Just Add Water

A two year profile of drinking water quality in the US

May 1, 1996

Just Add Water: Foreward

This just in: The U.S. House of Representatives is getting ready to overhaul the federal law that protects the safety of America's tap water.

If they pass their bill, pass me the Perrier.

In fact, you can bank on a boom in bottled water if the House adopts legislation even remotely resembling the draft bill circulated by Rep. Thomas J. Bliley of Virginia, the former funeral home director who now chairs the committee with jurisdiction over drinking water safety.

Consistent with the very worst environmental measures rushed through the House thus far during the 104th Congress - and they've passed some real losers - Mr. Bliley's draft would weaken basic public health standards, allowing more toxins in tap water. Among other disturbing features, Mr. Bliley's plan would undercut and delay EPA efforts to control the cancer-causing byproducts of chlorination, and make it very hard for citizens to find out if their drinking water is contaminated. Communities of all sizes would be hit hard, small and medium-sized towns and cities especially so.

Now is hardly the time to weaken drinking water safeguards or keep consumers in the dark about contamination. In an unprecedented warning issued less than a year ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said that if your immune system is weak as a result of chemotherapy, a severe infection, or an illness such as cancer or AIDS, you should consult your doctor before you drink a glass of tap water in the United States of America, because it could kill you. But what are doctors supposed to do, test their patients' tap water like they test their blood?

Blunter advice came a month earlier from the main trade association of drinking water utilities, the American Water Works Association. Referring to tap water contamination by the parasite Cryptosporidium - the bug that killed over 100 people in Milwaukee in 1993 and made tens of thousands ill - the AWWA flatly stated that "HIV-infected people should always boil water, regardless of whether an outbreak has been detected." [emphasis added]. Mind you, this is not a precaution for Americans traveling to a developing country. It is a warning to Americans on a trip to their kitchen tap.

Even as the water utility industry has given up on delivering safe water to people with weakened immune systems, it has been pressing hard for a relaxation of federal safeguards that cost water suppliers profits if they're privately owned, and cause political headaches if they're public. The loudest complaint is that federal mandates require utilities to conduct expensive tests for too many contaminants that the water suppliers claim seldom or never taint their water. But it turns out that in 41 states EPA has approved a formal program by which utilities can waive monitoring requirements if initial testing, proximity to pollution sources, and other factors indicate that specific contaminants are not a threat. Another 4 states have an informal program in place to do the same thing.

Pesticide companies also have good reason to see the drinking water law weakened. Pesticides, notably weed killers, contaminate the tap water of millions of Americans. EPA is scheduled to issue new drinking water standards for 25 contaminants under current law. Based on the agency's ongoing review, as many as 14 of those contaminants could be pesticides. That may partly explain the millions of dollars in PAC contributions the pesticide industry has provided to Congress this year.

But no one has taken tap water politics as low as the dirty trick artists at the Chlorine Chemistry Council, who saw in the warnings to HIV-infected people a chance to advance their agenda. The council, an arm of the Chemical Manufacturers Association, is fighting an EPA rule to reduce chlorination byproducts in drinking water. EPA is worried about the cancer risks; the Chlorine Council is worried about profits.

So the council began a covert phone call campaign aimed at AIDS groups across the country, implying that EPA's proposed chlorine rule threatened AIDS patients with more outbreaks of Cryptosporidium, according to a recent investigation by the Associated Press.1 In many cases the council used financial supporters of the AIDs groups to make the calls, concealing the industry's connection. "AIDS groups were incensed," according to the AP, "particularly because the appeal implied that reducing chlorine use would multiply the risk from Cryptosporidium. Scientists say chlorine alone has virtually no effect on the microbe." The AP stated that "the groups said AIDS patients actually would be harmed by the industry-backed changes because they would delay and weaken the new rule, which contains the first protections against Cryptosporidium." Mr. Bliley's draft "safe" drinking water bill, by the way, would solve the Chlorine Council's problem.

Clearly, what's in or not in that glass of water you draw from the tap is a high stakes matter for chemical companies, pesticide manufacturers and water utilities alike. Just Add Water is a series of reports - a national summary and 50 individual reports, one for each state - that documents violations of federal Safe Drinking Water Act health standards during 1994 and 1995 for every water system in the nation. That includes schools, hospitals and daycare centers, over 1,500 of which reported violations of drinking water health standards in 1994-1995. The studies are based on an Environmental Working Group analysis of 16 million government computer records of drinking water monitoring results, enforcement actions, and violations of health standards. Just Add Water was prepared by EWG staff members Brian Cohen, Richard Wiles and Chris Campbell, and by Erik Olson, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council who is one of the nation's leading authorities on drinking water policy. Public interest groups across the nation, including Environmental Information Center, Clean Water Action, state PIRGs, Citizen Action, and a number of grass roots organizations will be releasing the state-level studies. No doubt their demands will seem extreme in some circles. After all, they want pure, clean, affordable water, right from the tap. If it's contaminated, they believe Americans have a right to know. And they think the public interest, not just special interests, should be at the table when Congress sets national policy on tap water safety.

I'll drink to that.

Kenneth A. Cook