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Thursday, October 1, 1998

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What Ohioans Need to Know to Clean Up Their Rivers and Tap Water

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The federal government and the states have adopted a high- cost, high-risk strategy in their drinking water programs, where consumers pay water suppliers to try to make polluted water drinkable. In spite of the vigorous efforts of drinking water providers, tap water made from dirty rivers and lakes is often host to multiple toxic chemicals, or is contaminated with the by-products of the clean-up process itself.

In the summer of 1998, EWG and Ohio Citizen Action coordinated a citizens’ tap water monitoring program in 12 Ohio communities, from large cities like Cleveland and Columbus to small towns like Williamsburg and Defiance. Single samples of tap water were taken in each community, and then analyzed for a host of contaminants including pesticides, nitrates, petroleum products, industrial chemicals and the by-products of water treatment.

Independent laboratory analysis found 20 different contaminants in the water systems sampled, often at levels above federal safety standards or guidelines. The most common contaminants were trihalomethanes (THMs) — potent carcinogens and reproductive toxins that are by-products of water chlorination, found in every system tested. Atrazine, a cancer-causing weed killer, and nitrates, fertilizer residues that can be fatal to infants, were found in 10 of 12 water systems.

THMs, atrazine and nitrates were all found at levels above federal annual enforcement standards. Several individual THM compounds, as well as the pesticides cyanazine and acifluorfen, were detected at levels above non-enforceable federal health guidelines. In six communities (Columbus, Defiance, Delaware, Napoleon, Norwalk, and Williamsburg), THMs were found at levels above those associated with a significant increase in miscarriage rates in a recent study of 5,100 pregnant women in California (Waller et al. 1998, EPA 1998a) (Figure 1).

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