AUSTIN, TX — When water flows out of the faucet and into a glass, one expects it to be pure and healthful. But a report released Wednesday details hundreds of harmful contaminants across the American water supply — including that flowing from Austin-area utilities — that can cause cancer, developmental issues in children, problems in pregnancy and other serious health conditions.
“There are chemicals that have been linked to cancer, for example, that are found above health-based limits, or health guidelines, in the water of more than 250 million Americans,” said Nneka Leiba, director of Healthy Living Science at the Environmental Working Group, or EWG, an independent nonprofit organization that released a detailed account of the contaminants.
Other substances found in water consumed by millions of Americans can potentially result in profound health impacts, the study found. As an example, lead has been linked to behavior problems in children, and polyfluorinated chemicals are tied to altered thyroid function, and nitrosamines that can damage DNA. EWG, in conjunction with outside scientists, assessed health-based guidelines for hundreds of chemicals found in our water and compared them to the legal limits. The law often permits utilities to allow these dangerous chemicals to pollute our waters.
“Legal is not safe,” Leiba asserted. “In many cases, it’s far from safe.”
In the case of trihalomethanes, the carcinogen in the water of more than 250 million Americans, the legal limit is 100 times higher than safety guidelines, according to the study. Some contaminants in our nation’s water supply violate both legal and health guidelines, the findings further indicated.
(More below)Drinking water. Photo credit: Pixabay
Contaminants in your water: EWG has released a public database cataloguing contaminants in water systems in every state in the country — the first comprehensive database of its kind that took two years to build. First select the state where you live, and you’ll see state-level data. For more local information, enter your zip code.
After entering your zip code, you’ll be directed to a page showing the water utilities in your county. Select your town to see which contaminants put your families at risk.
No single group has collected all this information for all 50 states in an easily searchable database — until now. It’s also accessible to consumers, presented in an easy-to-use manner allowing people to easily check on contaminants flowing through faucets.
Water distribution in Flint, Michigan, in response to contaminated water crisis. Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Pflugerville: Using reports showing the results of testing conducted by the water utility provided to EWG by Texas Commission on Environmental Quality regulators, the utility was found to be in compliance with federal health-based drinking water standards.
Still, from January to March 2017 this water utility was in violation of monitoring for contaminants or reporting monitoring tests to state agencies as required by the Safe Drinking Water Act,according to the findings. And from January to March 2017 this water utility was in violation of a requirement of the Safe Drinking Water Act such as issuing annual consumer confidence reports or maintaining required records, findings revealed.
Traces of chemicals detected in 2015 were found for which annual utility averages exceeded an EWG-selected health guideline established by a federal or state public health authority; chemicals detected under the EPA’s Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR 3) program in 2013 to 2015, for which annual utility averages exceeded a health guideline established by a federal or state public health authority; radiological contaminants detected between 2010 and 2015.
All told, seven contaminants were detected as being above health guidelines, and 17 other contaminants found, according to the report.
The City of Austin Water & Wastewater utility was found to be in compliance with federal health-based drinking water standards, according to the report. Still, eight contaminants were found as being above health guidelines and 18 total contaminants were found, according to the report.
In Round Rock, EWG’s drinking water quality report shows results of tests conducted by the water utility and provided to the Environmental Working Group by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality as well as information from the U.S. EPA Enforcement and Compliance History database (ECHO). For the latest quarter assessed by the EPA (January to March 2017), tap water provided by this water utility was in compliance with federal health-based drinking water standards.
And yet, nine contaminants were detected as being above health guidelines along with another 19 contaminants.
EWG data analysis in Cedar Park shows results of tests conducted by the water utility and provided to the Environmental Working Group by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, as well as information from the U.S. EPA Enforcement and Compliance History database (ECHO). For the latest quarter assessed by the EPA (January to March 2017), tap water provided by this water utility was in compliance with federal health-based drinking water standards.
This water utility has its own treatment plant or water supply, and also buys or otherwise receives some of its finished water from one or more public water utility systems to provide water for a part of its service area and customers. The list below includes the names of the supplemental water suppliers, with links to their water quality testing data, including City of Round Rock and Brushy Creek Regional Utility Authority
Seven contaminants here were detected as being above health guidelines and a dozen other contaminants found.
