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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35-year-old federal laws regulating tap water are so out of date that the water we drink can pose what scientists say are serious health risks -- yet still legal to drink.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 act’s 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 can’t they tell us what laws it’s violated?”

Dr. Parekh has struggled to make his case. “People don’t 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 lobbying.

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 doesn’t violate the law, I don’t 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 100 X-rays.

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 city’s water is not safe to drink!”

Though the city’s water rates are among the lowest in the state -- the average household pays $41 a month -- other residents have included Dr. Parekh’s 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 agency’s 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 don’t realize how many new chemicals have emerged and how much more pollution has occurred. If they did, we would see very different attitudes.”

Accumulating Threats

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.)

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 to 91.

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.

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 urged.

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 don’t understand, ” said Linda S. Birnbaum, who as director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is the government’s top official for evaluating environmental health effects.

“There’s growing evidence that numerous chemicals are more dangerous than previously thought, but the E.P.A. still gives them a clean bill of health.”

- Read the Rest of The Article


Reference Sources 133
December 18, 2009
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