EPA still failing to act on widespread toxic chemical contamination of U.S. drinking water

EWG's 2021 Tap Water Database highlights ‘regulatory capture’ of agency water office


WASHINGTON – Millions of Americans are unwittingly drinking water that includes an invisible toxic cocktail made up of contaminants linked to cancer, brain damage and other serious health harms, the 2021 update to the Environmental Working Group’s nationwide Tap Water Database reveals.

The one-of-a-kind comprehensive consumer tool uncovers widespread contamination from toxic substances such as arsenic, lead and the “forever chemicals” known as PFAS in the drinking water of tens of millions of households in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The database also underscores the need for stricter federal water quality standards and a massive injection of funding for badly needed water infrastructure improvements across the country.

“EWG’s Tap Water Database offers a panoramic view of what drinking water quality looks like when the federal office meant to protect our water is in an advanced stage of regulatory capture,” said EWG President Ken Cook.

“The Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water has demonstrated for decades that it is utterly incapable of standing up to pressure from water utilities and polluters to protect human health from the dozens of toxic contaminants in America’s drinking water,” Cook said.

To create the Tap Water Database, EWG’s researchers and scientists spent countless hours over more than two years collecting and analyzing U.S. water contaminant test data from almost 50,000 water systems.

Consumers can enter a ZIP code into the database and see a report of the type and amount of toxic chemicals detected in that location’s drinking water. They can also see safety assessments developed by EWG scientists about the adverse health effects associated with exposure to those contaminants.

The U.S. tap water system is plagued by antiquated infrastructure and rampant pollution of source water, while out-of-date EPA regulations, often relying on archaic science, allow unsafe levels of toxic chemicals in drinking water.

Substantial federal investments that could do a great deal to solve many U.S. tap water problems, like removing toxic lead service lines and cleaning up PFAS contamination, are at stake this fall, as Congress debates massive infrastructure spending bills.

With more funding, stronger federal safety standards and a greater focus on helping historically disadvantaged areas, safe water could finally be a given for all communities across the country,” Cook said. “Until then, EWG’s Tap Water Database will continue to be a key part of our work to help consumers and communities learn about the true scope of the problem, empower themselves and advocate for better water quality.”

The Tap Water Database also explains the standards that EWG has created for several tap water contaminants, drawing on the latest science to address the gap in federal oversight and better protect public health. And the database provides guidance about choosing effective water filters to reduce the pollutants found in consumers’ drinking water. 

“Our government needs to wake up to the fact that clean water is a human right, regardless of race, income or politics,” said noted consumer advocate Erin Brockovich. “Achieving true water equity means getting everyone – every single person – in this country access to affordable, safe tap water they can trust will not poison them and their loved ones.”

A history of failure: EPA’s inadequate protection of tap water

In 1974, the Safe Drinking Water Act gave the EPA the responsibility to oversee tap water quality across the U.S. Over the next 47 years, the agency has set maximum contaminant levels, or MCLs – the upper limit of a pollutant legally allowed in drinking water – for more than 90 contaminants.

The water provided by most systems is considered legal according to these limits – but it is hardly safe. In fact, federal oversight of drinking water has been failing for years.

“The EPA has become very good at constantly reassuring the public that all is well with the water coming out of their taps,” Cook said. “That message is music to the ears of polluters who’ve fouled source waters and water utilities wary of treatment and infrastructure costs. But it’s just not true – and the EPA’s own scientists know it.”

This is the true state of tap water regulation in the U.S.:

  • The EPA’s Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water has added no new contaminants to its regulated list since 2000. Over the past two decades – almost a generation – the EPA has repeatedly punted on setting rules for many unregulated contaminants.
  • Without legal limits on these chemicals, water systems have no impetus to tackle the contamination from such toxic substances as PFAS, 1,4-dioxane and hexavalent chromium, the chemical made famous by Erin Brockovich’s campaigning.
  • Many MCLs do not reflect the latest science and are woefully out of date. For example, the legal federal standard for nitrate, a fertilizer chemical that often contaminates drinking water, is based on a U.S. Public Health Service recommendation from 1962. More recent studies show that to protect against the risk of cancer, the MCL of 10 milligrams per liter, or mg/L, should be lowered.
  • The EPA routinely gives more weight to the financial cost of treating contaminated water than to the benefits to public health from stricter regulation. 
  • Federal regulators assess the public health risks of tap water pollutants one chemical at a time, even though drinking water rarely, if ever, contains only one contaminant. In a landmark 2019 peer-reviewed study, EWG researchers found that cumulative exposure to mixtures of 22 toxic chemicals commonly found in U.S. tap water could result in more than 100,000 cancer cases.
  • Even when sufficiently stringent limits are in place, the EPA and state drinking water programs have limited resources to enforce them. Some systems receive “temporary” waivers for violations for decades.
  • Many drinking water systems lack the funds to modernize outdated infrastructure or build adequate new treatment facilities.
  • The EPA does not take tap water contamination into account when identifying communities facing multiple environmental injustices. The agency’s Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool aggregates and evaluates 11 environmental indicators – such as the presence of lead paint, proximity to Superfund sites and existence of nearby wastewater discharges – but not drinking water quality.
  • The EPA isn’t doing enough to monitor water supplies for “emerging” contaminants, like microplastics, prescription drugs and most pesticides.
EWG's Guide to Safe Drinking Water

Reduce your exposures to common drinking water pollutants with EWG's handy tipsheet!

Call to action: Help blow the whistle on EPA’s failing tap water protections

For anyone suffering from polluted drinking water, the lax federal regulation of our vital drinking water, combined with the important findings of the Tap Water Database update, serve as a call to action to push for stricter policies and funding hikes.

“Whether it is lead in Flint, Michigan, or in many other cities, or perchlorate, PFAS or hexavalent chromium in the water of hundreds of millions of Americans nationwide – the list goes on and on – the EPA consistently fails to take urgent, meaningful regulatory action, not even in the many instances when contamination is above levels the agency’s own scientists have determined are not safe,” Cook said. “The Tap Water Database makes these failings abundantly clear.”

Access to safe tap water is a non-partisan issue. And oversight failures at the EPA have spanned both Republican and Democratic administrations. Cook is calling on agency officials who have pushed for stricter rules but been overruled about speaking out.

“There are thousands of current and former hardworking career staff at the EPA’s Office of Water who have tried to get their agency to act but been rebuffed by political leadership," Cook said. “I urge them to contact EWG, lawmakers or the press to blow the whistle on these decades of failure when it comes to the agency’s responsibility to protect tap water.”


The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action. Visit www.ewg.org for more information.

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