Smart discussion about toxics policy reform

Tests Find Hundreds of Pollutants in U.S. Tap Water

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:

  • 97 agricultural pollutants, including pesticides and chemicals from fertilizer- and manure-laden runoff
  • 205 industrial chemicals linked to factory discharges and consumer products
  • 86 contaminants that originate in polluted runoff and wastewater treatment plants
  • 42 that are byproducts of water treatment processes or that leach from pipes and storage tanks.

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:

  • EPA should construct and maintain a national database of tap water quality testing that is accessible to consumers.
  • EPA should greatly expand requirements for testing unregulated contaminants. EPA and Congress should provide support for utilities to get that testing done.
  • The Safe Drinking Water Act’s Consumer Confidence Report rule should be updated to require complete disclosure of all contaminants detected in drinking water.
  • EPA should set health-protective standards for chemicals that are currently unregulated but present in tap water.
  • Source water protection programs should be significantly expanded, including efforts to prevent or reduce pollution flowing into source waters and conserving buffer zones around tap water supplies. Financial support for these projects is crucial.
  • Federal laws and policies should be reformed to ensure that vulnerable populations, including pregnant women and children, are protected from chemical pollution of food, the environment – and especially drinking water.

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4 Responses to “Tests Find Hundreds of Pollutants in U.S. Tap Water”

  1. nyscof says:

    70% of US water suppliers add unnecessary, health-robbing fluoride chemicals, in the form of contaminated silicofluorides, into the water supplies which are allowed to deliver trace amounts of lead, arsenic, mercury and other toxins by NSF International the governing body over water additives.

    Because of the recent shortage of silicofluorides, NSF is lowering its already low standards and allowing more iodine in these fluoridation chemicals.

    Fluoride is neither a nutrient nor essential for healthy teeth. Yet, it is purposely added to water supplies at a cost of billions of dollars for chemicals, manpower, equipment, paper work, etc, etc

    This makes fluoride the most consumed drug in America. It may be expensive to remove the EWG defined toxins in the water. But stopping the flow of fluoride just requires a turn of a valve and the political will to do so.

    People need to contact their legislators and tell them to stop putting toxic fluoride into your drinking water which you are already avoiding because of the other unwanted toxins that have found their way into our water supply

    for more info

    Tell Congress to stop fluoridation here:

  2. Waterwatch of Utah says:

    Recently, I discovered the federally required Consumer Confidence Reports (CCR’s) are not always reflective of the quality of the water coming out of the consumers tap. As that is the point of the report, that revelation was disturbing.

    In 2000, two counties in Utah voted to add the fluoride additive to the public water supply. Several months ago, I reviewed the annual Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) compiled in 2008 by my city’s water agency. Pertaining to that particular water additive, I knew what the CCR report should reflect. I was surprised to read that according to the report, the fluoride levels were far below the ‘optimal fluoride levels’ demanded by the Health Department. Although if correct, that would have been a tremendous relief, I knew that line in the report was inaccurate. Puzzled, I looked at other water agencies reports and no where in my county did it appear that fluoride was being added to the public water supply. I looked back at other years and the information was the same. I started looking at the other county that had voted to fluoridate and none of those water agencies were correctly reporting the fluoride levels in the finished water. In both counties, the fluoride levels on the CCR reported pre-treatment or background levels, which was not reflective of the finished water. I called several of the water agencies and asked them to explain the report. No one could. I called the Health Department, which in most states has oversight on the fluoride additive. I asked them to explain the county-wide inaccuracies. No one could. I called the State Department of Drinking Water and asked them to explain and no one could. I asked if the County had regulatory authority over the CCR and was assured that responsibility for the CCR’s rested with the State. Although each water agency submits the CCR’s to the State, which sends them on to the Federal EPA, it was evident no one read these reports. Several weeks later, I made a formal complaint to both the County and the State that the CCR’s were not reflective of the consumers finished water. After nothing was done to correct the problem, I called the regional EPA and sent them a sampling of the reports and asked if they could explain the county-wide inaccuracies. No one could. Additionally, if the fluoride levels were reported inaccurately, could I trust any part of the report? Later that day, I received an email from the State Drinking Water Director acknowledging the error and attached was a copy of the letter sent by the State to each water agency clarifying for them that the CCR’s are to be reflective of the finished water as opposed to the source or pre-treatment water. Duh.

