Just Add Water

A two year profile of drinking water quality in the US

May 1, 1996

Just Add Water: Weakening the Safe Drinking Water Act

According to experts from the Centers for Disease Control, nearly one million people get sick each year from drinking water, and almost one thousand of these people die (Bennet 1987). Indeed, not quite a year ago, the Centers and the federal Environmental Protection Agency issued a guidance document advising anyone with a compromised immune system to consult their physician before drinking ordinary tap water. The American Water Works Association took this warning one step further, advising HIV infected individuals in the United States to boil their tap water before drinking it (AWWA 1994).

At the same time, toxic by-products of chlorine disinfection, the so-called trihalomethanes, are linked to more than 10,000 cases of urinary bladder and rectal cancer each year, according to an analysis of more than a dozen peer-reviewed, published, epidemiological studies (Morris, et. al. 1992). Other contaminants in America's tap water including pesticides, radioactivity, Giardia, E. Coli, and lead, take a certain but less easily quantified toll on the health of millions more Americans.

During 1994-1995, the most recent two-year period for which federal data are available, more than 45 million people drank water from public water supplies that failed to meet at least one, and often several, federal health standards. Not surprisingly, major outbreaks of waterborne disease continue long after Cryptosporidium in the drinking water of Milwaukee killed more than 100 people and made 400,000 seriously ill in 1993. More recently, outbreaks of waterborne disease have occurred elsewhere in the U.S., including a little publicized major outbreak in Las Vegas, Nevada in 1994. The most likely culprit, again, is Cryptosporidium. But because the fecal-borne parasite is not regulated and is thus not routinely tested for by the local water utility or public health officials, it has been difficult to identify the specific water contaminant responsible for the outbreak.

Drinking water standards have many other shortcomings beyond their failure to regulate common drinking water contaminants such as radon, Cryptosporidium, and pesticides like cyanazine. One of the most serious is the fact that most current federal drinking water standards do not make any specific accommodation for the special risks and heavy consumption of water by infants and young children.

One-year-olds drink more than twice as much water relative to their size as adults. Measured in terms of total fluid intake, an adult would have to drink 35 cans of soda per day to match the drinking habits of the average one-year-old. Because of this, infants and young children are exposed to more water-borne contaminants, relative to their size, than adults. This higher exposure combined with the increased vulnerability of infants to many chemical and microbiological contaminants, means infants and young children face increased risks from virtually all contaminants in drinking water, and that current standards almost always do not provide adequate protections for this vulnerable portion of the population.

In October of 1995, the EPA announced a new policy to protect infants and children from exposure to toxic substances. At that time, EPA Administrator Carol Browner noted that the policy:


"...will, for the first time, ensure that we consistently and explicitly evaluate environmental health risks of infants and children in all risk assessments, risk characterizations, and environmental and public health standards that we set for the nation." (emphasis added) (EPA 1995)

In justifying the need for this new policy the EPA cited two National Academy of Sciences studies (NRC 1993, NRC 1994) that called for major policy changes at the EPA to integrate explicit protections for children when evaluating health risks from environmental contaminants.

To date, just two (lead and nitrate) of the more than eighty drinking water standards have been set explicitly to protect infants and children from immediate or long term health risk. No standards have been modified since the EPA policy was announced.

Similarly, drinking water standards do not account for multiple contaminants in a single glass of water. Instead, they are set as though people are exposed to one contaminant at a time, which very often is not the case.


The Public Right-to-Know

People have the right to know what is in their tap water. More importantly, individuals at high risk, such as people with compromised immune systems, need this information so they can protect their health and the health of their families, and intelligently participate in the local debate over what to do about the contamination.

Under current law, the public must be notified only when an enforceable drinking water contaminant standard is violated. Consumers do not have a practical right to know if their tap water contains common contaminants which are not regulated (such as Cryptosporidium, the pesticide cyanazine, or radon), or even if it contains contaminants that are regulated, when levels fall below federal health standards.

