Caught in a Flood
When it comes to regulating new drinking water contaminants, is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) keeping its head above water? The agency has the daunting task of being the guardian of safe drinking water standards for our citizens through its regulatory powers. As the popular expression goes, "Water is life." Our people (and much of our industry) must have clean water in order to survive and EPA, along with our nation's public water systems, are entrusted with protecting Americans from contaminated water.
Currently, EPA has drinking water regulations for more than 90 contaminants. But the agency's job doesn't stop there. Achieving the goal of producing adequate amounts of clean water is becoming more difficult as our nation becomes more industrialized and large amounts of new unregulated chemicals are being released into our environment. The 1996 Amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act (SWDA) include a process that EPA must follow to identify new contaminants that may require regulation in the future. EPA must periodically publish a Contaminant Candidate List (CCL), which the agency uses to prioritize research and data collection efforts in order to help it determine whether it should regulate a specific contaminant. EPA is supposed to revise the CCL using input from the scientific community, water utilities, environmental and public interest groups, state regulatory agencies, and public health offices. In particular, EPA considers the health risks that unregulated drinking water contaminants pose to vulnerable populations, such as infants, the elderly, and those with serious illnesses, in prioritizing these contaminants.
EPA published the first CCL of 60 contaminants in March 1998 and the second CCL in February 2005, which carried forward 51 of the original contaminants from the first CCL. For more information on the two CCLs and the contaminant selection process, go to www.epa.gov/safewater/ccl .
After placing contaminants on the CCL, EPA carries out studies to develop analytical methods for detecting the contaminants, determines the frequency of their occurrence in drinking water, and evaluates treatment technologies to remove them from drinking water. Additionally, the agency investigates potential health effects from the contaminants. These efforts help EPA determine if actions such as drinking water guidance, health advisories, or regulations need to be developed for contaminants on the CCL.
SWDA requires EPA to make regulatory determinations for five or more contaminants from the most recent CCL within a certain timeframe. In 2003, EPA made regulatory determinations for nine contaminants from the first CCL. In the summer of 2005, the agency made preliminary determinations related to the second CCL and now seeks to make final regulatory determinations in August 2006. Now, EPA is reviewing more contaminants for possible listing, and it is on schedule to meet the February 2008 deadline to publish the third CCL. At this time, the agency has not made a decision to regulate any of the contaminants on the first or second CCLs.
According to Benjamin Grumbles, EPA assistant administrator for water, as EPA carries out additional reviews of these listed substances, it also will consider emerging contaminants, including pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs), for inclusion on the list. PPCPs, which include prescription and over-the-counter drugs, cosmetics, fragrances, veterinary drugs, sunscreens, and DEET insect repellants, are increasingly showing up in trace amounts in water supplies throughout the nation and are suspected endocrine disruptors.
Some observers have found fault with the way EPA is handling the CCLs. For example, in January Alan Roberson, director of regulatory affairs for the American Water Works Association, made a statement criticizing EPA's process for regulating new contaminants
"We have a good process on paper, but getting it to really work is the problem," he said. "For example, EPA had developed a good research plan for arsenic, but because of deadlines imposed by the SDWA, the arsenic rule was proposed before much of the research was conducted."
Roberson also sites perchlorate, a contaminant that has received a lot of media attention recently, as a further example where the CCL process has not worked well. EPA and several other federal agencies asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to conduct a risk assessment on the health effects of the substance, which is widely used in explosives, rocket propellants, and fireworks.
Recent medical studies suggest that perchlorate interferes with the iodide uptake into the thyroid gland, potentially leading to thyroid tumor formation and developmental changes in children.
According to Roberson, the NAS risk assessment took two years to complete and now EPA has stated that it needs more information on perchlorate in food before it makes a decision on whether the contaminant should be regulated.
"Why wasn't this research being done while the NAS study was ongoing?" Roberson said.
Currently, it appears EPA is being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of potential contaminants that need to be studied. Even though EPA has developed a thorough research model to examine the critical contaminants on the CCL, the process appears to be bogged down by poor coordination and inadequate funding from the federal government to actually carry out the research. Clearly, more funding delays translate into exposing more Americans to substances that will possibly lead to serious health problems down the road. Our federal government needs to act now to provide sufficient financial support for EPA's CCL research.