The Dirty Secret of Government Drinking Water Standards
In 2000, a gallon of gas cost an average of $1.51. “Survivor” premiered on CBS. Google began selling ads on the internet. And the Environmental Protection Agency set a legal limit for uranium in tap water. Since then:
- The carcinogenic “Erin Brockovich” chemical was found in the tap water of more than 200 million Americans.
- The lead-poisoning scandal in Flint, Mich., brought attention to a neurotoxic threat lurking in school drinking fountains from coast to coast.
- A national crisis erupted over tap water contaminated with fluorinated “forever chemicals” linked to cancer and reproductive and immune system harm.
But in almost 20 years, the EPA has not added any new contaminants to the toxic chemicals covered by the Safe Drinking Water Act.
The regulatory system meant to ensure the safety of America’s drinking water is broken. The inexcusable failure of the federal government’s responsibility to protect public health means there are no legal limits for more than 160 unregulated contaminants in U.S. tap water. For some other chemicals, the EPA’s Maximum Contaminant Levels, or MCLs, haven’t been updated in almost 50 years.
EWG’s Tap Water Database collects data from nearly 50,000 local utilities in 50 states – everything their required annual tests found in your community’s drinking water. The disturbing truth shown by the data is that when most Americans drink a glass of tap water, they're also getting a dose of industrial or agricultural contaminants linked to cancer, harm to the brain and nervous system, changes in the growth and development of the fetus, fertility problems and/or hormone disruption.
Our database tells you how the chemicals in your tap water can harm your health, how your water compares to that in other places and how it measures up against government standards. It’s the most comprehensive resource available on U.S. water quality. And the latest update, covering utility tests from 2012 to 2017, goes further.
EWG scientists combed the latest and best independent research to develop truly safe standards for contaminants in drinking water. Unlike government regulations, EWG standards aren’t based on political or economic compromises but rather solely on what’s necessary to protect human health, with an adequate margin of safety.
Because here’s the dirty secret about government drinking water standards: Legal doesn’t necessarily mean safe.
The vast majority of the nation’s drinking water supplies get a passing grade from federal and state regulatory agencies. But many of the 278 contaminants detected by local utilities’ tests are found at levels that may be legal under the Safe Drinking Water Act or state regulations but are well above levels authoritative scientific studies have found to pose health risks.
As the saying goes, you don’t miss your water till your well runs dry. And it’s easy to take your drinking water for granted. You turn on the tap and out it comes, plentiful and usually in compliance with government regulations.
But our research shows that the nation’s water supply is under assault from a toxic stew of pollutants: the toxic fluorinated chemicals called PFAS, lead from old pipes, runoff from farmland that carries millions of tons of pesticides and fertilizer chemicals into rivers and streams, and too many more.
Even for chemicals that are regulated, the legal limit is often hundreds of times higher than the health standards recommended by scientists and public health agencies. Too often, legal limits are based on what can be achieved cheaply, with little or no regard for public health. And water treatment facilities in many communities, especially in rural areas, are outdated, overloaded or underfunded, as urgently needed investments in water infrastructure get postponed year after year.
This isn’t a tradeoff, it’s a sellout – and our children and grandchildren will pay the price.
It is shameful that every American – no matter where they live, no matter how much money they have – can’t be sure their tap water is safe. To fix this broken system, elected officials and regulators at all levels ¬– from your community to the halls of Congress – must step up. They won’t unless we all make our voices heard and let them know that safe drinking water is not negotiable – it’s a basic right.
What should you do?
You can take steps to make sure you and your family are drinking the cleanest, safest water possible. The right home water filter system can dramatically reduce the presence of many contaminants. EWG’s Water Filter Guide lets you search for the types of filters designed to remove or reduce specific contaminants.
Then look beyond your own tap. Stop taking safe drinking water for granted. Get informed about what’s coming out of your tap, and the contaminants fouling streams and rivers. Consider joining – or starting – a local citizens’ group advocating for clean water. And join us in telling those who are supposed to protect us: When it comes to safe drinking water, there can be no compromise.