Marco Torres | Prevent Disease
Widespread Contaminants in Drinking Water Across U.S.
Protecting public health shouldn’t be this hard. When it comes to chemical safety, Congress should shift the burden of proof from regulators to manufacturers. A recent survey conducted by researchers at the U.S. Geographic Survey (USGS) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found traces of 18 unregulated chemicals in drinking water from more than one third of U.S. water utilities. Of the 21 total chemicals found, researchers discovered among them 11 perfluorinated chemicals, an herbicide, two solvents, caffeine, an antibacterial chemical, a metal and an antidepressant.
Preliminary findings were presented by scientists at an annual toxicology conference held by the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry last month in Nashville.
Only 91 contaminants are regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, yet more than 80,000 chemicals are used within the United States, according to EPA estimates. Government and independent scientists have scrutinized thousands of those chemicals in recent decades, and identified hundreds associated with a risk of cancer and other diseases at small concentrations in drinking water.
Regulated chemicals such as fluoride have been added to drinking water supplies for decades without any regard to long-term health. The fluoride added to 90% of drinking water is hydrofluoric acid which is a compound of fluorine that is a chemical byproduct of aluminum, steel, cement, phosphate, and nuclear weapons manufacturing.
According to a study, 50 chemicals capable of interfering with hormones is permitted in packaging in the United States and the European Union.
The American Chemistry Council significantly ramped up its lobbying efforts in 2012, spending more than double its total for any quarter in recent history.
Federal researchers took samples from 25 U.S. utilities from around the nation who voluntarily participated in the study, providing samples of treated and untreated water. Disturbingly, 18 of the chemicals found are not regulated under the Safe Water Drinking Act, meaning utility companies are not required to treat, limit, or even monitor for their presence.
Millions of Americans have been exposed since 2004 to drinking water that did not meet at least one commonly used government health guideline intended to help protect people from cancer or serious disease.
“The good news is the concentrations are generally pretty low,” said USGS research hydrologist Dana Kolpin, PhD. to Environmental Health News. “But,” he continued “there’s still the unknown. Are there long-term consequences of low-level exposure to these chemicals?”
While there is a paucity of data on some of the contaminants, regulated chemicals such as atrazine, metolachlor and triclosan found in drinking water samples have been demonstrably linked to serious human and environmental health problems. Atrazine, for example, is used nationwide to kill broadleaf and grassy weeds, primarily in corn crops. It has been shown to be harmful to humans, mammals, and amphibians even when the amount used is less than the government allows. Atrazine is also associated with infertility, low birth weight, and abnormal infant development in humans. The chemical’s use is widespread, but for agriculture its use in concentrated in the Midwest farmbelt.
There are 700 new chemicals introduced into commerce each year in the United States alone. Many of these chemicals induce cancer and other diseases in the human body, yet every year there are more disease-causing chemicals carelessly approved to further pollute our environment and water supplies.
In addition to atrazine, triclosan, caffeine, metolachlor, perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), and nine other perfluorinated compounds, which are used in a variety of industrial processes including production of nonstick or stain resistant products, were found in the drinking water supply. 251 chemicals, bacteria, viruses, and microbes measured were also detected in drinking water of more than a third of the 25 utilities while 113 were found less than a third of the utilities.
This study represents one of the few that documents how common emerging contaminants are in drinking water. Only four of the chemicals detected --the metal strontium, the herbicide metolachlor, PFOS and PFOA-- are now on EPA’s list of chemicals under consideration for inclusion in drinking water standards. They plan to finalize their decision for at least five contaminants on the list sometime next year.
Drinking tap water contaminated with PFOA is a serious health risk. The highest measured levels of PFOA in human blood in the US, other than factory exposures, are in people who have consumed PFOA contaminated tap water in West Virginia and Ohio. These people had PFOA levels in their blood 100 times higher than the levels found in the water, and far higher than the average person in the US.
PFOA is linked to developmental toxicity, immunotoxicity, alterations in the hormonal levels, metabolic disturbances and an elevated risk of cancer.
“We’re hoping through this work the EPA will do a much more intensive contaminant candidate list and develop new methods and requirements for drinking water plants,” said USGS scientist Edward Furlong to Environmental Health News.
Unfortunately, regulations that protect U.S. waterways from chemical contamination, including contamination from pesticides, have been attacked by industry groups and Congress. Under the Clean Water Act (CWA), pesticide users who spray over waterways must have a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. However, all that is required is to simply let authorities know what is sprayed and when it is sprayed, so that the public may know what chemicals are used in their waterways. There is no system of enforcement in place to prevent the pollution.
Marco Torres is a research specialist, writer and consumer advocate for healthy lifestyles. He holds degrees in Public Health and Environmental Science and is a professional speaker on topics such as disease prevention, environmental toxins and health policy.