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"Substantial federal investments that could do a great deal to solve many U.S. tap water problems, like removing toxic lead service lines and cleaning up PFAS contamination, are at stake this fall," the Environmental Working Group said upon the release of its updated drinking water database on November 3, 2021. (Photo: Steve Johnson/flickr/cc)

'Invisible Toxic Cocktail' in Tap Water Across US Due to 'Regulatory Capture': Analysis

A new database reveals "widespread contamination from toxic substances such as arsenic, lead, and the 'forever chemicals' known as PFAS in the drinking water of tens of millions of households."

Kenny Stancil

Millions of people throughout the United States "are unwittingly drinking water that includes an invisible toxic cocktail made up of contaminants linked to cancer, brain damage, and other serious health harms," according to the Environmental Working Group, which updated its nationwide Tap Water Database on Wednesday.

"Our government needs to wake up to the fact that clean water is a human right."

"EWG's Tap Water Database offers a panoramic view of what drinking water quality looks like when the federal office meant to protect our water is in an advanced stage of regulatory capture," Environmental Working Group (EWG) president Ken Cook said in a statement.

"The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water has demonstrated for decades that it is utterly incapable of standing up to pressure from water utilities and polluters to protect human health from the dozens of toxic contaminants in America's drinking water," said Cook.

EWG's unique database—assembled over the course of multiple years by researchers who collected and analyzed test data from nearly 50,000 water systems in the U.S.—reveals "widespread contamination from toxic substances such as arsenic, lead, and the 'forever chemicals' known as PFAS in the drinking water of tens of millions of households in all 50 states and the District of Columbia."

The "comprehensive consumer tool" enables individuals to "enter a ZIP code into the database and see a report of the type and amount of toxic chemicals detected in that location's drinking water. They can also see safety assessments developed by EWG scientists about the adverse health effects associated with exposure to those contaminants."

EWG stressed that its database "underscores the need for stricter federal water quality standards and a massive injection of funding for badly needed water infrastructure improvements across the country."

"The U.S. tap water system," EWG added, "is plagued by antiquated infrastructure and rampant pollution of source water, while out-of-date EPA regulations, often relying on archaic science, allow unsafe levels of toxic chemicals in drinking water."

Since Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974, the EPA has established maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for more than 90 contaminants

While the water coming out of most taps across the U.S. is deemed legal by the EPA— whose MCLs determine a pollutant's upper limit—"it is hardly safe," according to the EWG, which added that "federal oversight of drinking water has been failing for years."

"The EPA has become very good at constantly reassuring the public that all is well with the water coming out of their taps," said Cook. "That message is music to the ears of polluters who've fouled source waters and water utilities wary of treatment and infrastructure costs. But it's just not true—and the EPA's own scientists know it."

According to the EWG, tap water regulation in the U.S. is beset by a number of issues, including:

  • The EPA's Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water has added no new contaminants to its regulated list since 2000;
  • Without legal limits on these chemicals, water systems have no impetus to tackle the contamination from such toxic substances as PFAS, 1,4-dioxane, and hexavalent chromium;
  • The EPA routinely gives more weight to the financial cost of treating contaminated water than to the benefits to public health from stricter regulation;
  • Federal regulators assess the public health risks of tap water pollutants one chemical at a time, even though drinking water rarely, if ever, contains only one contaminant;
  • Even when sufficiently stringent limits are in place, the EPA and state drinking water programs have limited resources to enforce them;
  • Many drinking water systems lack the funds to modernize outdated infrastructure or build adequate new treatment facilities;
  • The EPA does not take tap water contamination into account when identifying communities facing multiple environmental injustices; and
  • The EPA isn't doing enough to monitor water supplies for "emerging" contaminants, like microplastics, prescription drugs, and most pesticides.

"Whether it is lead in Flint, Michigan, or in many other cities, or perchlorate, PFAS, or hexavalent chromium in the water of hundreds of millions of Americans nationwide—the list goes on and on—the EPA consistently fails to take urgent, meaningful regulatory action, not even in the many instances when contamination is above levels the agency's own scientists have determined are not safe," said Cook. 

"Achieving true water equity means getting everyone... access to affordable, safe tap water they can trust will not poison them and their loved ones."

He added that "there are thousands of current and former hardworking career staff at the EPA's Office of Water who have tried to get their agency to act but been rebuffed by political leadership. I urge them to contact EWG, lawmakers, or the press to blow the whistle on these decades of failure when it comes to the agency's responsibility to protect tap water."

As congressional lawmakers continue to work out the details of a bipartisan physical infrastructure bill and the Democratic Party's more ambitious budget reconciliation package, EWG emphasized that "substantial federal investments that could do a great deal to solve many U.S. tap water problems, like removing toxic lead service lines and cleaning up PFAS contamination, are at stake this fall."

"With more funding, stronger federal safety standards, and a greater focus on helping historically disadvantaged areas, safe water could finally be a given for all communities across the country," Cook said. "Until then, EWG's Tap Water Database will continue to be a key part of our work to help consumers and communities learn about the true scope of the problem, empower themselves, and advocate for better water quality."

In addition to exposing the scale of drinking water pollution across the U.S., the database "also explains the standards that EWG has created for several tap water contaminants, drawing on the latest science to address the gap in federal oversight and better protect public health, [and] provides guidance about choosing effective water filters to reduce the pollutants found in consumers' drinking water," the watchdog group noted.

"Our government needs to wake up to the fact that clean water is a human right, regardless of race, income, or politics," said environmental attorney and consumer advocate Erin Brockovich. "Achieving true water equity means getting everyone—every single person—in this country access to affordable, safe tap water they can trust will not poison them and their loved ones."


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