A two year profile of drinking water quality in the US
Just Add Water: State Level Executive Summaries
The Commerce Committee of the House of Representatives is currently reauthorizing the Safe Drinking Water Act, the law that establishes basic health standards and testing requirements for the nation's tap water. So-called "reform" legislation drafted by Commerce Committee Chairman Thomas Bliley of Virginia, is scheduled for a vote in the House in early May. The Senate reauthorized its version of the Safe Drinking Water Act in November, 1995.
The Bliley draft "reform" bill dramatically weakens the nation's drinking water safeguards. If enacted it would subvert the basic health standard in current law, curtail the monitoring of drinking water contaminants, limit the public's right to know about drinking water problems, and explicitly allow more fecal matter and toxic chemicals in the drinking water of small and medium sized communities than is allowed in large cities.
In Just Add Water the Environmental Working Group (EWG) analyzed more than 16 million records submitted to the EPA by state drinking water agencies. We found that thousands of community water suppliers serving millions of people across the country routinely fail to meet federal health standards (Table 5). These same water system records further reveal that thousands of private water suppliers that serve some of the most vulnerable portions of the population - schools, hospitals, and day care centers - have violated EPA health standards in the previous two years. Any weakening of current law would be particularly unwise given the level of contamination in drinking water today.
In November, the Senate passed a bill that weakened tap water safety monitoring and enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act, and did little to prevent pollution of tap water supplies. The Bliley draft contains similar provisions, but goes well beyond the Senate bill. It replaces the current law's emphasis on public health protection with cost-benefit provisions that undermine and substantially diminish the basic health guarantees in current law. As Just Add Water went to press, the most serious problems in the legislation included:
Weakens or delays health standards for toxics in tap water. The Bliley bill allows EPA to weaken standards, letting the cost to water suppliers of removing toxic contaminants take precedence over public health. This reverses the emphasis on health protections in current federal law. In addition, the draft legislation would require EPA to conduct complex and time-consuming analyses every time the agency acts to establish new standards, and gives polluting industries new avenues to sue EPA over proposed regulations.
Delays a new EPA standard for arsenic. The bill would require the agency to perform years of studies before it could update the weak, 50-year-old standard for this known human carcinogen.
Rolls back EPA's proposed radon standard. The bill writes into law a radon standard that is ten times weaker than the initial EPA-proposed standard for this known human carcinogen that causes approximately 200 deaths per year (EPA 1995).
Denies the consumer's Right to Know. Currently, consumers do not have to be told if their water contains many highly toxic contaminants, including Cryptosporidium, arsenic, and radon. An amendment that would require consumers to be informed of these problems failed to pass the Senate, and is not included in the House legislation.
Does virtually nothing to prevent pollution or make polluters pay to clean up tap water supplies that they contaminated. Preventing pollution is the only way that cities and towns can keep pesticides out of drinking water supplies. The Bliley draft rewrite of the SDWA handcuffs communities and states, giving them few powers to prevent contamination of drinking water supplies. As a result, the health risks from drinking tap water will continue to increase, and downstream water drinkers will continue to pay to clean up problems caused by upstream polluters. Polluting interests (primarily agribusiness) have lobbied heavily against giving communities the means to control or prevent pollution of their water supplies.
Allows fifty million people in small and medium-sized communities to drink tap water that contains more hazardous microorganisms or toxic chemicals than the tap water in large communities. The Bliley draft SDWA rewrite explicitly allows more fecal matter and toxic chemicals in the drinking water of small and medium sized communities, than would be allowed in large cities. Rural water suppliers and the pesticide industry have lobbied aggressively for provisions in the bill that would allow small communities to get expanded exemptions from health standards. This double standard specifically benefits the pesticide industry because in most cases pesticides are the only chemical pollutants (other than nitrate) found in small rural water supplies.
Weakens and delays regulations to reduce the levels of chlorination byproducts. This provision benefits only the chlorine industry. The Bliley draft reopens industry-negotiated rules to control cancer causing byproducts of chlorine disinfection, subjecting them to complicated new risk/cost benefit tests, and allowing industry to veto EPA efforts to establish expedited rules.
Methodology and Contents
Just Add Water focuses solely on health standard violations (not monitoring violations or "paperwork" violations), meaning that water drinkers in all of the communities reported in Just Add Water were exposed to chemical, radiation, or biological contamination at levels that federal health authorities consider unsafe, or to drinking water that was not adequately treated to reduce health threats. Also listed in these tables are water systems that have been deemed "Significant Non-Compliers" with EPA's health standards. EPA places systems on the Significant Non-Compliers list if they have repeated or severe violations of health standards.
All information presented in this report is from data contained in the EPA's Safe Drinking Water Information System (SDWIS) database. The Environmental Working Group obtained the SDWIS database, which contains more than 16 million records of information on drinking water monitoring, enforcement actions, and violations of health standards.
