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Keeping You in the Dark on Tap Water Contaminants

Thursday, September 8, 2011

By Jane Houlihan, EWG Senior V-P for Research More than 300 pollutants contaminate the water Americans drink, an EWG analysis of almost 20 million public records found. Truly pure tap water is a rare commodity in the U.S., but until now, at least, consumers have had an easy way to find out what's in the glass they're holding. That could change if two Florida Congressmen get their way. Under federal law, nearly every water supplier is required to mail to its customers an annual water quality report, called a Consumer Confidence Report, and many utilities also post them online. These documents list the pollutants detected in the water during the year by the utility's testing, how those contaminants might harm people's health, any violations of water quality standards, how the water is treated, and more -- the basics everyone should know about their water. Here's an example. A bill (HR 1340) introduced by Republicans Bill Young and Gus Bilirakis would make it much harder for the public to get this vital information. Under their proposal, utilities would no longer need to mail the reports to customers unless testing found that a regulated contaminant had exceeded the legal limit (called the Maximum Contaminant Level or MCL) during the year. If not, reports could just be posted on the Internet. The two representatives argue that it's unnecessarily expensive to require the mailed reports. This idea would be fine if the legal limits for tap water fully protected people's health and covered every contaminant in their water. Neither is true. The annual water quality reports that customers now get in the mail also list unregulated pollutants that EPA requires utilities to test for - chemicals for which no legal limit has been set - as well as those detected at legal but still troubling levels. Why are these facts important to know?

  • More than half of the pollutants found in tap water are not subject to any health or safety limits and can legally be present in any amount, and;
  • The fact that a regulated pollutant is found at a level below the allowable limit is no guarantee of safety. The Environmental Protection Agency has set legal limits for 40 percent of regulated contaminants higher than the health-based levels its scientists recommend, often because achieving a lower level is considered too costly or technically impractical. The annual water quality report lists contaminants found in the water regardless of whether they exceed the legal limit or not.

The EPA stresses to utilities the importance of the annual water quality reports:

"It is important to communicate to your customers, and your customers have the right to know, the source of the water and what is in the water they drink. [Consumer Confidence Reports] help consumers make informed choices that affect the health of themselves and their families. They also encourage consumers to consider and appreciate the challenges of delivering safe drinking water. Educated consumers are more likely to help protect their drinking water sources and to understand the true costs of safe drinking water."

How can people make informed choices about their water ­- choices that affect their health ­- if they don't know what's in it? How many would know to go to their utility¹s website and download an annual water quality report after July 1 each year? Would you? And what about the one-fifth of all Americans who don't use the Internet, according to a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center? They cancall the utility and ask for a report, but how many will? When everyone gets the report in the mail, more people learn about their water than would otherwise. In fact, the EPA urges utilities to send the report in a separate mailing, not with water bills, so that renters and other non-bill payers will be sure to get a copy. EWG's message to utilities is this: be sure to use recycled paper, and then send a report to everyone who drinks your water. Until tap water is pure and safe for everyone, EWG believes that it's crucial to get the word out about what's in water and how to protect drinking water sources from pollution in the first place - loud and clear, online, in the mail and any other way the information can get out.

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