Four years ago, an Associated Press investigation reported that a vast array of pharmaceuticals — including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones — had been found in the drinking water supplies used by at least 41 million people in the U.S. Today, for a variety of reasons a serious health threat remains present to a degree in U.S. cities and towns even if drinking water supplies appear to be more heavily monitored, oversight that was upgraded following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Two years after that AP report, the Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to overhaul drinking water regulations so officials could police dozens of contaminants simultaneously and tighten rules on the chemicals used by industries, which are among the prime sources of drinking water hazards.
New mining technology has placed fresh emphasis on drinking water safety. This latest danger centers on hydraulic fracturing or fracking. In 2005, a report from a Colorado group known as the Oil and Gas Accountability Project (a project of an environmental watchdog group called Earthworks) titled Our Drinking Water at Risk: What EPA and the Oil And Gas Industry Don’t Want Us to Know About Hydraulic Fracturing took a close look at the volatile issue.
Fracking is a common technique used to stimulate the production of oil and natural gas in which fluids are injected underground at high pressures, fracturing the formation to allow the oil or gas to flow more freely and facilitate its capture. Public protests against fracking in several states have positioned the issue as a choice between jobs and safe drinking water.
The report found that hydraulic fracturing fluids contain toxic chemicals and that chemicals are injected directly into drinking water aquifers.
Basic need for safe supplies
Government officials have a long and deep understanding of the fundamental necessity of providing clean and safe drinking water. Anything less would be sure to panic the population and sow major distrust in government agencies.
As far back as 1974, when Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act, which led to the creation of the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWRs or primary standards), legally enforceable standards have applied to public water systems. These primary standards are designed to safeguard public health by limiting the levels of contaminants in drinking water. In fact, the NPDWR standards and recent drinking water measurements are available publically through the EPA.
The website lists contaminants and maximum levels allowable, a cringe-worthy index of microorganisms, disinfectants, disinfection byproducts, organic and inorganic chemicals and something called radionuclides, mostly trace elements like uranium that above certain levels are known to increase the risk of cancer. Tolerance for the last item is zero.
The EPA also lists National Secondary Drinking Water Regulations (NSDWRs or secondary standards), which are non-enforceable guidelines that regulate contaminants that may cause distressing cosmetic reactions like skin or tooth discoloration, or aesthetic effects such as taste, odor or color in drinking water. Rules recommend these secondary standards to local water systems but the agency does not require systems to comply, although states may choose to adopt them as enforceable standards.
The EPA also publishes a means to monitor the safety of the drinking water in your U.S. community. Interestingly, bottled water is monitored by the Food & Drug Administration rather than the EPA.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has also looked at the matter, holding hearings in 2010 on the risks posed by endocrine disrupting chemicals in the water supply. Endocrine disruptors are naturally occurring or man-made substances that may mimic or interfere with the function of hormones in the body.
Some laws ignored by localities
In some instances, laws appear sufficient but have been ignored. The New York Times reported in 2010 that more than 20 percent of the nation’s water treatment systems have violated key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act for the previous five years. The Times also reported that the other major water law — the Clean Water Act — has been violated more than half a million times, though few polluters were ever punished.
That law was first enacted in 1972 and has been amended several times. For example, trace levels of medicines and personal care products were detected in New York City’s drinking water last summer after the city’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) drew samples from three upstate New York watersheds and analyzed them for 72 compounds, including antibiotics and prescription drugs. The department, which monitors about 250 contaminants in the city’s water, said the tests detected 14 drugs and personal care products at least once but that none was found at levels that would pose a risk to the city’s 9 million residents.
“For most of these detected compounds, a person would have to drink at least tens of thousands of glasses of water a day to get one effective dose of the substance or to meet a toxicity threshold,” the DEP said in a statement at the time. There are some who disagree with that risk assessment, however.