Millions of Americans are unknowingly ingesting water that includes “an invisible toxic cocktail” of cancer-linked chemicals, a new survey of the nation’s tap water has found.
The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) 2021 Tap Water Database, available to the public as of Wednesday, revealed contamination from toxins like arsenic, lead and “forever chemicals” — perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — in the drinking water of tens of millions of households across all 50 states, as well as Washington, D.C.
“The Environmental Protection Agency’s 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,” EWG President Ken Cook said in a press statement.
To compile the database, EWG researchers and scientists spent two years collecting and analyzing U.S. water contaminants from almost 50,000 water systems, a news release from the group said. The researchers attributed their findings to “antiquated infrastructure and rampant pollution of source water,” as well as obsolete regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that rely “on archaic science” and “allow unsafe levels of toxic chemicals in drinking water.”
While compiling the database, the researchers also identified 56 new contaminants in American drinking water, which generally fell into two categories, according to an EWG spokesman. The two groups mostly include new PFAS compounds and chemicals found through the EPA’s fourth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring analysis, which amassed data on suspected drinking water contaminants that do not yet have health-based standards.
To view information on contaminants in a specific region, users can log into the database and enter their ZIP codes, and then scroll down to select the utility that serves their community. The database then shows the “contaminants detected,” stressing that “legal does not necessarily equal safe.”
“Getting a passing grade from the federal government does not mean the water meets the latest health guidelines,” the database cautions.
Washington, D.C., for example, has 13 contaminants that exceed EWG’s health guidelines, although the district does comply with legally mandated federal standards.
The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority’s drinking water has 58 times the amount of arsenic that the EWG deems safe, 1,200 times the amount of bromochloroacetic acid, 328 times the amount of bromodichloromethane, 116 times the amount of chloroform and 4.3 times the amount of hexavalent chromium, according to the database. All of these contaminants have been shown to increase cancer risk.
New York City has 10 contaminants that exceed EWG’s health guidelines, while also complying with legally mandated federal standards. The city’s tap water has 73 times the amount of bromodichloromethane that EWG deems safe, 80 times the amount of chloroform and 2.1 times the amount of hexavalent chromium, according to the database.
The EWG called for substantial federal investments to help solve U.S. tap water problems, such as removing toxic lead service lines and cleaning up PFAS contamination — both of which are included in Congress’s infrastructure spending bills that are still under debate.
“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.”
Although the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act gave the EPA the authority to oversee U.S. tap water quality, and the agency has set maximum contaminant levels for more than 90 contaminants, the water provided by most water systems is not actually safe, according to the EWG.
The EPA’s Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water has added no new contaminants to its regulated list since 2000, the EWG statement said. Meanwhile, many of the maximum contaminant levels do not reflect current science; standards for nitrates, for example, are based on a U.S. Public Health Service recommendation from 1962, the EWG found.
Because contaminants like PFAS and hexavalent chromium — made famous by activist Erin Brockovich’s fight in Hinkley, Calif. — still have no legal limits, water utilities still have no incentive to tackle the pollution that plagues local communities, according to the EWG.
“Our government needs to wake up to the fact that clean water is a human right, regardless of race, income or politics,” Brockovich said in a statement. “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.”
In response to the findings, the EPA said that “safe, reliable drinking water is foundational to the health and opportunity of communities across the country.”
Regarding forever chemicals, the EPA has issued final determinations to regulate two PFAS compounds, PFOS and PFOA, while committing to monitor nationwide for PFAS in drinking water under its coming fifth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, according to the agency. Every six years, the EPA reviews national drinking water regulations and engages with stakeholders on possible updates to its microbial and disinfection byproduct regulations.
“EPA’s National Primary Drinking Water Regulations assure that public water systems are monitoring and taking actions to achieve meaningful reductions to human health risks from contaminants in accordance with the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA),” the agency said in a written statement.
Existing drinking water regulations, the statement continued, address more than 90 contaminants and contaminant groups, and the agency said it adheres to “the science driven process required by law to evaluate unregulated contaminants and to review existing regulations.”
“Following this process, EPA has issued regulations to address a number of contaminants including those designed to reduce risks from disinfection byproducts, arsenic, surface water pathogens such as Cryptosporidium, pathogens in groundwater, and water served onboard airplanes,” the statement added.
--Updated 8:35 p.m.