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A nine-month investigation by Consumer Reports (CR) and the news organization Guardian US has found dangerous levels of contaminants in drinking water systems throughout the United States. Samples from 120 water systems that together service more than 19 million people were tested for chemical toxins, including arsenic, lead, and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The tests were performed by volunteers selected by CR statisticians to represent a cross-section of the country’s water systems. What they found revealed widespread contamination.
Particularly troubling were the results from the PFAS tests. Almost every sample – 117 out of 120 – contained measurable levels of PFAS, a large group of compounds that have been linked to childhood learning delays, certain types of cancer, and other health problems. These chemicals are used in the manufacture of stain-resistant fabrics and carpets, nonstick cookware, fast-food packaging, and a wide variety of common consumer items. They can get into water during the manufacturing process or when products degrade in landfills, and are often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they don’t easily break down in the environment. The EPA has set only voluntary limits for PFAS, and these apply to just two of the better-studied compounds in this group. More than 35% of the tested samples exceeded 10 parts per trillion (ppt) for combined PFAS, and over 25% exceeded 5 ppt for a single PFAS compound – the maximum allowable amounts recommended by Environmental Working Group scientists.
Arsenic was also found in nearly all the water samples, with approximately 8% having levels surpassing CR’s recommended maximum of 3 parts per billion (ppb). Arsenic enters drinking water supplies through natural mineral deposits or industrial or agricultural pollution, and it has been linked to cancer, as well as lowered IQ in children. Although the EPA has set a 10 ppb limit for arsenic, the agency’s “maximum contaminant level” goal (the amount above which adverse health effects are known or expected to occur) is zero.
Detectable amounts of lead were seen in 118 of the 120 samples. Although only the drinking water from one Connecticut condo tested above the EPA’s “action level” (the level requiring enforcement), independent scientists and the EPA agree that no amount of lead is safe. Lead has been associated with reduced IQ and slowed growth in children, hypertension, and reproductive problems. It leaches into drinking water from home plumbing – lead faucets, fixtures, and pipes – and old, lead service lines.
The CR report notes that individuals do have some options for reducing their exposure to contaminants in their water. (For more information, see consumerreports.org/water-quality/how-to-test-and-treat-your-drinking-water-a2425824120.) However, CR and other consumer advocates feel that the burden of fixing this problem should not fall on individuals.
Brian Ronholm, CR’s director of food policy, says: “Americans shouldn’t have to navigate bureaucracy and be forced to make significant investments in order to access clean tap water. The implementation of strong standards would ensure everyone has access to clean water, regardless of income levels.”
To learn more about water quality and standards in the special report “How Safe Is Our Drinking Water?” by Ryan Felton, with additional reporting from Lisa Gill of CR and Lewis Kendall for the Guardian, visit consumerreports.org/water-quality/how-safe-is-our-drinking-water-a0101771201.
Photo © Adobe Stock | Thomas Söllner
Published in the Price-Pottenger Journal of Health and Healing
Spring 2021 | Volume 45, Number 1
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