When it comes to drinking water, a passing grade from the government does not guarantee the water is safe. The failure of government regulators to set health-protective drinking water standards based on the best current science led EWG to undertake its own standard-setting process that puts children’s health first. This approach is not only right for health but also for local communities and the economy.

EWG scientists reviewed scientific evidence, federal and state legal limits for drinking water contaminants, and health advisories and risk assessments and incorporated them into our just-released Tap Water Database. A growing body of research shows that amounts of contaminants judged by the government as acceptable for drinking water – such as the legally allowed amounts of disinfection byproducts or the fertilizer chemical nitrate – can increase the risk of health harm.       

All drinking water standards should be regularly updated to reflect the latest science. People can have greater susceptibility to toxic contaminants based on age – children are more vulnerable than adults – and individual genetic makeup. Exposure to contaminants during pregnancy and critical periods of development can cause subtle damage that increases the risk of disease in adulthood, including cancer, brain and nervous system damage, and infertility.

Responsibility for ensuring that tap water is safe ultimately lies with federal, state and local government agencies, as well as public water systems. But all too often this chain of quality control fails.

Stymied by politics and industry pressure, the Environmental Protection Agency has not established new water quality standards in almost 20 years. Federal regulators and Congress have also failed to mandate strong measures for the protection of drinking water sources such as rivers, streams, lakes and groundwater. Unless government steps up to do its job, America’s water quality will remain at risk.

Local water utilities face the daily challenge of treating tap water to remove the toxic stew of agricultural, industrial and urban pollutants that are discharged into drinking water sources. The utilities have very little control over the contaminants flowing into the watershed, forcing them to install additional treatment technologies. When the public demands better water quality, the issue of treatment costs invariably comes up.

The financial challenges faced by utilities are real because the nation has not sufficiently invested in drinking water infrastructure. This problem will only get worse if government officials and water utilities ignore evidence of contaminants in the water supply, disregard the latest research on health harms from tap water pollutants, and fail to monitor the quality of source water.  

Science-based health guidelines incorporated into the EWG Tap Water Database set goalposts where government standards fall short. EWG standards can provide information for people looking for home filtration systems that remove certain contaminants. And both EWG standards and the Tap Water Database are a resource for citizens, local and state officials, and others to advocate for the protection of water sources and measures to safeguard drinking water quality.