Farming & Tap Water

Farm pollution contaminates tap water across the U.S., with millions of Americans getting their water from sources laden with pesticides and chemicals from fertilizers and animal manure.

Runoff from rain and irrigation on farms carries contaminants to gullies, streams, lakes and rivers and seeps into groundwater that utilities rely on for water, as well as into private household wells. And this is perfectly legal, because farmers are largely exempt from the Clean Water Act.

Contaminants include the chemicals nitrate and phosphorus, found in commercial fertilizer and manure. Nitrate in drinking water is linked to cancer, birth defects and other human health issues, and phosphorus causes toxic algae blooms like the one that in 2014 caused the city of Toledo, Ohio,  issue a do-not-drink order to its 500,000 residents for three days. In addition to these chemicals, manure can carry pathogens like E. coli and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  

Pesticides like atrazine, a chemical known to disrupt hormones and harm the developing fetus, contaminate tap water at dangerous levels in several states. According to EWG’s Tap Water Database, which aggregates testing data from utilities nationwide, between 2015 and 2017, atrazine was found in water systems serving 44 million people in 35 states.

Rural areas, which are most affected by farm pollution, are often served by small utilities and private wells. Because utilities rely on ratepayers for revenue, small utilities have the fewest resources to address contamination from farm pollution. Private wells are typically tested only when they are dug, if at all – and their owners are on the hook financially to clean up any contamination.

Treating water is expensive. What’s more, treatment to remove pathogens creates disinfection byproducts called TTHMs, themselves toxic for humans. It is far cheaper to keep these and other contaminants out of drinking water than to treat it after the fact.

To help consumers understand the issue of farm pollution of drinking water and advocate for change, EWG tracks and analyzes contamination of tap water, the creation of federal and state agricultural and public health policy, the growth of factory farms and algae outbreaks, farmers’ adoption of conservation practices, and other aspects of this complex issue.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Manure from Minnesota’s 23,000 animal feedlots threatens to overload nearby cropland with chemicals that can pollute lakes, streams and aquifers, including drinking water sources, a new Environmental Working Group investigation found.

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News Release
Monday, May 18, 2020

One of the nation’s largest industrial agriculture operations is hiding behind a small family farm to try to avoid environmental oversight of a plan to clear-cut pristine Minnesota forestland for a huge expansion of its potato-growing acreage, EWG charged in formal comments to the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

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AgMag
Article
Monday, April 13, 2020

The Army Corps of Engineers just opened a huge flood management structure to relieve the swollen Mississippi River, which could cause a recurrence of a huge toxic algae bloom along the Gulf Coast, potentially affecting fisheries, recreation and ecosystems.

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News and Analysis
Article
Tuesday, March 10, 2020

After issuing back-to-back reports highlighting the increasing threat nitrate pollution from agriculture poses to Minnesotans’ sourcing of drinking water from private wells, the Midwest office of the Environmental Working Group today released a letter in support of Minnesota House File 3950. H.F. 3950 requires water testing of private wells for bacteria, nitrate and arsenic before the sale or transfer of real property.

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News Release
Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Nitrate contamination of drinking water has increased across Minnesota’s farm country, an Environmental Working Group analysis of state data has found.

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News Release
Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Nitrate contamination of drinking water is getting worse in much of rural Minnesota, an Environmental Working Group analysis of state data found.

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Reports & Consumer Guides
Thursday, February 20, 2020

Studies of the health hazards of toxic algae blooms have focused largely on the danger of direct contact with contaminated water in lakes, rivers and the ocean. Now a new study shows that even airborne exposure to the bacteria from a toxic bloom could also pose a risk.

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AgMag
Article
Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The number of large concentrated animal feeding operations, or large CAFOs, in Iowa increased nearly fivefold in the past two decades, a new study from Environmental Working Group reveals, with almost all of the growth from big hog-feeding operations.

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Reports & Consumer Guides
Thursday, January 16, 2020

Florida health officials are warning of an unusually early outbreak of blue-green algae on the Caloosahatchee River, a popular tourist area on the state’s southwestern Gulf Coast.

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AgMag
Article
Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Drinking water for an estimated half a million Minnesotans is drawn from groundwater contaminated with elevated levels of nitrate, a toxic pollutant that is linked to cancer and is especially dangerous for infants, according to an EWG analysis of federal and state test data.

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Reports & Consumer Guides
Tuesday, January 14, 2020

An estimated half a million Minnesotans are drinking tap water contaminated with elevated levels of nitrate, a chemical associated with cancer and other serious health problems, according to a report released today by the Environmental Working Group.

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News Release
Thursday, December 12, 2019

Just in time for Christmas, the Trump administration has finalized a rule to kick 700,000 hungry Americans off the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, commonly called food stamps – the first phase of a broader plan to deny nutrition support to 3 million low-income people.

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AgMag
Article
Monday, October 7, 2019

EWG has found 508 news reports about algae blooms in the country’s lakes, ponds and rivers so far this year – 18 percent more than the 429 we found in the same period last year.

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AgMag
Article
Thursday, September 12, 2019

Today the Trump administration will finalize its plan to repeal critical safeguards that prohibit the dumping of industrial and agricultural pollution into sensitive waterways that provide tap water for more than 117 million Americans.

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News Release
Thursday, September 5, 2019

As Hurricane Dorian bears down on North Carolina, the storm’s flood waters threaten once again to spread millions of tons of animal waste from factory farms throughout the state’s eastern coastal plain.

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News Release
Thursday, August 29, 2019

A record-breaking number of potentially toxic algae blooms have plagued bodies of water across the country this summer. According to our map, which tracks news stories of algae blooms, as of August 27, 354 algae outbreaks have occurred in 41 states. That’s 65 more bloom stories than the 289 that had occurred by this time last year.

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AgMag
Article
Thursday, August 15, 2019

Last week, Melissa Martin and Denise Mintz took their dogs – Abby, Harpo and Lizzy – for a swim in a pond near their home in Wilmington, N.C. Within hours, the dogs grew sick and died, apparent victims of poisoning from toxic algae blooms.

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News and Analysis
Article
Thursday, August 15, 2019

Outbreaks of potentially toxic algae are fouling lakes, rivers and other bodies of water across the U.S. Nationally, news reports on algae outbreaks have been on the rise since 2010.

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Children's Health
Article
Thursday, August 8, 2019

Microcystins are poisonous toxins that can form in blooms of blue-green algae. In recent years, algae blooms – actually microscopic bacteria called cyanobacteria – have erupted in hundreds of lakes nationwide, putting at risk Americans whose drinking water comes from those lakes, or who swim, ski or fish in them. If ingested, microcystins can cause adverse health effects in people and animals, ranging from skin rashes to serious illness and even death.

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Reports & Consumer Guides
Thursday, August 8, 2019

In 2011, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., fell “deathly sick” from a severe upper respiratory illness after swimming in a lake infected with toxic algae. Inhofe, a notorious science-denying patron of corporate polluters, laughed it off as “the environment strikes back.”

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AgMag
Article

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