Research Shows Magnitude of Contaminated U.S. Water Systems

May 4, 2017
Violations include arsenic & nitrate contamination, failures to test

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

“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% of all violations.

“America is facing a nationwide drinking water crisis that goes well beyond lead contamination,” said Erik Olson, health program director for NRDC and a co-author on 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.”

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

  • Texas,
  • Florida,
  • Pennsylvania,
  • New Jersey,
  • Georgia,
  • Washington,
  • Ohio,
  • California,
  • Arizona,
  • Kentucky,
  • Wisconsin, and
  • Maryland.

NRDC’s report addresses 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.

Nearly nine in 10 violations were subject to no formal action, and even fewer—just 3.3%—faced financial penalties.

“Threats on Tap” is a follow-up to NRDC’s 2016 study that revealed widespread lead contamination in the tap water in Flint, Mich., and towns across America. A consumer’s guide to safe water can be found here.

Source: Natural Resources Defense Council

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