Half-empty, half-full

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Every day the health of millions of Americans is put in jeopardy just from drinking tap water. At least that's what the not-for-profit Environmental Working Group says.

Government regulators provide a different view, one that says the water Americans drink every day is clean and safe.

Last month, the EWG released a huge report using data gathered from standard testing of public drinking water supplies from 1998 to 2003. If correct, the findings are disturbing.

According to the report, called the National Tap Water Quality Database, 260 contaminants were found in the 42 states' tap water supplies. Eight states either didn't release data or data wasn't released in a usable form, according to the EWG.

Of the contaminants, 141 have no enforceable safety standards -- meaning no levels are set for the contaminant at which the EPA can issue sanctions. Fifty-two are linked to cancer, 41 to reproductive toxicity, 36 to developmental toxicity and 16 to immune system damage, according to academic and regulatory agency studies used by the EWG in assessing the data.

For 65 of those chemicals, the government has yet to recommend unenforceable safety standards, and for 46 no information on health effects is available.

But the EPA is currently studying 26 of them to see if legal limits are needed.

Many of those contaminants have been found at levels above the "health-based limits" -- or levels at which the contaminants have potential health ramifications -- the EWG culled from guidelines issued by the Environmental Protection Agency, the federal entity that enforces clean water standards. The health-based limits used by the EWG are well below the EPA's enforceable Maximum Contaminant Levels, where levels of the measured contaminants in water exceed legal limits.

"I think without a doubt tap water has health impacts across the country," said Jane Houlihan, vice president for research with EWG, based in Washington, D.C. "There's a debate about the magnitude ... but what our study shows is that the EPA will have trouble keeping up with the pollution."

Houlihan said the EPA relies on state reporting and doesn't maintain a database of testing results, making it almost impossible for the agency to make a reasoned judgment on the health effects and prevalence of both unregulated and regulated contaminants.

The EPA tells a different story.

"EWG's approach presents an unnecessarily alarming picture of drinking water safety which diminishes public confidence and is a disservice to water utilities that are meeting regulatory requirements," says an EPA statement released in response to the report.

The EWG acknowledges that almost 100 percent of the drinking water systems in the United States comply with regulatory standards. But the EWG charges that the standards don't go far enough.

"The issues in Missouri are similar to those found across the country," Houlihan said. "More than half of the contaminants that utilities have found in tap water have no safe limit established by the EPA. In that case, it's very disingenuous for the agency to say your water is very safe, since more than half of the contaminants have no safety standards."

In a ranking of the states, the EWG listed Missouri as No. 22 and Illinois as No. 11 for the most serious health concerns from tap water. Topping the list as the worst was California, while West Virginia was 42. The group said Missouri water contained 74 contaminants, 17 of them unregulated, and 40 of them over the EWG's health-based limits.

Terry Timmons, a drinking water specialist with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, echoes the EPA in saying the EWG report cries wolf on the water quality issue.

"The first thing to understand is that the EWG's mission in life is to lobby Congress for more stringent environmental controls," Timmons said. "One of the ways they do that is to periodically publish reports and put their spin on it.

"It is heavily prejudiced towards all kinds of assumptions they make, whether they're valid assumptions or not. Some of the health effects are very speculative."

Timmons said the DNR closely monitors water supplies in Missouri to make sure regulated contaminants stay below acceptable levels. He said not all of Missouri's drinking water systems are perfectly safe but added the agency aggressively pursues change in those that aren't.

As for unregulated contaminants, both Timmons and the EPA say those contaminants are under constant research and scrutiny to develop acceptable regulatory standards.

Tribromoacetic acid serves as an example of these unregulated contaminants. A water treatment byproduct, not only is tribromoacetic acid unregulated but standard EPA and academic sources don't list health effects from the chemical.

Whether the chemical is harmful is unknown. What is known, according to the EWG report, is that tribromoacetic acid has been found in the Cape Girardeau water supply once in nine tests between the years 1998 to 2003.

According to the EWG report, the category of contaminant most prevalent in Cape Girardeau's water was for water treatment and distribution products, with 15 contaminants found, six above health-based limits.

