What's in Your Water?

In the context of the ongoing climate and health care debates, one
of the season's big environment stories has been tainted tap water,
which was the subject of the New York Times series, "Toxic Waters", a recent Senate committee hearing, as well as the focus of dozens of newspaper and broadcast stories on local water quality.

In partnership with the Times, Environmental Working Group has published an updated edition of its national tap water database, a three-year project to analyze 20 million tap water quality tests performed in 48,000 communities in 45 states.

The bottom line: U.S. water utilities are generally doing a fine job meeting mandatory federal standards for 114 regulated contaminants; however, nationwide tests have detected 202 chemicals that are unregulated. Many may have little impact on human health, but others, like arsenic, a naturally occurring substance and carcinogen, and perchlorate, a rocket fuel oxidizer and thyroid disrupter, are known to be harmful if consumed in sufficient quantities.

Some water contamination is caused by water treatment - that is, by
the chemical interaction of water disinfectant chemicals and runoff
from agriculture or urban sprawl.

Judging by the hundreds of thousands of people who are searching
EWG's interactive database, which can be explored by zip code or
utility, drinking water is an issue that hits home with a lot of

And it should. It's vital that people talk about what's going on regarding the community water works.

Among the most interesting aspects of the current debate on the
matter is a disconnect between the attitudes of citizens and water
utility officials. The very fact that water pollution makes the
headlines suggests that ordinary citizens have simply assumed that
their water is all they want it to be, thus explaining their
astonishment and outrage when their standards are not met.

Local water utility officials, on the other hand, clearly aren't
laboring under any such illusions. Some battle daily to maintain tap
water standards in the face of increasing pollution in source water and
acknowledge soberly that a more concerted national effort needs to be

As Dr. Pankaj Parekh, director of the water quality division for the City of Los Angeles, told the Times,
"People don't understand that just because water is technically legal,
it can still present health risks." Parekh added that "We work very
hard to give this city the cleanest water in the state. But water
sources are getting more polluted. If we just do what's required, it's
not enough."

But other utility officials seem ambivalent or resigned to an unsatisfactory status quo. According to the Riverside (CA) Press Enterprise,
one California utility official said, "Obviously the public needs to be
aware there are contaminants in the water, but for anyone to treat
water to where you deliver pure H2O would cost millions of dollars.
It's not even practical." An official with the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority in Pensacola, whose water ranked last nationally, told the Times, "if it doesn't violate the law, I don't really pay much attention to it." The Pensacola News Journal
editorialized that the water should be cleaner, but the blame should
not rest on overwhelmed local officials' shoulders: "Local utilities
aren't equipped to do, or possibly even properly evaluate, research on
non-regulated chemicals...The burden properly rests with the federal
regulators who are equipped to find and evaluate these risks."

Even as scientists have developed new insights into the subtle
health impacts of ever-smaller traces of chemicals, the regulatory
process has responded slowly or not at all. That's not surprising.
Regulation can cost money, sometimes buckets of it. For instance, at
the urging of children's health experts, the Environmental Protection
Agency is contemplating regulating perchlorate in drinking water. The
Bush administration refused to do so because the practical effect would
be to force clean-ups costing hundreds of millions of dollars at defense and aerospace installations and at chemical plants where tons of perchlorate-based rocket and missile fuel leached into ground waters and soil.

Other ideas aren't so costly but require national will. If state,
local and federal officials and community leaders agreed to do a more
aggressive job of protecting ground water and other source waters in
the first place, the water utilities and their customers wouldn't be
stuck with the whole purification bill. For instance, maintaining
buffer zones could do much to prevent agricultural pollutants from
fouling source waters.

EWG found that states are not using nearly as much money as they
could under a federal program known as the Drinking Water State
Revolving Fund (DWSRF) to pay for source water protection activities
such as acquiring land or conservation easements and voluntary,
incentive-based measures. You can read about more policy fixes here .

Obviously, nothing is going to happen until people stop shifting
blame and recognize that clean water is a nationwide problem, and a
local problem -- and their problem.

So -- What's in your water? Check it out, and if you don't like the answer, keep reading, keep talking.

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