Out of The 60,000 Chemicals, Only
91 Are Regulated For Drinking Water
35-year-old federal laws regulating tap water are so out of date
that the water we drink can pose what scientists say are serious
health risks -- yet still legal to drink.
Only 91 contaminants are regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act,
yet more than 60,000 chemicals are used within the United States,
according to Environmental
Protection Agency estimates. Government and independent scientists
have scrutinized thousands of those chemicals in recent decades,
and identified hundreds associated with a risk of cancer and other
diseases at small concentrations in drinking water, according to
an analysis of government records by The New York Times.
But not one chemical has been added to the list of those regulated
by the Safe Drinking Water Act since 2000.
Other recent studies have found that even some chemicals regulated
by that law pose risks at much smaller concentrations than previously
known. However, many of the acts standards for those chemicals
have not been updated since the 1980s, and some remain essentially
unchanged since the law was passed in 1974.
All told, more than 62 million Americans have been exposed since
2004 to drinking water that did not meet at least one commonly
used government health guideline intended to help protect people
from cancer or serious disease, according to an analysis by The
Times of more than 19 million drinking-water test results from
the District of Columbia and the 45 states that made data available.
In some cases, people have been exposed for years to water that
did not meet those guidelines.
But because such guidelines were never incorporated into the
Safe Drinking Water Act, the vast majority of that water never
violated the law.
Some officials overseeing local water systems have tried to go
above and beyond what is legally required. But they have encountered
resistance, sometimes from the very residents they are trying
to protect, who say that if their water is legal it must be safe.
Dr. Pankaj Parekh, director of the water quality division for
the City of Los Angeles, has faced such criticism. The water in
some city reservoirs has contained contaminants that become likely
cancer-causing compounds when exposed to sunlight.
To stop the carcinogens from forming, the city covered the surface
of reservoirs, including one in the upscale neighborhood of Silver
Lake, with a blanket of black plastic balls that blocked the sun.
Then complaints started from owners of expensive houses around
the reservoir. They supposedly discovered these chemicals,
and then they ruined the reservoir by putting black pimples all
over it, said Laurie Pepper, whose home overlooks the manmade
lake. If the water is so dangerous, why cant they
tell us what laws its violated?
Dr. Parekh has struggled to make his case. People dont
understand that just because water is technically legal, it can
still present health risks, he said. And so we encounter
opposition that can become very personal.
Some federal regulators have tried to help officials like Dr.
Parekh by pushing to tighten drinking water standards for chemicals
like industrial solvents, as well as a rocket fuel additive that
has polluted drinking water sources in Southern California and
elsewhere. But those efforts have often been blocked by industry
Drinking water that does not meet a federal health guideline
will not necessarily make someone ill. Many contaminants are hazardous
only if consumed for years. And some researchers argue that even
toxic chemicals, when consumed at extremely low doses over long
periods, pose few risks. Others argue that the cost of removing
minute concentrations of chemicals from drinking water does not
equal the benefits.
Moreover, many of the thousands of chemicals that have not been
analyzed may be harmless. And researchers caution that such science
is complicated, often based on extrapolations from animal studies,
and sometimes hard to apply nationwide, particularly given that
more than 57,400 water systems in this country each deliver, essentially,
a different glass of water every day.
Government scientists now generally agree, however, that many
chemicals commonly found in drinking water pose serious risks
at low concentrations.
And independent studies in such journals as Reviews of Environmental
Contamination and Toxicology; Environmental Health Perspectives;
American Journal of Public Health; and Archives of Environmental
and Occupational Health, as well as reports published by the National
Academy of Sciences, suggest that millions of Americans become
sick each year from drinking contaminated water, with maladies
from upset stomachs to cancer and birth defects.
Those studies have tracked hospital admissions and disease patterns
after chemicals were detected in water supplies. They found that
various contaminants were often associated with increased incidents
of disease. That research -- like all large-scale studies of
human illnesses -- sometimes cannot definitively say that chemicals
in drinking water were the sole cause of disease.
But even the E.P.A., which has ultimate responsibility for the Safe
Drinking Water Act, has concluded that millions of Americans have
been exposed to drinking water that fails to meet a federal health
benchmark, according to records analyzed by The Times.
Communities where the drinking water has contained chemicals
that are associated with health risks include Scottsdale, Ariz.;
El Paso, Tex., and Reno, Nev. Test results analyzed by The Times
show their drinking water has contained arsenic at concentrations
that have been associated with cancer. But that contamination
did not violate the Safe Drinking Water Act.
In Millville, N.J., Pleasantville, N.J., and Edmond, Okla., drinking
water has contained traces of uranium, which can cause kidney
damage. Those concentrations also did not violate the law.
If it doesnt violate the law, I dont really
pay much attention to it, said Stephen Sorrell, executive
director of Emerald Coast Utilities Authority, which serves Pensacola,
Fla. Data show that his system has delivered water containing
multiple chemicals at concentrations that research indicates are
associated with health risks. The system has not violated the
Safe Drinking Water Act during the last half-decade.
