The Natural Resources Defense Council released a study of drinking water in 19 U. S. cities that found that pollution and deteriorating, out of date plumbing, and outdated treatment threaten our tap water quality. The study found that many cities around the country rely on pre-World War 1-era water delivery systems and treatment technology. Aging pipes can break, leach contaminants into the water they carry and breed bacteria – All potential prescriptions for illness. Old fashioned water treatment plants built to filter out particles in the water and kill some parasites and bacteria – generally fails to remove 21st century contaminants like pesticides, industrial chemicals and arsenic.
Good drinking water depends on cities getting three things right:
- Lakes, streams, reservoirs and wells must be protected from pollution.
- Pipes must be sound and well-maintained.
- Modern treatment facilities are a must.
If just ONE of those factors goes awry, water quality will suffer. For example, these four cities have fair-to-substandard drinking water:
- Atlanta, which maintains its distributions system poorly.
- Albuquerque and San Francisco, which have poor treatment systems.
- Fresno, which has no real source water protection.
So what does all this mean for the water in your tap that you are drinking?
Tap water can contain a vast array of contaminants, but a handful kept showing up repeatedly in the water of the cities studied:
- Lead, which enters drinking water supplies from the corrosion of pipes and plumbing fixtures and can cause brain damage in infants and children.
- Pathogens (germs) that can make people sick, especially those with weakened immune systems, the frail, the elderly and the very young.
- Trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids, which may cause cancer and reproductive problems. These are by-products of chlorine treatment.
- Arsenic, which may cause cancer, serious skin problems, birth defects and reproductive problems.
- Radon, the rocket fuel perchlorate and other carcinogens or otherwise toxic chemicals.
Contaminants like these and others get into our water from many different sources. A few examples: runoff from sewage systems that overflow after a heavy storm; runoff from contaminant-laden sites like roads, pesticide and fertilizer-rich farms and lawns, golf courses, and mining sites; wastes from huge animal feedlots; and industrial pollution that leaches into groundwater or is released into surface water (like recent West Virginia chemical spill so toxic over 300,000 people were warned not to even shower in their city water!)
NRDC’s study found that while relatively few cities are in outright violation of national standards for contamination of drinking water, it is more a result of weak standards than it is of low contaminant levels. For example, cancer-causing arsenic is currently present in the drinking water of 22 million Americans at average levels of 5 ppb, well below a new EPA standard for arsenic of 10 ppb that went into effect in 2006. YET SCIENTISTS NOW KNOW THERE IS NO SAFE LEVEL OF ARSENIC IN DRINKING WATER!
The EPA found that a standard of 3 ppb would have been feasible, but industry lobbying and concerns over treatment costs prevailed over public safety! “Let the Buyer beware!”Many cities failed to even meet the EPS’s “level of concern” for various contaminants that are not yet regulated.
The NRDC study yielded another broad truth about the nation’s drinking water “treatment trains”. Many cities show an increase in the frequency of periodic spikes in contaminant levels, indicating that the World War I- era plumbing and water treatment facilities still widely employed may be inadequate to handle contaminant spills or even the basic daily contaminant loads produced by our heavily industrialized, densely populated cities. And spikes above the EPA’s standards generally don’t trigger a violation; usually only an average level over the standard is considered a violation.
The bottom line is this: the tap water in your city might pose health risks to vulnerable consumers – people who have serious immune system problems, pregnant women, parents of infants, those with chronic illnesses and the elderly should consult with their health care providers about the safety of tap water.
Part 2 of this report will cover:
1. Right To Know Reports
2. Protecting our Water Sources.
3. What can I do as a consumer