Other categories of contaminants include agricultural, sprawl and urban, industrial, and naturally occurring pollutants.

But just because the EWG report says a contaminant was found in the local water supply doesn't mean it was served to the population, said Timmons.

The reason there are no violations, said Timmons, is that the water never reached the public. The high test results came from tests run on untreated water when the city was getting a new well up and running in 2001.

Arsenic is one contaminant that has been found at exceedingly high levels in Cape Girardeau's water, according to the report. Arsenic is a naturally occurring contaminant linked to cancer, blood and endocrine toxicity, and organ damage. The EPA sets a health-based limit of 10 parts per billion for arsenic in drinking water. Currently the legal limit is 50 ppb, set to change Jan. 23 to 10 ppb.

EWG reports four testing dates on which arsenic exceeded 50 ppb in Cape Girardeau's water supply but no reported EPA violations -- for any contaminant.

On Sept. 13, 2005, the test results for arsenic in the Cape Girardeau water supply were 2.56 ppb at the Cape Rock plant and less than 1 ppb at the South Sprigg Street plant.

"We've tried to stay ahead of the concerns, and we've been able to do that," said Kevin Priester, water system manager in Cape Girardeau.

After reviewing the EWG data, Priester said almost all the reporting data for Cape Girardeau's system is incorrect, with much of it coming from raw water tests.

When new stricter EPA regulations came out in 1993, Priester said the local utility was preparing ahead of time to meet the standards. With the addition of a new water plant using groundwater in 2003 (before the city's water came entirely from the Mississippi River) Priester said the city has been even better equipped to meet regulatory standards. Water from the river source is higher in organic contaminants than groundwater and thus harder to treat.

"We've always met regulatory requirements," Priester said. "It's not like we're sitting on the razor's edge.

"If any public water supply had any kind of inkling there's a problem, they'd get it solved or let people know there's a problem. Things don't slip through the cracks. Those are the kinds of things everybody worries about."

Priester said he drinks city water regularly, unafraid of any health effects, and that the city annually releases a consumer confidence report to everyone with a water meter, detailing the year's testing data.

Amy Morris, environmental public health specialist with the Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center, said her agency has seen no problems with Cape Girardeau's water supply in recent years.

But the EWG maintains the data presents a dark outlook for national health -- one that can't be solved by water treatment alone.

According to the EWG, the solution is to stop pollution before it reaches drinking water supplies, which it says the EPA has failed to make a priority. The group says only 5 percent of funds dedicated toward cleaning water pollution under the Clean Water Act State Revolving Fund went to mitigating non-source pollution, like runoff. The EWG is equally critical of other programs designed to clean up non-point source pollution.

Kemery said the EPA provides massive assistance to states to clean water supplies, and disputes the figures released by the EWG.

As water suppliers struggle to keep up with current standards, says the EWG, new standards will be neglected, causing the contaminants to stay in drinking water. Without taking out the problem at its source, the group says, the health risks of drinking tap water will only grow.

But Kemery said the EPA takes public health seriously, since its task is protection from and elimination of pollution from air, land and water, and that the agency does its best to protect the health of Americans.

For detailed reports of Missouri drinking water tests, call the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. To access the EWG report, visit www.ewg.org/tapwater/findings.php.


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About the EWG

The Environmental Working Group is a not-for-profit organization formed in 1993 to investigate environmental issues and lobby Congress. The group terms itself a "watchdog" organization.

The group employs a team of scientists, engineers, policy experts, lawyers and computer programmers who examine data and conduct laboratory tests to investigate threats to human health and the environment.

The political periodical The Hill named the EWG one of Washington's 10 most effective watchdog organizations in 2005.

Among its accomplishments, the EWG claims responsibility for Congress increasing conservation payments to farmers to reduce water contamination and soil erosion, putting public pressure of President George W. Bush to slash wasteful farm aid in the 2006 budget, helping persuade the California government to enact the nation's toughest smog standards, and persuading the FDA to put canned tuna on its "limit consumption" list to warn pregnant women about tuna's mercury content.

The organization is funded by foundations, private donors and corporations. Foundations contributing to the EWG include the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Heinz Family Fund and the Ford Foundation.

-- Matt Sanders

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