NRDC says drinking water contamination, lack of testing widespread across U.S.

According to a new report issued by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), 77 million people — roughly a quarter of the U.S. population — spread across all 50 states were served by water systems reporting violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2015. The offenses ranged from arsenic to nitrate contamination, and included often-serious failures to test or report contamination levels.

The NRDC has also expressed its displeasure to the proposed cuts to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2018 budget, noting that programs designed to safeguard the nation’s drinking water could be severely affected.

“America is facing a nationwide drinking water crisis that goes well beyond lead contamination,” said Erik Olson, health program director at NRDC and a co-author of the report. “The problem is two-fold: there’s no cop on the beat enforcing our drinking water laws, and we’re living on borrowed time with our ancient, deteriorating water infrastructure. We take it for granted that when we turn on our kitchen tap, the water will be safe and healthy, but we have a long way to go before that is reality across our country.”

Threats on Tap: Widespread Violations Highlight Need for Investment in Water Infrastructure and Protections found nearly 80,000 violations impacting drinking water systems in every state, but under-reporting and lax enforcement could mean the number of violations is much higher. Very small systems found in rural or sparsely populated areas account for more than half of all health-based violations, and nearly 70 percent of all violations.

The report found the top dozen states with the most offenses based on population were (in order):

  1. Texas
  2. Florida
  3. Pennsylvania
  4. New Jersey
  5. Georgia
  6. Washington
  7. Ohio
  8. California
  9. Arizona
  10. Kentucky
  11. Wisconsin
  12. Maryland

NRDC’s report exposes health-based violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act, as well as violations for improper water monitoring and reporting, at more than 18,000 community water systems across the nation. These federal drinking water rules are intended to protect against about 100 contaminants, such as toxic chemicals, bacteria and metals like lead that can cause health impacts like cancer, birth defects, and cognitive impairments.

The report also revealed that 27 million people, or one in every 12 Americans, were served by a drinking water system with health-based violations. Health-based violations of the rules were most frequently caused by (in order): a cancer-causing family of chemicals called disinfection byproducts; coliform bacteria; the failure to properly treat surface and groundwater to remove dangerous pathogens; nitrates and nitrites that can cause “blue baby syndrome”; and lead and copper.

Meanwhile, repercussions for violations were virtually nonexistent. Nearly nine in 10 violations were subject to no formal action, and even fewer—just 3.3 percent—faced financial penalties.

Safeguarding our Tap Water 

Investing and improving infrastructure and enforcing the drinking water laws are solutions that will make a difference. The NRDC recommends that the nation must:

Improve water infrastructure and modernize drinking water treatment plants. This includes removing the 6 million to 10 million lead service lines across the country.

Increase funding for water infrastructure to protect health and create good jobs. Congress should increase water infrastructure funding, which will also create millions of well-paid jobs fixing the nation’s water system.

Strengthen and enforce existing regulations, and establish new ones. Many contaminants found in drinking water – including pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals – are not regulated, leaving everyone with potentially unsafe drinking water.

Develop a more robust testing system for drinking water contaminants.

Threats on Tap” is a follow-up to NRDC’s 2016 study that revealed widespread lead contamination in the tap water in Flint, Michigan, and towns across America.

The full report, interactive maps, and FAQs are available online here.

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