    Here is the reason the fluoride inaccuracy was such a big deal. ‘Fluoride’ is the very last thing added to the water before it travels down the pipes and out the consumers tap. Fluoride is a generic reference to one of three artificial silicofluorides, fluorosilicic acid, sodium silicofluoride and sodium fluoride. The most commonly selected ‘fluoride’ is fluorosilicic acid, which in addition to the fluoride ion, contains myriad tramp contaminants including arsenic, lead and huge amounts of aluminum. Under the EPA Bevill exclusion, the phosphate mining waste steam, fluorosilicic acid, appears to be given exemptions for proper hazardous waste disposal then under RCRA, when it is recycled or sold to a water agency, it is reclassified from a hazardous waste material to a hazardous waste by-product. The exclusions offered by the EPA appears to allow ‘fluoride’ to avoid inclusion on any of the EPA’s ‘List of List’s’ which keeps it below every regulatory agency’s radar. Fluoride generally has only one CAS number although for a number of very good reasons, each constituent of the product should rightfully be assigned a CAS number. It appears that generally, all the co-contaminants are not disclosed to the water agencies and the Certificates of Compliance are not batch specific. Most often, the tramp contaminant levels vary batch to batch and although there may be assurances that once properly diluted, these additional contaminants such as arsenic are inconsequential, the very fact that the types and amounts of tramp contaminants are not revealed to water agencies should be alarming. Remember, it is the very last substance added to the water before it flows out of the tap. Also, the addition of artificial ‘fluoride’ is an elective and is not required by either the Federal Safe or Clean Drinking Water Acts. It is often passed onto the water agencies as an unfunded mandate and most water agencies have to install infrastructure specific to fluoride and to do it right, the infrastructure is very expensive. It requires an additional final testing port be installed and that, too, is costly. In our state, Minimal Construction Standards were allowed and no water agency was required to implement to Best Practice. As it is an additional expense, it appears the post-fluoride testing ports were not required. So none of the regulatory agencies noticed that the water agencies didn’t test the finished water after the addition of ‘fluoride’? The levels of additional contaminants added via the fluoride additive may remain not only undetected but also unremediated. Add to the fact that fluoride as a laboratory tool potentiates or enhances the effects of other substances, what additional ramifications could be anticipated when artificial fluorides co-mingle with existing water pollutants such as selenium, perchlorates, trihalomethanes or fluoride based pharmaceutical waste products? There are those who believe the secret to pollution is dilution. So if water agencies don’t test the finished water just after they have added a vaguely identified additive containing an unspecified amount of tramp contaminants, some of which are carcinogenic, are they absolved from responsibility? Does the adage, don’t ask, don’t tell, apply? Should the water agency be ultimately responsible and legally liable for the product they produce? Should the CCR’s be accurate, even if few people actually take the time to read them? Of course. In this particular instance, the careful reading of the federally required Consumer Confidence Report should be a cautionary tale for both the water agency and the consumer. Buyer Beware.

  3. carey says:

    A little disturbing but appreciate all the work you all are doing to educate communities across the globe, and appreciate reading the comments. A great movie – Tapped ( outlines some of the issues as well and offers some ideas, that parallel EWG’s. We all have a lot of solutions, which is good, but what kind of water do we want? What kind of water systems should we build/design? How should products be produced/food be produced so as to not increase the amount of toxins? What would “clean” water look like and what are the things we need to do to get there?

    • Elaine Shannon says:

      Thanks, Carey. We figure, if nobody talks about it, nobody changes it. Most utilities are doing a good job, given the constraints on their budgets. But if people want really clean water, they’re going to have to support proper funding for their utilities. And, maybe even more important, they’re going to have to get behind efforts to clean up source waters. Keeping agricultural chemicals and wastes out of ground waters, streams and rivers would be a huge start. Elaine Shannon, EWG