Leander water also awas tested, with EWG’s drinking water quality report showing results of tests conducted by the water utility and provided to the Environmental Working Group by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality , as well as information from the U.S. EPA Enforcement and Compliance History database (ECHO). For the latest quarter assessed by the EPA (January to March 2017), tap water provided by this water utility was in compliance with federal health-based drinking water standards.
"This water utility has its own treatment plant or water supply, and also buys or otherwise receives some of its finished water from one or more public water utility systems to provide water for a part of its service area and customers," researchers wrote. Supplemental water suppliers, with links to their water quality testing data, were included: City of Cedar Park and Brushy Creek Regional Utility Authority.
The snapshot: Seven contaminants found at above health guidelines with 13 other contaminants detected.
Brushy Creek MUD (Municipal Utility District) water also was sampled. EWG’s drinking water quality report shows results of tests conducted by the water utility and provided to the Environmental Working Group by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, as well as information from the U.S. EPA Enforcement and Compliance History database (ECHO). For the latest quarter assessed by the EPA (January to March 2017), tap water provided by this water utility was in compliance with federal health-based drinking water standards.
Researchers noted this water utility has its own treatment plant or water supply, and also buys or otherwise receives some of its finished water from one or more public water utility systems to provide water for a part of its service area and customers. Supplemental water suppliers, with links to their water quality testing data included City of Round Rock and Williamson County
The upshot: Nine contaminants found above health guidelines and 13 other contaminants detected.
The RisksEPA Administrator Scott Pruitt as U.S. withdraws from Paris climate accord. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Image
While we know our water supply is full of harmful chemicals, scientists struggle to quantify the wide-scale effects of the hundreds of contaminants people are drinking across the country. Leiba said that cancer rates have risen in recent years, as the World Health Organization has confirmed, even as the death rate from cancer have declined overall. It’s impossible to know for sure how large a part water contaminants play in the increased prevalence of the disease.
But this uncertainty, Leiba said, is “another reason why precaution is so necessary.” Becoming aware of the dangers is an important step. Here’s a short list of just some of the chemicals that endanger the health of children, pregnant women and the population at large:
Trihalomethanes and other disinfection byproducts — These substances are created when disinfection chemicals, like chlorine, bind with organic matter in water. While it’s a good thing that water is disinfected, the byproducts of this reaction have been linked to liver cancer, kidney cancer, intestinal tumors, miscarriage and other difficulties in pregnancy. EWG found the chemical in the water of more than 280 million Americans.Nitrates — A byproduct of animal waste and agricultural fertilizers, nitrates have the potential to increase the rate of cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. EWG say nitrates are found in water serving almost 218 million Americans.Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) — PFOA is a man-made chemical that is found in low levels in most everyone’s blood, according to the American Cancer Society. It is typically found in low levels in drinking water, but it can spike in certain areas. Some studies have linked it to cancers of the kidney, thyroid, prostate, bladder and ovaries. EWG found that around 7.5 million people are served by water systems with elevated levels of PFOA.Lead — Lead was the chemical culprit in the water crisis that devastated Flint, Michigan, and continues to haunt the city to this day. The law requires utilities to act when lead levels reach 15 parts per billion in the water supply, even though the government says that there’s no level of lead that is safe. It can cause learning and behavioral disabilities, short height, hearing impairments and other difficulties, especially in children. While utilities track levels of lead in their water, it may also be present in your home or neighborhood’s pipes, which is more difficult to monitor. About half a million children are believed to have blood lead levels that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers “elevated.”Arsenic — Arsenic is a naturally occurring chemical that is highly carcinogenic. It is very common in our water systems, and it sometimes goes overlooked in private wells. Since there is no safe level of arsenic in drinking water, even a small amount poses serious risks of cancer and other illnesses. EWG found arsenic is present in the water supply of 70 million Americans.
In any individual case, it may be difficult to link a specific contaminant to the development of cancer or other adverse conditions. However, we can be confident that as long as substantial levels of harmful chemicals are in our environment and drinking water, the country as a whole will be sicker and worse off.
What You Can Do
Once people know about the high levels of dangerous contaminants lurking in their water, the question becomes what they can do to protect their health.
