Environment

Tens of Thousands of Californians Exposed to Arsenic in Drinking Water

An environmental group says the state is failing to warn poor communities that their water is contaminated.

Hand with glass of water poured from kitchen faucet
Photo Credit: rodimov/Shutterstock

More than 55,000 Californians are exposed to drinking water that exceeds federal safety standards for arsenic, a known carcinogen, but the state is failing to adequately warn them of the risks, according to a report released Monday by an environmental watchdog group.

“More than three years after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found California in noncompliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, 95 community water systems in the state, serving more than 55,000 people, are still providing water with illegal levels of arsenic,” said the report from the Environmental Integrity Project.

California has made significant progress in reducing arsenic and other contaminants in drinking water in the last three years, the report noted, including more than doubling the amount of funding for water treatment plants, pipelines, and new wells. The state has also ordered the upgrade of local systems and directed small, underfunded utilities to merge with larger water suppliers.

As a result, the EPA determined in May that California was again in compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

2013 report from the State Water Resources Control Board showed that from 2002 to 2010, groundwater arsenic contamination affected 287 community systems, far more than the 95 systems identified in the new report.

“But in fact, the work is far from done,” the report said.

That’s because while larger and wealthier communities can afford filtration systems, many poor or rural areas are falling behind.

“Many of the people drinking excessive levels of arsenic are poor and/or Latino or African-American,” the report said. “More than 80 percent have been exposed to excessive arsenic levels for at least five years and probably longer.”

The EPA says that water with arsenic levels above 10 parts per billion is unsafe for drinking or cooking, although recent studies suggest that “the ‘safe’ level of arsenic is likely much lower,” the report said.

Arsenic occurs naturally in California’s groundwater. It is a powerful carcinogen that may also damage developing brains in children and cause hypertension, diabetes, and other ailments.

According to the EPA, the risk of developing cancer after a lifetime of drinking water containing 10 ppb arsenic is one in 2,000.

“A 2010 [EPA] draft assessment indicated that the risk of getting cancer from drinking water containing 10 ppb of arsenic is closer to 1 in 136, more than 17 times higher than current assumptions,” the report said.

In California, the highest arsenic levels from 2011 through 2015 were found in a group home for troubled teenage boys in Madera County, where concentrations averaged more than 120 ppb, or 12 times the federal limit.

The state also had 13 school districts, serving 8,822 students, with arsenic levels above 10 ppb, as well as 12 mobile home parks, a military base, and several other locations, the report said.

Fifty-eight communities, other than trailer parks, exceeded the legal limit.

Many residents in those communities, however, are not properly warned of the risks, according to the report.

“California public water systems notify customers through letters sent to homes whenever water fails to meet health limits for arsenic, but those same notices suggest the water is safe to drink,” Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said on a conference call.

The notices state that “this is not an emergency; you do not need to use an alternative water supply, e.g., bottled water,” Schaeffer said. “I think most people reading that would assume you can continue to drink water with arsenic that violates standards.”

“In contrast, the state gives much more blunt warnings to private well owners,” he added. “The state’s website tells them, 'If you suspect that your well may have arsenic, you should not use the water until it is tested and you take appropriate measures to protect yourself and your family.' ”

Andrew Diluccia, spokesperson for the State Water Resources Control Board, said in an email that municipal system customers are not told to avoid affected water because “arsenic is categorized as a chronic contaminant that poses possible health risks after long-term exposure—70-plus years of drinking two liters of arsenic-contaminated water a day above the maximum contaminant level. There are no known acute/immediate health effects that would cause consumers to immediately stop drinking the water.”

As for well owners, “it would be recommended to refrain from drinking the water until it is known how high the arsenic level is,” Diluccia said.

A U.S. EPA spokesperson said the agency would issue a response to the study later on Monday.

The report made several recommendations, including advising people to stop drinking water with unsafe arsenic levels, offering information on household filters, and increasing investments to upgrade drinking systems.

Ashok Gadgil, senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and professor of engineering at UC Berkeley, said the new findings were “alarming” but not surprising.

“I’m glad someone’s speaking up, although I’ve been aware of this for sometime,” Gadgil said.


“The least we should do is communicate the risk very clearly,” he said. “We cannot abandon people who cannot afford an arsenic remediation system or buy bottled water.”

“We don’t leave people to face the horrific risks of cancer just because they happen to be not in my backyard,” Gadgil added.

This article was originally published on TakePart. Reprinted with permission.

David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

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