The Times analysis was based on water test data collected by
an advocacy organization, the Environmental Working Group. The
data, which contain samples from 2004 to this year, are from water
systems that were required by law to test for certain contaminants
and report findings to regulators. The data were verified by comparing
a randomly selected sample against millions of state records obtained
by The Times through public records requests.
The Times examined concentrations of 335 chemicals that government
agencies have determined were associated with serious health risks.
The analysis counted only instances in which the same chemical
was detected at least 10 times for a single water system since
2004, at a concentration that the government has said poses at
least a 1-in-10,000 risk of causing disease.
That is roughly equivalent to the cancer risk posed by undergoing
Some local regulators say gaps in the Safe Drinking Water Act
can put them in almost untenable positions. Los Angeles regulators,
for instance, test more than 25,000 samples a year looking for
poisons, industrial chemicals and radioactive elements. The water
that the system delivers to more than four million residents is
cleaner than required by law, according to state data. Dr. Parekh
has lobbied for millions of dollars to build reservoirs and buy
new treatment systems.
But some residents doubt his motives. People affiliated with
groups protesting water rate hikes have printed leaflets accusing
him and other officials of fooling us into thinking that
our citys water is not safe to drink!
Though the citys water rates are among the lowest in the
state -- the average household pays $41 a month -- other
residents have included Dr. Parekhs name on a poster naming
water officials who want to steal your money.
In a statement, the E.P.A. said that a top priority of Lisa P.
Jackson, who took over the agency in January, was improving how
regulators assessed and managed chemical hazards.
Since chemicals are ubiquitous in our economy, our environment,
our water resources and our bodies, we need better authority so
we can assure the public that any unacceptable risks have been
eliminated, the E.P.A. wrote. But, under existing
law, we cannot give that assurance.
Ms. Jackson has asked Congress to amend laws governing how the
E.P.A. assesses chemicals, and has issued policies to insulate
the agencys scientific reviews from outside pressures.
But for now, significant risks remain, say former regulators.
For years, people said that America has the cleanest drinking
water in the world, said William K. Reilly, the E.P.A. administrator
under President George H. W. Bush. That was true 20 years
ago. But people dont realize how many new chemicals have
emerged and how much more pollution has occurred. If they did,
we would see very different attitudes.
The Safe Drinking Water Act was passed in 1974 after tests discovered
carcinogens, lead and dangerous bacteria flowing from faucets
in New Orleans, Pittsburgh and Boston and elsewhere.
At the time, so little was known about the chemicals in American
waters that the law required local systems to monitor only 20
substances. (Private wells are not regulated by the act.)
In 2000, the list stopped growing. Since then, the rate at which
companies and other workplaces have dumped pollutants into lakes
and rivers has significantly accelerated, according to an earlier
analysis by The Times of the Clean Water Act.
Over the next two decades, researchers at the E.P.A. began testing
hundreds of chemicals, and Congress passed amendments strengthening
the act. Eventually, the list of regulated substances increased
Government scientists have evaluated 830 of the contaminants
most often found in water supplies, according to a review of records
from the E.P.A. and the United States Geological Survey. They
have determined that many of them are associated with cancer or
other diseases, even at small concentrations.
Yet almost none of those assessments have been incorporated into
the Safe Drinking Water Act or other federal laws. (A complete
list of drinking water standards and health guidelines is at nytimes.com/water-data.)
For instance, the drinking water standard for arsenic, a naturally
occurring chemical used in semiconductor manufacturing and treated
wood, is at a level where a community could drink perfectly legal
water, and roughly one in every 600 residents would likely develop
bladder cancer over their lifetimes, according to studies commissioned
by the E.P.A. and analyzed by The Times. Many of those studies
can be found in the Resources section of nytimes.com/water.
That level of exposure is roughly equivalent to the risk the
community would face if every person received 1,664 X-rays.
And in some places, tap water contains not just one contaminant,
but dozens. More than half of the systems analyzed by The Times
had at least seven chemicals in their water. But there is nothing
in the law that addresses the cumulative risks of multiple pollutants
in a single glass of water, as some public health advocates have
In a statement, the E.P.A. said that a 2003 review of Safe Drinking
Water Act standards found that advances in science or technology
had made it possible to tighten regulations of some chemicals.
However, at the time, the agency decided that changes to
these standards would not provide a meaningful opportunity for
health risk reduction.
Another review of drinking water standards is under way, and
results will be released soon, the agency says.
Because some of the diseases associated with drinking water contamination
take so long to emerge, people who become ill from their water
might never realize the source, say public health experts.
These chemicals accumulate in body tissue. They affect
developmental and hormonal systems in ways we dont understand,
said Linda S. Birnbaum, who as director of the National
Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is the governments
top official for evaluating environmental health effects.
Theres growing evidence that numerous chemicals are
more dangerous than previously thought, but the E.P.A. still gives
them a clean bill of health.
the Rest of The Article
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December 18, 2009