”There’s a way to reduce those levels simply by buying a water filter,” said Leiba.
“We don’t want to scare the population by saying there are 250 chemicals and just leaving it there,” she continued. “As a consumer you may look at it and get a little overwhelmed.”
For this reason, EWG provides a guide to finding water filters. Its website allows you to search for filters that block particular chemicals and pollutants. If you find that your local water supply has a particularly high level of a dangerous chemical, you can search for a filter that blocks that substance.
There are many types of filters, including carbon filters, deionization filters and distillation filters. Each type has its own strengths and weakness, so sometimes a filter will include multiple filtration methods to eliminate more potential threats.
To find the most effective filter, look for certifications from the Water Quality Association and NSF International. Different filters remove different contaminants.
It’s important to remember, though, that even high-quality filters are not 100 percent effective.
“Filters don’t remove everything,” Scott Meschke, professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at Washington University, told Patch. He emphasized that it’s important to make sure you’re using a filter that is designed to fit your local needs.
He also said that users should change water filters on a regular basis. Old filters that are never replaced can host bacterial, which also pose potential dangers.
People who don’t get their water through a public utility will have different needs.
“If you are on a private well, I would say that you need to be monitoring your water. You should be paying on a regular basis to have it tested,” Meschke said.
The EPA faces many barriers when regulating water quality across the entire country, but critics say the federal government has could put in more effort to address this problem.
“The legal limit, which is set and enforced by the EPA, is a compromise between a health limit and the cost and feasibility of removing the contaminant,” explained Leiba. “The fact is that the EPA has not set a new safe drinking water standard under the Safe Drinking Water Act since 1996, despite us coming out with this database three times since then, and despite us knowing about all these contaminants.”
She argued chemical manufacturers lobby the government to stop any regulations on the contaminants they produce.
“The real reason they haven’t done that is that the process can be influenced by industry,” she said. “The same industry that’s polluting our water is also heavily influencing the policy-making process.”
Environmental groups criticized the EPA in March when Scott Pruitt, head of the agency, rejected the opinion of chemical experts in the agency when and decided not to ban the insecticide chlorpyrifos, which has been linked to cognitive declines in children and farm workers. Industry leaders praised the decision not to regulate the chemical, while environmentalists continue to fight it.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt attends President Trump’s announcement of withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty ImageThe EPA’s press office declined an interview request from Patch for this story. It also did not directly address EWG’s criticisms of the agency and instead offered a blanket statement in response.
"America’s drinking water remains among the safest in the world and protecting drinking water is EPA’s top priority," an agency spokesperson said. "We take our commitment to protecting public health seriously and when issues arise, we work closely with states, local governments, and water suppliers to review and address, as appropriate."
There’s some disagreement about the extent of industry’s influence over environmental regulations, and some argue that there are significant obstacles to fixing this problem.
“There’s more that could be done there,” said Meschke, the Washington University professor. “But it would increase the overall cost of the water, and we already have some pretty expensive water compared to other places in the world.”
Part of the reason the standards haven’t been updated is that there are hundreds, if not more, potential contaminants to regulate, Meschke said. “The chemical industry tends to create new compounds and new products faster than we can test them,” he said. Calling for a lot more investigation of these contaminants, he said, is a good place to start.
There are many pollutants currently in our drinking water, though, such as arsenic, that are indisputably harmful.
Both Leiba and Meschke noted the importance of protecting ground water sources from these sorts of chemicals, which is part of the EPA’s jurisdiction. Utilities themselves can only do so much to remove contaminants, they said; preventing these substances from entering the water supply in the first place is the safest policy.
“Source water protection is your best initial line of defense, no question,” said Meschke.
Most people, however, aren’t in control of their own water supply; they simply get what they can from their local regulated utility. Aside from using EWG’s database and perhaps buying a filter, it may seem like typical consumers aren’t in much of a position to improve what comes out of their pipes.
Real change may only come through political action.
“There is something consumers can do,” said Leiba. “They need to push their elected officials to strengthen drinking water programs.”
Uppermost image, photo credit: Steve Johnson; primary reporting by Cody Fenwick, Patch staff