Is the Water Safe?


Photo by tico24/Flickr CC

How did our water become so contaminated?

In 1972, Congress signed the landmark Clean Water Act, which was followed two years later by the Safe Drinking Water Act, laws that led to dramatic improvements in water quality. But those laws were only a first step, were not always enforced well, and are now badly outdated. In its 2000 Water Quality Inventory, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that 45 percent of the nation's lakes and 39 percent of streams and rivers were "impaired," meaning they are unsafe for drinking, fishing, or even, in some cases, swimming.

A recent investigative series by the New York Times, "Toxic Waters," has focused attention on the fact that 20 percent of the nation's water treatment systems have violated the Safe Drinking Water Act since 2004. In this report, the paper revealed that water provided to over 49 million Americans contains illegal levels of bacteria from human waste, chemicals such as arsenic, and other toxic pollutants such as radioactive uranium.

So should we we turn to bottled water, and assume it's a safer choice? Not necessarily.

The quality of the nation's tap water is regulated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and various state agencies, which require utilities to test and monitor water supplies and report any problems.

Yet, according to a 2005 report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a chemical industry watchdog, tap water in 42 states is contaminated with 260 chemicals. 141 of these--or more than half, including the gasoline additive MTBE, the rocket fuel component perchlorate, and industrial plasticizers called phthalates--are unregulated and are not subject to federal safety standards.

So should we we turn to bottled water, and assume it's a safer choice? Not necessarily. In a 2008 report, EWG found that bottled water--which is considered a "food product" and is overseen by the Food and Drug Administration--that had been bought from stores in nine states and the District of Columbia was found to contain traces of 38 different pollutants and excessive levels of potential carcinogens. The International Bottled Water Association, a trade group, dismissed the EWG report as exaggerated hype, but EWG stuck to its conclusions.

So what happened?

One problem is that industry, agriculture, and other polluters simply disregard or circumvent environmental regulations. Another is that state and federal officials--who are often underfunded, outgunned by corporations, and politically cowed--do not adequately enforce drinking water laws. A third is that as new technologies allow us to detect "emerging contaminants" in water--pharmaceuticals, antibiotics, birth-control hormones, and narcotics--environmental laws have not kept pace with the science. A fourth is that as people buy more and more bottled water, municipal systems suffer diminished revenue and political clout, and are unable to maintain their expensive infrastructure.

The good news is that the Obama administration seems to be paying attention. Earlier this year, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced she would overhaul the way the Clean Water Act is enforced. This week, the Senate will question EPA officials about drinking water safety, and the agency is expected to announce a new approach to regulating the nation's 54,700 water systems.

Is the long-overdue updating finally getting under way?