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Cancer-Linked Contaminants Found In U.S. Drinking Water: Report

Patch logo Patch 10/23/2019 Gus Saltonstall

a hand holding a glass of water © Provided by Planck, LLC, d/b/a Patch Media ACROSS AMERICA — Most Americans don't think twice about drinking a glass of water. A report released Wednesday, though, found more than 270 contaminants in local drinking water across the nation. The substances are linked to cancer, damage to the brain and nervous system, hormonal disruption, problems in pregnancy and other serious health conditions.

The nonprofit Environmental Working Group, collaborating with outside scientists, aggregated and analyzed data from almost 50,000 local water utilities in all 50 states.

Read more on the Environmental Working Group's data sources and methodology.

The organization found a troubling discrepancy between the current legal limits for contaminants and the most recent authoritative studies of what is safe to consume.

"Legal does not necessarily equal safe," Sydney Evans, a science analyst at the environmental group, told Patch.

"A lot of these legal limits are outdated and not necessarily the safe level, and the EWG really wants to fill that gap," Evans said. "The federal government has not been able to, or is not willing to, set those new regulations and protect public health. We're trying to fill that gap to let people know, based on the latest science, what the safe levels of contaminants in water are."

Here's how to check the contaminants in your water:

  • The environmental group's public database catalogs contaminants in every water system in the country — the first such database of its kind. First, select the state where you live, and you'll see state level data.
  • For more local information, enter your ZIP code.
  • After you enter your ZIP code, you'll be directed to a page showing the name of your water utility system. Select "View Utility" to see which contaminants were identified in your area.

In the case of polyfluorinated substances, or PFAS, the environmental group estimated up to 110 million Americans could have the potentially cancer-causing, immune system damaging contaminant in their drinking water. Yet the EPA requires drinking water utilities across the country to test for only six of the 14 known substances in the category.

A variety of other contaminants often found in the water of millions of Americans can profoundly impact health. They include lead, which has been linked to brain damage in small children; arsenic, which can cause cancer; and copper, which can be harmful to infants.

The EPA did not respond to numerous requests by Patch seeking comment on the findings of the study.

According to the environmental group, many of the 270-plus contaminants detected through water sampling are at levels deemed legal under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, yet are above levels that recent studies have found to pose possible health risks.

The working group has a clear opinion on the federal government's handling of water safety.

"The regulatory system meant to ensure the safety of America's drinking water is broken. The inexcusable failure of the federal government's responsibility to protect public health means there are no legal limits for more than 160 unregulated contaminants in U.S. tap water," Environmental Working Group researchers stated in its "State of American Drinking Water."

A focal point of the organization's concern is the Environmental Protection Agency's refusal to add a single new contaminant to the toxic chemicals list covered by the Safe Drinking Water Act in almost 20 years.

Independent experts agree.

"With the science on what we call 'emerging contaminants' continuing to grow, it is clear that there are components of our tap water that can be improved," Kristin Strock, a professor of Environmental Science at Dickinson College, told Patch.

Strock, who is not affiliated with the environmental group, also emphasized the challenges in the process of federally regulating harmful contaminants, suggesting the current system is somewhat backward.

"The road to regulating harmful contaminants is difficult, as our current construct for ensuring clean water is based on 'proving' that something is harmful before it is regulated as opposed to assuming contaminants could be harmful and 'proving' them safe before allowing them to go into industrial production and, as a result, our environment," she said. "The EPA has been working on identifying safe limits for a number of these emerging contaminants and continues to work on the problem."

The Environmental Working Group also noted that the every-day person is frustratingly helpless to the chemicals going into their water supply, and the subsequent costs associated with different water filtering techniques.

Olga Naidenko, Vice President of science investigation at the group, further explained, "Industries and companies that released PFAS into the environment and drinking water sources — should be responsible to covering such costs, as it is unfair for homeowners to be saddled with costs for pollution they did not create."

The water group does offer information, though, on filtering technologies that you can use to dramatically reduce water contamination. Filtering technology will help. Carbon filters, for example, will reduce many, but not all, contaminants.

What You Can Do

For those with concerns, the environmental group provides a guide to buying water filters. If you find your local water supply has a particularly high level of a dangerous chemical, you can search for a filter that best blocks the specific substance.

While water filters are important, the group also acknowledges they are more of a Band-Aid solution than an actual fix.

"We really want to iterate that's a first-line, temporary measure," Evans told Patch. "It's what you can do today to protect yourself, but really we want long-term permanent change, and that's going to happen at the community level."

Subsequently, the environmental group has created a set of seven questions to ask your elected officials about tap water.

The organization strongly believes that everyone can help in the battle to improve tap water safety.

"We absolutely believe in the power of personal advocacy — for individuals to reach out to their local elected officials of all levels. The power of people can come into play," Naidenko said.

Where the Environmental Working Group Gets Its Funding:

The majority of the group's funding comes from private charitable foundations, here's a partial list of the organization's largest backers.

  • 11th Hour Project
  • Civil Society Institute
  • Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Foundation
  • William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
  • The McKnight Foundation
  • Popplestone Foundation
  • Park Foundation
  • The David and Lucile Packard Foundation
  • Barbra Streisand Foundation
  • Turner Foundation
  • Wallace Genetic Foundation
  • The Walton Foundation
  • Winslow Foundation

More detailed information on the organization's funding and annual reports are available on its website.

Gallery: 30 ways tap water could ruin your health (The Remedy)

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