EPA maintains the SDWIS database as a computerized repository of information on compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act. States are responsible for entering all violations information into the database, and correcting any data errors. All information on the name, city, and population served by the water system are also provided by the states to the EPA.
The EPA data presented here significantly underestimate the number of systems out of compliance with Safe Drinking Water Act health standards. First, many water utilities are not performing required testing, and thus are almost certainly not detecting and reporting the full range of drinking water problems. In 1993-94, 52 million people, 20% of the nation's population, were served water by a utility that violated a SDWA monitoring requirement. Second, many states fail to report drinking water systems that are in violation of federal health standards. A 1990 GAO investigation found numerous instances where violations of the SDWA known to states were not reported as violations to EPA (GAO 1990). A 1988 investigation by EPA's Inspector General reported similar findings (EPA Inspector General 1988). Because of this rampant underreporting, the fact that a water system does not appear to have any reported violations should not necessarily be taken to mean that the system has not exceeded EPA health standards.
About the Tables In This Report
Just Add Water contains five tables detailing violations or exceedances of the Safe Drinking Water Act's health standards in the state that have occurred in the two-year period from January 1994 through December 1995.
Table 1 contains summary information for all water systems in the state. This includes information on:
The number of community water systems with violations or exceedances of federal health standards, and the population affected;
The number of water systems classified by the EPA as "Significant Non-Compliers" and the population affected;
The number of schools, day care centers or medical facilities with violations of federal health standards, and the population affected; and
A summary of the systems and people affected by health standard violations for:
Fecal bacteria (E coli)
Chronic coliform bacteria
Exceedances of EPA's Lead Action Level,
Inadequate filtration or failure to filter, and
Toxic chemicals or excess radiation.
The health threats of these contaminants are briefly discussed below.
Table 2 contains a list of the largest water systems in the state that have violated a drinking water health standard or have been listed as Significant Non-Compliers with EPA health standards between January 1994 and December 1995. EPA places systems on the Significant Non-Compliers list if they have repeated or severe violations of health standards. This table includes information on the name, population, and county served by the water system, as well as the type and date of the violation.
Table 3 contains a list of all schools, hospitals or daycare centers in the state (alphabetized by county) that have their own water supply (usually a well) and have had a violation or exceedance of an EPA health standard, or been classified as a Significant Non-Complier by EPA.
Table 4 contains a list of all community water systems in the state (alphabetized by county) that have had a violation or exceedance of an EPA health standard, or been classified as a Significant Non-Complier by EPA.
Table 5 contains summary information on the number of water systems and population served that have suffered from violations or exceedances of EPA standards in all 50 states.
The Nature of the Violations
The violations described in the following tables are violations of EPA health standards or requirements, meaning that water drinkers in these communities were exposed to chemical or biological contaminants that federal health authorities consider unsafe, or to drinking water that was not adequately treated to reduce health threats. Also listed in these tables are water systems that have been deemed "Significant Non-Compliers" with EPA's health standards. EPA places systems on the Significant Non-Compliers list if they have repeated or severe violations of health standards. The tables that follow describe violations of eight types of EPA standards:
Fecal bacteria (E. Coli). E. Coli are a particular type of disease-causing bacteria found in fecal matter. Scientists estimate that 150,000 people each year become ill and 300 die from exposure to E. Coli in drinking water (Bennett, et al. 1987). Their presence in drinking water indicates that it has been contaminated by sewage or animal wastes. This bacterial contamination causes severe diarrhea, cramps, and nausea. Because of the severity of the health risks from fecal bacteria, EPA sets an acute standard indicating that water must be free of all fecal coliform to be considered safe.
Chronic Coliform Bacteria. The presence of coliform bacteria in drinking water is generally the result of problems with water treatment or the pipes which distribute the water. Coliform bacteria may also indicate contamination by disease-causing microorganisms (although the coliform themselves are not harmful). The most recent studies indicate that more than seven million people become ill and more than 1,000 die each year from disease-causing microorganisms in drinking water (Morris and Levin 1995). Disease symptoms may include diarrhea, cramps, nausea, and possibly jaundice, and associated headaches and fatigue. EPA has set a health standard to reduce the risk of these adverse health effects. Under this standard, no more than five percent of the samples (assuming at least two samples test positive) collected during a month can contain these bacteria.
Inadequate filtration/Failure to filter. If water is inadequately treated, it may contain microbiological contaminants such as Cryptosporidium and Giardia (which are found in most surface water drinking water systems and are not killed by simple chlorination) which can cause diarrhea, cramps and nausea. Scientists estimate that these two organisms sicken over 600,000 people and kill over 100 each year in the United States (Morris and Levin 1995). EPA has set enforceable requirements (known as Treatment Techniques) for treating drinking water to reduce the risk from disease-causing microorganisms such as Shigella, Salmonella, Cryptosporidium, and Giardia. Under these health standards, drinking water systems filtering their water must ensure that the process is working effectively, as demonstrated by turbidity and objective disinfection criteria. Systems not filtering must ensure that their source waters are clean and adequately disinfected.
