Hundreds of Toxic Chemicals Are Coursing Through Our Tap Water, New Report Says

According to a new analysis done by the The, more than 320 toxic chemicals have been detected in drinking water systems across the United States since 2019. Environmental Working Group(EWG), a non-profit environmental advocacy organization.

These chemicals can cause cancer, adverse birth and reproductive outcomes, brain damage, and other health problems.

The findings, part of the 2021 update to EWG’s national Tap Water DatabaseThese are the reasons for stricter federal drinking water standards as well as the need to improve water infrastructure.

EWG researchers reviewed water contaminant test results from regulators and water utilities from all 50 US states and the District of Columbia. The researchers analyzed data from nearly 50,000 water systems that serve tens of thousands of American households and found widespread drinking water contamination by numerous pollutants, including arsenic and lead, per- and/or polyfluoroalkyl compounds (PFAS), radioactive material, and pesticides.

The database “offers a panoramic view of what drinking water quality looks like when the federal office meant to protect our water is in an advanced stage of regulatory capture,” said EWG President Ken Cook in a statementRefers to the influence of polluting industries on drinking water safety standards.

56 New Chemicals added

Compared to the previous (2019) update to the database, which identified 268 chemicals in America’s water utilities, the new database added 56 new chemicals. These substances are new PFAS or emerging pollutants, such as pesticides and radioactive material, that are currently monitored by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the agency’s Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule. However, these substances have yet to receive any legal limits, thwarting the water systems’ impetus to tackle the contamination, according to EWG.

Currently, more than a dozen regulations are being enforced by the EPA. 90 contaminants in drinking water, a fraction of the agency’s inventory of more than 85,000 chemicals that fall under the Toxic Substances Control Act. The EPA’s Office of Water has not added any new substances to its regulated list since 2006.

Even for substances that are regulated by the EPA, their “legal limits were set based on outdated science,” Uloma UcheEWG’s environmental health scientist, Jeremy, shared his experience with EHN. While the EPA determines contaminants’ regulatory standards based on their individual harms, it fails to consider the additive effect of a chemical mixture.

“We are not being exposed to just one contaminant when we’re drinking water,” said Uche. “We’re being exposed to multiple contaminants.”

The EPA’s water regulations “assure that public water systems are monitoring and taking actions to achieve meaningful reductions to human health risks from contaminants in accordance with the Safe Drinking Water Act,” an EPA spokesperson told EHN. The agency also “has evaluated a number of unregulated drinking water contaminants” under the Safe Drinking Water Act and is taking actions to update its regulations, said the spokesperson.

Consumers can enter their ZIP code into the tap water database and see a report of toxic contaminants in the area’s drinking water as well as safety assessments put together by EWG scientists. Although they were not in compliance with federal drinking-water standards, many dangerous contaminants were found in water samples from many areas.

“Even if your water is below the legal limit,” said Uche, “that doesn’t necessarily mean it is safe from contaminants.”

Water Quality Transparency

Carsten Prasse, an environmental professor who studies drinking water contamination at Johns Hopkins University but was not involved in EWG’s database told EHN that “it’s great to provide individuals with more transparency about what might be in their water.”

Prasse cautioned that although the data in this database were obtained from water utilities Prasse said that it may not be representative of the water quality in each household. While the report may indicate that there is no lead in certain utilities, lead may still be coming out of taps in certain households due to water pipe pollution.

Prasse said that the current federal regulations “aren’t really directed towards protecting the consumers of drinking water,” and that there has been a gap between the regulations and scientific progress.

“There’s definitely a lot of room for improvement,” said Prasse.