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Is Your Tap Water Safe to Drink?

One in four Americans is drinking water that doesn’t meet Safe Drinking Water Act standards, new report finds

Many Americans drink water straight from the tap. But maybe it’s time to rethink doing that. Our drinking water supply may not be as safe was we think. A new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council found nearly 77 million Americans are served by community water systems that had one or more violations under the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2015.

photo of water glassPhoto by Larry Vincent Research by the NRDC estimates that 77 million Americans are served by water systems that had at least one Safe Water Drinking Act violation in 2015.

The report estimates that 19.5 million Americans get sick each year from drinking water contaminated with pathogens. Estimates of “cancers, reproductive and neurological diseases, or other serious chronic health problems caused by contaminated tap water” remain unknown. (Read our special Teflon’s Toxic Legacy, to learn more about how contaminated water can pose serious health issues and even death.)

The top 12 states with the most violations were (in alphabetical order) — Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin.

The Safe Drinking Water Act mandates that water providers follow certain protocols to test drinking water and report the results to their customers, state government, and the US Environmental Protection Agency. But violations of the Act are rampant across the country, and the EPA does not have the resources to properly address these violations.

Violations fall largely in two categories. Health-based violations — which occur when there is a failure to properly treat water for pathogens and other contaminants; and reporting violations — when water providers fail to monitor and test drinking water quality, neglect to follow proper water testing protocols, or don’t report results to their customers, the state, and the EPA. The NRDC report found an average of eight in ten health-based violations faced no formal action from the EPA, and only 13.1 percent of reporting violations were investigated by the EPA, and of those, only 3 percent received penalties.

This suggests a culture where violations go largely underreported and unpunished, leaving Americans extremely vulnerable. With EPA funding set to drop to its lowest levels ever under a budget proposed by the Trump administration, the agency may soon have even less bandwidth to properly address these violations.

Additionally, under the Act, the EPA is required to classify contaminants — defined as “any physical, chemical, biological, or radiological substance in water” — and set standards based on the latest research about contaminants. However, the agency has not classified any new contaminants since 1996. Six years ago, the EPA decided that perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel, should be regulated, but they have yet to establish a standard for it. Other substances, such as toxins from algal blooms and chemicals involved in the production of Teflon, have yet to be designated as contaminants.

The NRDC has monitored the regulation of drinking water and compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act for over 25 years. In 2015, it began working with the town of Flint, Michigan, to build a case against the state for violating the Act’s mandates to monitor, report, and reduce contaminants in drinking water. The Safe Drinking Water Act contains a Lead and Copper Rule that requires that water providers take appropriate measures to prevent corrosion of the pipes that would allow lead and copper to leach into the drinking water. When testing for these substances, the water providers are required to test tap water at customer’s homes, and at least 50 percent of the homes tested must be serviced by lead pipes. Investigation into testing in Flint revealed that less than 50 percent of homes tested were serviced by lead pipes, skewing the results and making it appear as though no violation had occurred. As of January 2017, Flint still has no reported water violations, though the NRDC “strongly believes” they were in violation of the Lead and Copper Rule.

The lack of accountability in the Flint water crisis prompted the NRDC to broaden its investigation in an attempt to quantify the prevalence of safe drinking water violations across the country.

The smallest drinking water systems, often in rural areas, “bear the brunt” of the violations, says Mae Wu, senior attorney of the NRDC Health program.

Drinking water systems that serve less than 500 people accounted for 70 percent of all drinking water violations and a little over 50 percent of the health-based violations in 2015, the report found. There are many reasons smaller systems may be less equipped to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act, Wu says. They have fewer customers that can support the purchase and installation of updated treatment equipment. On top of that, they may be facing other obstacles, like being managed by someone who is not a professional or full-time operator, or lacks the technical knowledge to run all aspects of the water quality treatment process.

Another obstacle to providing safe drinking water is ailing infrastructure that was put in place after World War I and is sorely in need of replacement. “We are living off of our great-grandparents’ investments,” says Erik Olson, director of NRDC’s health program and co-author of the report. But the leaders of many water systems may be unable or unwilling to charge their customers a price for water that would cover the cost of replacing old infrastructure.

More investment in infrastructure and enforcement of the rules will be necessary to improve water quality around the country. The report estimates that in order to substantially update drinking water infrastructure across the country, including replacing pipes containing lead, congressional spending would need to increase to at least $8 billion per year, up from the current $2.3 billion a year. Other entities have even greater estimates. The American Water Works Association estimates that it will take $1 trillion over the next 25 years to update aging water-related infrastructure.

Trump outlined a plan to increase spending on such infrastructure during his campaign, the report notes. However, his administration seems to be sending mixed messages, touting the importance of job creation offered by infrastructure replacement projects while severely restricting the EPA’s oversight capacity. Ultimately, increased spending may do little without federal oversight to manage and more effectively regulate such programs.

Residents in towns and cities should not be left at the whim of the EPA to take action against violations, the report argues. Instead, the Safe Drinking Water Act should be revised to allow citizens to “bring emergency legal actions when they are facing health threats…”

The report contributors suggested that citizens should remain vigilant about issues of water quality in their area and pressure their elected representatives to implement solutions that facilitate cleaner drinking water tomorrow.

Erin Banks Rusby
Erin Banks Rusby is an intern at Earth Island Journal. A transplant from the greater Seattle area to the San Francisco peninsula, Erin works with volunteers on projects to help restore native south Bay Area ecosystems. She is exploring pursuing a career in environmental journalism.

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