Chemical and Radioactive Contamination.
The most common chemical or radioactive contaminants that are found above EPA standards include:
Total Trihalomethanes. Trihalomethanes or THMs are disinfection byproducts, chemicals formed when chlorine used in drinking water disinfection reacts with naturally occurring organic material such as sewage, animal waste and runoff. More than ten human epidemiological studies have indicated that these chemicals are associated with rectal, bladder, or pancreatic cancers, and a 1993 article in the American Journal of Public Health estimated that annually, 10,700 rectal and bladder cancers are likely caused by disinfection byproducts such as the trihalomethanes (Morris, et al. 1992). A 1993 study by the U.S. Public Health Service suggested that disinfection byproducts are also associated with birth defects, including spine and neural disorders (Bove, et al. 1992).
Lead. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, lead is the number one environmental threat to children. EPA has concluded that there is in fact no "safe" level of exposure to lead. Lead in drinking water causes interference with red blood cell chemistry, delays in normal physical and mental development in babies and young children, deficits in the attention span, hearing, and learning abilities of children, and increases in the blood pressure of some adults. Drinking water contaminated with lead causes over 560,000 children each year to exceed the CDC's blood-lead level of concern. And according to the CDC, better control of lead could help prevent over 680,000 cases of hypertension each year. Public water systems that have lead concentrations above 15 parts per billion in more than 10 percent of samples have exceeded EPA's Lead Action Level, and must optimize corrosion control and engage in a public education program to inform consumers of ways they can reduce their exposure to lead in drinking water (NRDC 1993).
Radioactive Drinking Water. EPA has established drinking water standards for two types of radiation in drinking water. Gross Alpha Radioactivity and Radium-226 and -228. Gross Alpha Radioactivity is a known human carcinogen. Its presence indicates contamination by radium, radon, uranium, or other naturally occurring radioactive substances. Radium-226 and -228, also known human carcinogens, are the second measure of radioactivity in water. Radium, a byproduct of the decay of uranium, is a naturally occurring, radioactive metal. Radium-226 is associated with bone sarcomas and head carcinomas, and Radium-228 is associated with bone sarcomas. EPA estimates that, over a lifetime, 15,750 people get cancer from radioactive drinking water (EPA 1991).
Nitrate. Exposure to nitrate in drinking water above the current EPA standard of 10 ppm poses an acute risk to infants of methemoglobinemia, or blue baby syndrome, a potentially deadly condition caused by lack of oxygen (NRC 1995). Symptoms of methemoglobinemia include shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, and in more extreme cases loss of consciousness, and even death.
Pesticides and Industrial Chemicals. EPA establishes standards for more than sixty additional chemical contaminants in drinking water. Violations of these health standards generally mean that water drinkers were exposed to toxic contaminants at concentrations that pose excessive risks of long term health impacts such as cancer, birth defects, neurological damage, and disruption of the hormonal system. Two common chemical contaminants are atrazine and trichloroethylene. Atrazine is an herbicide heavily used on corn and sorghum. It is a possible human carcinogen, and has been found to cause cancer of the mammary gland in animal studies. In addition, atrazine has also been found to disrupt the hormonal and endocrine system. Trichloroethylene is a probable human carcinogen. This chemical is commonly used in metal cleaning or dry cleaning, and often contaminates drinking water wells when disposed of improperly.
Bennett, J.V., et al. 1987. Infectious and parasitic diseases, in Closing the gap: the burden of unnecessary illness. R.W. Amler and H.B. Dull, eds. Oxford University Press.
Bove, et al. 1992. Public Drinking Water Contamination and Birthweight, Fetal Deaths, and Birth Defects. U.S. Public Health Service and N.J. Department of Health.
EPA. 1991. Regulatory Impact Analysis of Proposed National Primary Drinking Water Regulations For Radionuclides. Washington, D.C.
Morris, R.D., et al. 1992. Chlorination, chlorination byproducts and cancer: A meta-analysis. American Journal of Public Health. 82(7). 836-842.
Morris and Levin. 1995. Estimating the incidence of waterborne infectious disease related to drinking water in the United States. In Reichard, et al., eds. Assessing and managing health risks from drinking water contamination: Approaches and applications. International Association of Hydrological Sciences Press. Great Britain.
NRC. 1995. Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology. Nitrate and Nitrite in Drinking Water. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.
NRDC. 1993. Olson, E. Think Before You Drink. Natural Resources Defense Council. Washington, D.C.
NRDC. 1994. Olson, E. Think Before You Drink: 1992-1993 Update. Natural Resources Defense Council. Washington, D.C.