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The dangerous business of drinking water from your kitchen tap. 77 million Americans are at risk

A simple thing like drinking water can be dangerous for your health if you live in the United States. Recent data show that 77 million Americans drink water that comes from untested or contaminated systems. The offences ranged from arsenic to nitrate contamination and the Natural Resources Defense Council warns that cuts to the EPA will make the situation worse.

Their analysis found that, in 2015 alone, there were more than 80,000 reported violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act by community water systems.

These violations included exceeding health-based standards, failing to properly test water for contaminants, and failing to report contamination to state authorities or the public.


From lead to bacteria

Dirty Water
source: Wikimedia.Commons

By far, the biggest and most pressing problem is the ageing infrastructure. Over 18 million citizens were served by systems with reported violations to the lead and cooper rule.

Exposure to lead is particularly toxic to children and can cause serious, irreversible damage to their developing brains and nervous systems. Lead exposure can also cause miscarriages and stillbirths in pregnant women, as well as fertility issues, cardiovascular and kidney effects, cognitive dysfunction, and elevated blood pressure in healthy adults.

From the over 8,000 violations reported as relating to lead and cooper, formal enforcement action was taken in 12% of the cases.

25 million Americans were served by systems with reported violations when it comes to combined disinfectants and disinfection byproducts that can cause cancer and have been linked to miscarriages and birth defects.  From the 11,311 violations reported for disinfectants, 4,591 were health-based but only in 23% of cases there was formal enforcement action taken.

Other violations included reports on the presence of coliforms in drinking water, particularly dangerous to children and the elderly.

The NRDC found that one in every 12 Americans were served by a drinking water system with health-based violations most of them caused by a cancer-causing family of chemicals called disinfection byproducts, coliform bacteria, the failure to properly treat surface and groundwater to remove dangerous pathogens, nitrates and nitrites that can cause “blue baby syndrome”, and lead and copper.

The “dirty water dozen”

Dirty drinking water
source: Wikimedia.Commons

When looking at the affected population, the NRDC report found that citizens living in Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania were most exposed as most offences were registered in these states.


Top 12 states with the most offences based on population

  1. Texas
  2. Florida
  3. Pennsylvania
  4. New Jersey
  5. Georgia
  6. Washington
  7. Ohio
  8. California
  9. Arizona
  10. Kentucky
  11. Wisconsin
  12. Maryland

The reality is even worse

Dirty water in America
source: 123rf

And while the number of violations seems high, the NRDC warns that the situation on the ground is actually much worse.

Federal drinking water rules protect against about 100 contaminants, but this list should be updated to include new contaminants with equality devastating side effects. Algal toxins, teflon-related chemicals, the carcinogen hexavalent chromium, and the pathogen that causes Legionnaire’s disease should be included on the list. Authorities also have to propose a standard for the presence of percolate, a component of rocket fuel, which was the last chemical added to the list of contaminants, back in nineties.

NRDC representatives point out that violations go unreported and that regulatory institutions should take their monitoring and testing roles seriously in order to better protect citizens’ health and our environmental resources.

A sentence for rural America

Dirty water
source: 123rf

There is no one solution to the American water problem. A two way approach is needed: regulatory institutions have to perform better and enforce the existing laws and an economic commitment has to exist in order to modernise and replace the water infrastructure.

“America is facing a nationwide drinking water crisis that goes well beyond lead contamination,” said in a statement Erik Olson, Health Program Director at NRDC and a report co-author. “The problem is two-fold: there’s no cop on the beat enforcing our drinking water laws, and we’re living on borrowed time with our ancient, deteriorating water infrastructure. We take it for granted that when we turn on our kitchen tap, the water will be safe and healthy, but we have a long way to go before that is reality across our country,” he added.

The watchdog is particularly concerned about the recent cuts to the EPA budget and also about Trump’s views towards the regulations that protect the environment.

“Americans have a right to safe, clean drinking water, but President Trump is killing that right with a meat axe,” said Jamie Consuegra, a Legislative Director with NRDC. “Our tap water should not poison us or make us sick. We can’t play politics with our health or our children’s future.”

The budget cuts could spell disaster for rural America where some of the country’s poorest communities live.

“There’s a two-tiered drinking water system in this nation and rural America is most at risk from the inequality. Small systems have the highest percentage of water violations, and it’s largely due to financial and technical capacity issues that will only get worse when the EPA cuts drinking water programs,” said Mae Wu, Senior Attorney with NRDC’s Health program.

Investing in the national water system will prove to be beneficial on the long run, the NRDC says, leading to a healthier population and millions of well-paid jobs created by the investments in infrastructure.

The NRDC is also asking for other pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals to be regulated and for the development of a more robust testing system for drinking water contaminants.

Sylvia Jacob