Technically, under current law utilities must provide the public with test results for regulated contaminants (but not things like Cryptosporidum or radon) upon request. In practice, most utilities do not maintain even this limited information in a way that is understandable to the public, and most citizens probably are not aware that this information is available. When asked, utilities often demand payment for staff time and other costs to generate the information. As a result, it is not unusual for a request for information on drinking water contamination to cost the average citizen $100 or more. Typically the information is presented in technical tables and terms not readily understandable to non-experts.

In many cases, tap water contamination that does not violate an enforceable health standard poses a significant health risk to infants, young children, the elderly, and immune compromised people such as organ transplant patients and individuals undergoing cancer chemotherapy.1 This is particularly true with unregulated contaminants such as Cryptosporidium or the pesticide cyanazine. It is also true for contaminants where standards are inadequate to protect the public health, such as for arsenic (which has a weak, 53-year old stantard set before arsenic was known to cause cancer) and the cancer-causing by-products of chlorination, collectively known as disinfection by-products (which are linked to about 10,000 cases of rectal and urinary bladder cancer each year) (Morris et. al. 1992).

Risks from unregulated Cryptosporidium are so severe that the American Water Works Association recommends that all HIV infected individuals boil their water and that all utilities inform their customers and the medical community of any detection of the parasite even though Cryptosporidium is not regulated and notification is not required by federal law (AWWA 1995). Such notification is rare, however, in spite of the unprecedented recommendation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in June, 1995, that due to concern about Cryptosporidium, seriously immune compromised individuals should always consult with their physician about the safety of their water supply and may want to consider boiling their water (CDC 1995).

California law currently requires all water systems in the state to issue an annual report in plain language to their customers about contaminants found in their drinking water at levels that may pose a health risk. These reports cost customers about a dime per household per year.

The National Drinking Water Advisory Council, a Congressionally-chartered group of experts from the water industry, state and local officials, and public health advocates, unanimously recommended in May 1995 that the federal law be amended to require California-like annual reports nationwide.

A bill introduced by Henry Waxman (D-CA), would implement the California right to know standard nationwide. Under the Waxman amendment, states could waive the requirement for utilities serving less than 3,300 people, as long as the utility notified customers that the information would be available upon request.


Making Polluters Pay

Another improvement to current law is a "polluter pays" amendment sponsored by Reps. Robert Torricelli (D-NJ) and Frank Pallone (D-NJ). This change in current law would require polluters who substantially contribute to contamination of drinking water, rather than rate payers (the public), to pay for drinking water treatment and testing to remedy the contamination they have caused.

Currently individuals or corporations who pollute drinking water bear none of the costs of making the water drinkable downstream. Agricultural pollution provides an excellent example.

Pesticides, fertilizers and animal waste from farms and feedlots cause substantial pollution of drinking water, particularly in the midwestern states. In fact, runoff of fertilizer and pesticides from farm fields is the most significant source of so-called "non-point" water pollution, accounting for half of this type of pollution and 25 percent of all water pollution nationwide. Runoff from farm fields, however, is not regulated under the Clean Water Act, and existing educational programs to help farmers prevent pollution have been extraordinally inadaquate. Consequently, farmers bear no responsibility, and have little incentive to reduce runoff from their farms. Instead, the drinkers of the water bear both the health risks of this contamination and the cost of cleanup.

The polluter pays amendment described above would give water utilities the clear authority to sue significant upstream polluters to recover the costs of all testing and treatment needed to bring the water into compliance with SDWA standards.


Ongoing Efforts to Weaken the Law

Despite continuing health threats posed by contaminated drinking water, and many notable successes of the Safe Drinking Water Act in improving the quality of tap water in some communities, chemical and water industry lobbyists and key members of the House of Representatives are pushing for major rollbacks of the health protections in current law.

