EWG Blames EPA, Congress for Polluted Reservoirs

In an analysis of 20 million tap water quality tests performed by water utilities between 2004 and 2009, Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that water suppliers detected 316 contaminants in water delivered to the public, according to a Dec. 12 press release. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set enforceable standards for only 114 of these pollutants.

EWG is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, D.C. that "uses the power of information to protect human health and the environment."

Another 202 chemicals with no mandatory safety standards were found in water supplied to approximately 132 million people in 9,454 communities across the country. These "unregulated" chemicals include the toxic rocket fuel component perchlorate, the industrial solvent acetone, the weed killer metolachlor, the refrigerant Freon and radon, a highly radioactive gas.

"The nation's tap water has been compromised by weak federal safeguards and pitiful protection of drinking water supplies," said Jane Houlihan, senior vice president for Research at EWG.

By failing to clean up rivers and reservoirs that provide drinking water for hundreds of millions of Americans, EPA and the Congress force water utilities to spend heavily to make contaminated water drinkable. According to industry market studies, utilities spend more than $4 billion a year on water treatment chemicals alone. Less than one-twentieth that amount is invested in source water protection and pollution prevention, an average of $207 million a year.

"Utilities do the best job that they can, treating a big problem with limited resources," said Houlihan, "but we must do better. It is not uncommon for people to drink tap water laced with 20 or 30 chemical contaminants. This water may be legal, but it raises serious health concerns. People expect better water than that, and they deserve it."

Federal law does not require tap water to be safe for long-term consumption; the long-term risks of cancer and other health threats are balanced against the cost and feasibility of purification. As a result, health officials acknowledge that legally binding contamination limits typically allow exposure to levels of pollutants that present real health risks. For hundreds of other contaminants there are no limits at all.

Some communities have made the commitment to deliver safer water, with dramatic results. Boston had a serious contamination problem that peaked in 2004-2005. After installing a new filtration system and changing treatment techniques, the regional water system now delivers some of the highest-rated big city water in the country. It has also committed to a well-protected reservoir system, a key to preserving the long-term effectiveness of the new techniques.

Tap water contaminants come from a wide variety of sources. EWG's analysis revealed 97 agricultural pollutants, including pesticides and chemicals from fertilizer- and manure-laden runoff; 205 industrial chemicals linked to factory discharges and consumer products; 86 contaminants that originate in polluted runoff and wastewater treatment plants; and 42 byproducts of water treatment processes or pollutants that leach from pipes and storage tanks.

Until the federal government invests significant resources on modernizing infrastructure and enforcing tough safety standards, the only option left to most Americans is to filter their own tap water.

EWG's searchable database of water test results allows the public to check out the quality of the water in their community, and EWG researchers have also compiled an easy-to-use guide to water filtration systems currently on the market, giving consumers some help when deciding which one works best for themselves and their families. .

Statement from American Water Works Association on the Environmental Working Group’s report on Tap Water Quality Testing and Violations

Tom Curtis, deputy executive director of the American Water Works Association, issued the following statement concerning EWG's interactive database: “Water professionals nationwide share Environmental Working Group’s interest in protecting our precious water sources and assuring safe water at the tap."

Yet, he noted that "more than 96 percent of health-based Safe Drinking Water Act violations occur at small utilities with fewer than 10,000 customers. These utilities often struggle with the expense of upgrading facilities to meet new regulations. The government could help by creating a federal water infrastructure bank that provides low-interest loans to communities needing to improve their systems.

“EPA has a systematic approach to determining which substances are regulated. Those regulations take into account occurrence data and health effects research and should reflect the best available science. Water suppliers support strong regulations that protect public health, and they also support proactive research that identifies and examines new substances found in source waters," Curtis said.

“Tap water consumers need not wait for news reports to know the quality of their water. Every year, utilities mail each customer a consumer confidence report that includes detailed information on water quality, including any violations of health protective standards under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Additional information is typically available on Web sites or by simply calling the utility.

“It’s important to keep in mind that the first and most effective way to prevent contamination of drinking water is to protect our precious water sources. We should all work for public policy that protects surface and groundwater from contamination, long before that water gets to a community’s utility," he added.

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