How Pure Is Your Drinking Water?

On February 6, I received a letter from the City of East Providence Public Works announcing that they had “recently violated a drinking water standard.” Since this was not the first such notification I’d received, I began looking into just what goes into monitoring the safety of the water systems in our country today. What I discovered was both enlightening and a bit disturbing.

In theory, the EPA, under the Safe Drinking Water Act, has regulated drinking water since 1996. But exactly how far does that protection extend? Between 2004 and 2009, an Environmental Working Group analysis of 20 million tap water quality tests found 316 contaminants, including industrial solvents, weed killers, refrigerants and rocket fuel. The EPA regulated only 114 of those contaminants at the time, with 92% compliance from suppliers. While new candidates of concern are put on the waiting list every year, there is a long list of contaminants waiting to be approved, and the EPA is required to add new ones only once every six years. Of these, only 30 unregulated contaminants are chosen for monitoring each cycle and far fewer are accepted. Unregulated pollutants have no mandatory federal safety standards, though they can potentially produce toxic combinations for long-term consumption. It is not uncommon for people to drink tap water laced with 20 or 30 chemical contaminants. This water may be legal, but it raises serious health concerns.

Drinking water contaminants are linked to millions of instances of illness in the US each year. Sometimes drinking water violations are one-time events, posing little risk, but records show that illegal contamination persisted for years in hundreds of water systems. In 2009, a New York Times analysis of federal data found that since 2004, more than 20% of the nation’s water treatment systems had violated key standards of the Safe Drinking Water Act, delivering illegal concentrations of arsenic, radioactive substances and sewage bacteria to more than 49 million people. The regulators from these public systems were notified of violations as they occurred, but fewer than 6% of them were ever fined or punished. State and federal officials, including those at the EPA, simply let the cases go. Has the situation improved any in the intervening years? In 2015, water systems serving nearly 77 million Americans were in violation of safety regulations. Today, as before, very little is being done about it.

How dangerous can water contaminants be? In healthy adults, symptoms of waterborne diseases may be debilitating, but seldom life-threatening. However, for people with compromised immune systems, infants, the elderly and pregnant women, these illnesses can be severe or fatal, and some pathogens can be dangerous for even the healthiest people. Liver failure, kidney failure, neurological conditions and more have occurred; a connection to water contamination is not always immediately obvious. A study published in February 2018 just confirmed that most of the more than 90 cases of Legionnaires’ disease during the deadly 2014 – 2015 outbreak in Flint, Michigan, were caused by the city’s water supply.

I found archived records for RI at the 2012 New York Times database (nytimes.com/interactive/projects/toxic-waters/polluters/rhode-island/index.html) listing US water violations. Out of 281 violations listed between 2003 and 2008, only four fines were imposed; one company guilty of eight violations in a row was given no fine at all. The EPA provides recent data on all state environmental regulations and compliance at echo.epa.gov

On the up side, the recent East Providence violation concerned the presence of trihalomethanes, which are a disinfectant by-product, rather than an invasive contaminant. And although long-term exposure to this substance can cause damage to the kidneys, liver and central nervous system and pose an increased risk of cancer, the city promised it would resolve the problem by August 2018. On the down side, for those with compromised immune systems, this is not reassuring. Trihalomethanes can easily be absorbed through the skin and inhaled during showers; other than moving, there is little citizens can do to protect themselves while repairs are made.

So, how concerned should you be? While there are parts of the world where even brushing your teeth with tap water can cause a nasty fungal infection, the water in RI is generally safe to drink. In a 2017 comparison study (bestlifeonline.com/worst-drinking-water/), our state was in neither the top 25 best cities for water quality nor the bottom 25 offenders. Our Scituate reservoir is carefully protected to maintain the pristine quality of its water, and local regulators are conscientious. However, as with any system, the communities at the farthest end of the pipes are at the greatest risk of contaminants entering the water – hence a higher incidence of violations in East Providence and Bristol than in Scituate. To access the RI data guide for water quality in your city visit ewg.org/tapwater/#.WqGB-62ZPIE

If you want to protect yourself and your family, your best bet is a distiller with a carbon filter, which removes not only bacteria and organic contaminants, but also heavy metals and other chemicals. A high-quality filter system for your tap usually assures safe drinking water, but don’t be fooled by pitcher filter systems. Some models can actually add bacteria to your water because bacteria grows on the surface of the filter, and companies recommend testing your water to be sure their filters will be effective at all. To learn more about which filter type is best for you, visit epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/home-drinking-water-filtration-fact-sheet

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