Rep. Thomas Bliley (R-VA), Chairman of the House Commerce Committee, has circulated a draft drinking water "reform" bill that would substantially weaken the level of health protection and information provided to the public under current law. The full House of Representatives is slated to take up drinking water "reform" legislation in May 1996. Many of the changes in the Safe Drinking Water Act that have been advocated by the chemical and pesticide industries are contained in the Bliley draft.

As this report goes to press, the most egregious provisions in the Bliley bill would:


  • Weaken the basic public health standard in current law. Under current law, contaminant standards must protect the public health to the greatest extent feasible. The Bliley bill subverts this clear priority to protect the public health, by adding new cost benefit provisions that would explicitly allow a certain number of illness and even deaths to occur, depending on the cost of treating the contaminant in question. If enacted, polluters and water utilities could use these cost benefit provisions to force the EPA, when setting standards, to balance the costs of making the water drinkable against the economic value of the human illness and even death that may result from a certain level of drinking water contamination. The bill also adds complex, new evidentiary and procedural hurdles that the EPA must clear before setting a health standard, and creates new opportunities for industry to challenge these health standards in court.


  • Allow more arsenic in drinking water. Arsenic contaminates the drinking water of more than 50 million Americans. The Bliley bill delays a court ordered update of the safety standard for arsenic and applies the weakened standard setting provisions when the arsenic standard is finally set. The current arsenic standard was established during World War II (1942), when scientists knew nothing about arsenic's now well documented ability to cause cancer in humans.


  • Allow high levels of radon in drinking water. Radon, a "known human carcinogen," contaminates the drinking water of 80 million Americans. The Bliley bill would mandate a standard (3,000 picocuries of radon per liter of water) 10 times less protective than the standard proposed by EPA in 1992.


  • Allow up to 50 million people in small communities to drink water with higher levels of chemical and microbial contaminants than people in large cities. The Bliley bill requires waivers ("variances") of health standards for both microbial and chemical contaminants to be issued upon petition by the nation's smaller water systems (those serving fewer than 10,000 people each) if they meet certain newly broadened criteria. About 90 percent of the water systems in the country would be eligible for these variances. The Bliley bill deletes the Senate's requirement for EPA guidance on variances, and eliminates the Senate's citizen objection and EPA oversight provisions. Exemptions would not need to include schedules of compliance for additional control measures.


  • Deny the Public's Right to Know. The Bliley bill weakens monitoring requirements for contaminants in drinking water so utilities and their customers will know even less about contaminant levels. The bill then delays the start of an EPA database on drinking water contaminants that would help inform the public and assist the EPA in setting priorities for health protection. And when repeated violations occur, the Bliley bill severely limits a citizen's right to sue a water utility to enforce the law to clean up tap water. Finally, the bill denies the public the right to know what their utility found in their drinking water.


  • Maintains current unsafe levels of known carcinogens in tap water. The Bliley bill would delay and likely weaken standards for cancer-causing chlorination by-products. These standards were formally agreed to by the EPA, the water utilities, and the consumer and environmental community. Chlorination by-products contaminate the drinking water of about 150 million people and are linked to 10,000 cases of urinary bladder and rectal cancer each year.


  • Weakening protection of source water. Preventing pollution of drinking water sources in the first place is by far the most cost effective way for cities and towns to supply safe drinking water. The Bliley bill hamstrings communities and states, giving them few powers to prevent contamination of drinking water supplies.


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 the Act's 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 percent of the nation's population, were served water by a utility that violated a SDWA monitoring requirement. Second, many states are failing 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). Simply put, the fact that the EPA is unaware of any violations does not necessarily mean that a given drinking water system has not exceeded EPA health standards.


1 For a summary of some of the contaminants found in tap water about which customers rarely are told, see, Natural Resources Defense Council, You Are What You Drink (June, 1995) (documenting that many water systems have found Cryptosporidium and NRDC, CWA, and U.S. PIRG, Trouble on Tap (October, 1995) (documenting similar findings of widespread contamination with arsenic, radon, and trihalomethanes.

2 U.S. EPA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Guidance for People With Severely Weakened Immune Systems June, 1995).