Is the tap water in your home safe? That’s what the Environmental Working Group has been working tirelessly to find out. Since 2009, the EWG has been assembling information on nearly 50,000 tap water systems across the country and has come to some startling conclusions.
“We realized there was a big gap between what was legal and what was safe in drinking water,” says EWG scientist Sonya Lunder. “We realized we needed to tell this story to the American public in terms of the gaps between the information they get from water utilities about the safety of their drinking water and what we actually find when we look at the data itself.”
Thanks to EWG’s new user-friendly database, consumers can see how contaminated their own water system is – and what to do about it.
Why Is Tap Water So Heavily Contaminated?
We all know about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, but it turns out the people of Flint are not the only ones who should be worried about whether their tap water is safe. When most Americans drink a glass of tap water, they’re not just getting necessary H2O. They’re also getting agricultural contaminants and disinfectant byproducts.
“In almost every case, there’s at least one contaminant or contaminant family that’s present above health guidelines,” says Lunder. “Sometimes when we found systems with no contaminants above health guidelines, we realized that they hadn’t done all the necessary testing.”
While the vast majority of the nation’s drinking water gets a passing grade from federal and state regulatory agencies based on the standards of the Safe Drinking Water Act, scientific studies say otherwise.
“Most drinking water in the U.S. is legal,” says Lunder. “But there are these exposures that still contribute to health risks, because we’re comparing public health goals or EPA drinking water goals, which are the ideal for a safe amount of exposure to an environmental contaminant in water, to the legal standard.”
EWG collected data from state agencies and the EPA, which tested drinking water across the nation for 500 different contaminants; 267 were found in tap water supplies, including 93 linked to an increased risk of cancer, 78 linked to brain damage, 63 linked to developmental harm to children or fetuses, 38 linked to fertility problems, and 45 linked to hormonal disruption. In addition, almost 19,000 public water systems across the country had at least one detection of lead above 3.8 parts per billion, the level at which a formula-fed baby is at risk for lead poisoning.
The EPA has not added a new contaminant to the list of drinking water pollutants in more than 20 years, meaning that more than 160 contaminants are unregulated today, including Chromium-6 (an industrial chemical made notorious by activist Erin Brockovich), 1,4-dioxane (an unregulated industrial solvent), and nitrates, present in more than 1,800 water systems at an average above the level the National Cancer Institute shows increases the risk of cancer.
The most universal contaminants found by were byproducts of disinfection, such as trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids. These substances, many of which are linked to an increased risk of cancer, are formed when water is chlorinated: a necessary step to kill-off bacteria and viruses that may be present in the water supply.
EWG found that tap water contamination varies according to where people are located. Pesticides and toxic byproducts are more common in rural communities and places where there is a significant agricultural footprint, whereas water coming from natural mountain glaciers, such as in Colorado, may have a risk of naturally occurring contaminants like arsenic and manganese. The worst systems also have bacteria such as legionella and lead and copper contamination, as in the case of Flint.
EWG found that tap water quality often corresponded with the income level of the community served. The East Los Angeles Water District, which serves 115,000 people, many of which have lower incomes, had the most overall contaminants of concern: 14 different pollutants above established health guidelines. Meanwhile, the system for Merrick, N.Y., serving 117,000 people, is one of the cleanest in the nation, with only one contaminant over health guidelines. The income in this area is more than two-and-a-half times the national average.
What Does this Mean for the Consumer?
EWG has made it simple to find out what contaminants are in your water and what steps you need to take to remove them for your own health and that of your family. Simply head to the database homepage and type in your zip code: over 250 contaminants are catalogued, and the search will let you know which ones are present in your drinking water.
From there, you can use EWG’s Water Filter Guide to find a filter that is certified to remove the specific contaminants of concern in your tap water supply.
“It’s important that if people choose to buy a water filter that they buy one that’s relevant and removes the contaminants that are detected in the water that they drink,” says Lunder.
In some rare cases, bottled water may be a good choice. While bottled water represents a considerable expense – comparable in price to gasoline – not to mention a hazard for the environment, people who are immunocompromised and formula-fed babies may need to rely on bottled water, according to Lunder.
“Those are really rare situations,” she says. “Almost always, there’s an affordable option to filtering.”
Also be aware that there is no way to know whether bottled water is also contaminated. Laboratory testing by EWG has found everything from disinfection byproducts to industrial chemicals in bottled water, and unlike tap water, “there’s no periodic testing and consumer disclosure” when it comes to bottled water, according to Lunder.
The Future of Tap Water in the United States
Filtering your tap water at home is currently a necessary step to ensure that your water is free from contaminants, but it shouldn’t have to be.
“As someone with a public health background, I know that cleaning up drinking water at the source is more effective; it’s more democratic, and it’s even more cost effective than actually putting this on the consumer to decide how to protect themselves,” says Lunder.
“The reason that we’re putting this tap water database together is to raise attention to the issue and actually try to address the issue more systematically,” she continues. “We’d like to provide everyone with better quality, safer drinking water.”