliers aren't the problem. Upstream polluters are."
Here in Columbus, the study found 10 contaminants, including 6 pesticides, an ingredient of fertilizer called nitrate, and 3 disinfection byproducts called trihalomethanes, or THMs.
In the past six years, five studies conducted by the California Department of Health Services have shown a relationship between tap water and miscarriages. Additional studies by scientists at the U.S. Public Health Service and the state of New Jersey have shown a link between THMs and birth defects like cleft palate, neural tube defects, major cardiac defects, and low birth weight.
In the most recent study, women in the first trimester of pregnancy who drank five or more glasses of tap water a day with total THMs above 75 ppb had a 15.7 percent rate of miscarriage. Women who drank water with less than 75 ppb total THMs, or less than five glasses of water per day, or both, had a 9.5 percent rate of miscarriages.
In Columbus, Defiance, Delaware, Napoleon, Norwalk, and Williamsburg, THM levels were found far above 75 ppb. Women in these communities receive no warning when THM levels in tapwater rise above this level of significant risk.
Analysis of several years of monitoring data for the Columbus water utility shows that the single sample in the EWG/Ohio Citizen Action study is just further evidence of a pattern of high levels of these toxic by-products of the chlorination in Columbus tap water. In 1995 THM levels were sustained above 75 ppb for a third of the year.
The 1996 amendments to the Clean Water Act require water systems to prepare an annual summary of the quality of the water they delivered to consumers taps throughout the year. The first of these reports must be delivered to consumers by October 1999.
"EPA's highly touted new program falls far short of ensuring the public's right to know," said Jane Houlihan. "While some utilities may do more, water suppliers are only required to inform the public about contaminants in the tap water covered by an official enforcement standard."
This standard, known as the maximum contaminant level, has only been adopted for six of the 20 contaminants found in the water tested. Aside from some short-term reporting requirements, the public has no federally guaranteed, long term right to know about 14 of the 20 contaminants. "Major problems with EPA policy undermine the public's right to know about potentially hazardous chemicals in their drinking water," said Noreen Warnock of Ohio Citizen Action.
The report recommends that Ohio EPA:
- Adopt tough, enforceable source water protection plans.
- Require weekly monitoring of THMs for surface water systems, and mandate public notification when THM levels exceed 75 ppb in tap water at any location served by the water supplier.
- Reduce the use of pesticides and fertilizer that are found in Ohio tap water.
In addition, the U.S. EPA should ban the herbicide atrazine, the most common pesticide pollutant.
The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit environmental research organization based in Washington, D.C. The Environmental Working Group is a project of the Tides Center, a California Public Benefit Corporation based in San Francisco that provides administrative and program support services to nonprofit programs and projects.
Ohio Citizen Action campaigns on issues from public health and the environment to utility and insurance rates. A non-profit, non-partisan group with 150,000 members, it was founded in 1976.