A disturbing investigative story in today’s New York Times describes how the 35-year-old Safe Drinking Water Act is terribly outdated, permitting hundreds, perhaps thousands, of chemicals associated with cancer and other illnesses to seep into our drinking water.
It also tells how government officials, lobbied by industry but also by community residents who balk at higher water bills or at what they perceive as unattractive visual changes to neighborhood water reservoirs, have been unable — or unwilling — to create tough new regulations.
“For years, people said that America has the cleanest drinking water in the world,” William K. Reilly, the E.P.A. administrator under President George H.W. Bush told Times reporter Charles Duhigg. “That was true 20 years ago. But people don’t realize how many new chemicals have emerged and how much more pollution has occurred. If they did, we would see very different attitudes.”
Only 91 contaminants are currently regulated, but more than 60,000 chemicals are used in the United States, reports Duhigg.
Yet not a single chemical has been added to the list of regulated contaminants since 2000, although during the last decade, as Duhigg points out, “the rate at which companies and other workplaces have dumped pollutants into lakes and rivers has significantly accelerated.”
Furthermore, new studies have revealed that many of the regulated contaminants pose health risks at much smaller concentrations than previously believed. Writes Duhigg:
For instance, the drinking water standard for arsenic, a naturally occurring chemical used in semiconductor manufacturing and treated wood, is at a level where a community could drink perfectly legal water, and roughly one in every 600 residents would likely develop bladder cancer over their lifetimes, according to studies commissioned by the E.P.A. and analyzed by The Times. …
That level of exposure is roughly equivalent to the risk the community would face if every person received 1,664 X-rays.
The Times article also documents how industry has lobbied hard — and successfully — to keep government regulators off their back:
[In 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency’s division that analyzes environmental risks] started assessing a variety of contaminants often found in drinking water, including perchlorate, an unregulated rocket fuel additive, as well as two regulated compounds, trichloroethylene, a degreaser used in manufacturing, and perchloroethylene or perc, a dry-cleaning solvent. Research indicated that those chemicals posed risks at smaller concentrations than previously known. …
But when E.P.A. scientists produced assessments indicating those chemicals were more toxic — the first step in setting a standard for perchlorate and tougher standards for the other two substances — businesses fought back by lobbying lawmakers and regulators and making public attacks.
Military contractors, for example, said that regulations on perchlorate, which has been associated with stunted central nervous system development, would cost them billions of dollars in cleanup costs. In 2003, an Air Force colonel, Daniel Rogers, called an E.P.A. assessment of the chemical “biased, unrealistic and scientifically imbalanced.” Military officials told E.P.A. scientists they were unpatriotic for suggesting that bases were contaminated, according to people who participated in those discussions.
Property owners who had rented space to dry cleaners lobbied lawmakers and top E.P.A. officials to remove government scientists from research on perc, which has been associated with some kinds of tumors, according to interviews with lobbyists. (Trichloroethylene has been associated with liver and kidney damage and cancer.)
Soon, Dr. [Peter W.] Preuss [head of the E.P.A. division doing the risk analysis] was told by some superiors that he might be dismissed if he continued pushing for extensive assessments of certain chemicals.
What’s in Minnesota’s water?
The Times offers a state-by-state, county-by-county breakdown (provided by the Environmental Working Group) on how contaminants in drinking water meet two standards: the legal limits established by the Safe Drinking Water Act and the usually stricter health guidelines.
You can see how your county’s water supply fares. Separate data is also available for nine large state water systems: Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth, Rochester, St. Cloud, Bloomington, Brooklyn Park, Plymouth and Eagan.