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Elaine Shannon

Elaine Shannon

Posted: December 22, 2009 11:13 AM

What's in your water?

What's Your Reaction:

In the context of the ongoing climate and health care debates, one of the season's big environment stories has been tainted tap water, which was the subject of the New York Times series, "Toxic Waters", a recent Senate committee hearing, as well as the focus of dozens of newspaper and broadcast stories on local water quality.

In partnership with the Times, Environmental Working Group has published an updated edition of its national tap water database, a three-year project to analyze 20 million tap water quality tests performed in 48,000 communities in 45 states.

The bottom line: U.S. water utilities are generally doing a fine job meeting mandatory federal standards for 114 regulated contaminants; however, nationwide tests have detected 202 chemicals that are unregulated. Many may have little impact on human health, but others, like arsenic, a naturally occurring substance and carcinogen, and perchlorate, a rocket fuel oxidizer and thyroid disrupter, are known to be harmful if consumed in sufficient quantities.

Some water contamination is caused by water treatment - that is, by the chemical interaction of water disinfectant chemicals and runoff from agriculture or urban sprawl.

Judging by the hundreds of thousands of people who are searching EWG's interactive database, which can be explored by zip code or utility, drinking water is an issue that hits home with a lot of Americans.

And it should. It's vital that people talk about what's going on regarding the community water works.

Among the most interesting aspects of the current debate on the matter is a disconnect between the attitudes of citizens and water utility officials. The very fact that water pollution makes the headlines suggests that ordinary citizens have simply assumed that their water is all they want it to be, thus explaining their astonishment and outrage when their standards are not met.

Local water utility officials, on the other hand, clearly aren't laboring under any such illusions. Some battle daily to maintain tap water standards in the face of increasing pollution in source water and acknowledge soberly that a more concerted national effort needs to be made.

As Dr. Pankaj Parekh, director of the water quality division for the City of Los Angeles, told the Times, "People don't understand that just because water is technically legal, it can still present health risks." Parekh added that "We work very hard to give this city the cleanest water in the state. But water sources are getting more polluted. If we just do what's required, it's not enough."

But other utility officials seem ambivalent or resigned to an unsatisfactory status quo. According to the Riverside (CA) Press Enterprise, one California utility official said, "Obviously the public needs to be aware there are contaminants in the water, but for anyone to treat water to where you deliver pure H2O would cost millions of dollars. It's not even practical." An official with the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority in Pensacola, whose water ranked last nationally, told the Times, "if it doesn't violate the law, I don't really pay much attention to it." The Pensacola News Journal editorialized that the water should be cleaner, but the blame should not rest on overwhelmed local officials' shoulders: "Local utilities aren't equipped to do, or possibly even properly evaluate, research on non-regulated chemicals...The burden properly rests with the federal regulators who are equipped to find and evaluate these risks."

Even as scientists have developed new insights into the subtle health impacts of ever-smaller traces of chemicals, the regulatory process has responded slowly or not at all. That's not surprising. Regulation can cost money, sometimes buckets of it. For instance, at the urging of children's health experts, the Environmental Protection Agency is contemplating regulating perchlorate in drinking water. The Bush administration refused to do so because the practical effect would be to force clean-ups costing hundreds of millions of dollars at defense and aerospace installations and at chemical plants where tons of perchlorate-based rocket and missile fuel leached into ground waters and soil.

Other ideas aren't so costly but require national will. If state, local and federal officials and community leaders agreed to do a more aggressive job of protecting ground water and other source waters in the first place, the water utilities and their customers wouldn't be stuck with the whole purification bill. For instance, maintaining buffer zones could do much to prevent agricultural pollutants from fouling source waters.

EWG found that states are not using nearly as much money as they could under a federal program known as the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) to pay for source water protection activities such as acquiring land or conservation easements and voluntary, incentive-based measures. You can read about more policy fixes here .

Obviously, nothing is going to happen until people stop shifting blame and recognize that clean water is a nationwide problem, and a local problem -- and their problem.

So -- What's in your water? Check it out, and if you don't like the answer, keep reading, keep talking.