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Our Tap Water Is Not As Safe as it Should Be -- But Don't Panic, Here's How We Can Fix It

The Safe Drinking Water Act regulates 91 chemicals. Yet there are tens of thousands of chemicals that can contaminate our waters and that haven't been assessed for their risks.

This story originally appeared in SF Gate.

In general, tap water in the United States is remarkably safe -- the envy of people in much of the rest of the world. The water-related diseases that still kill millions of people throughout the world, like cholera, typhoid, dysentery, and more, were effectively eliminated in the United States 100 years ago when we started treating our water with filtration, chlorination, and other modern water-treatment systems.

But our tap water isn't as safe as it should, and can, be.

A December 16th article in the New York Times by Charles Duhigg called new attention to challenges facing the country's municipal tap water system. We have known for a long time that the Safe Drinking Water Act -- the nation's law regulating contaminants in our tap water -- is in need of updating and reform. We have also known for a long time that research into the health effects of many contaminants has been underfunded, slow, and piecemeal. Such research is extremely hard to do because of the vast numbers of possible chemical contaminants and the difficulty of identifying health effects of exposures to low concentrations or complex mixes of different chemicals.

Duhigg's article also called attention to the fact that part of the current problem is the gross abuse of science and the scientific process during the Bush Administration. Duhigg noted that in 2000 the list of chemicals regulated by US water-quality laws stopped growing, not that it was growing particularly quickly under any previous administration. But under the Bush Administration, EPA scientists working on water-quality contaminants were prevented from calling attention to chemical contamination of groundwater, removed from research on hazardous chemicals in drinking water, labeled “unpatriotic” for pursuing new regulations, and pressured by industry lobbyists and the White House to either slow efforts to expand the list of SDWA contaminants or to weaken those standards.

Water Number: 91. The Safe Drinking Water Act regulates 91 chemicals. Yet there are tens of thousands of chemicals that can contaminate our waters and that haven't been assessed for their risks.

But hold on. Don't panic. Many of us drink our tap water or only ask for tap water at restaurants. Most of us haven't succumbed to the marketing fervor over water filters, and more and more people are trying hard to avoid bottled water. This is how it should be. Most of our tap water meets quality standards, most of the time. Drinking water that does not meet a federal health guideline will not necessarily make someone ill. Many contaminants are hazardous only if consumed for years, or not hazardous at all. Some researchers note that even toxic chemicals, when consumed at extremely low doses, pose few risks.

So what should be done to make sure our tap water is, and remains, safe? Libertarians or anti-regulatory ideologues call for reduced and weakened governments, but if there is anything that a government should do, ensuring access to safe drinking water has got to be high on the list. Unregulated private companies and so-called “free markets” don't do it.

Moreover, there are solutions -- things that the federal government and local water providers can do immediately -- to ensure that our tap water is the best in the world. Here are my recommendations:

EPA and Congress must reform the Safe Drinking Water Act and the government must greatly expand research into the safety of individual chemicals and combinations of chemicals, and it must dramatically and quickly step up regulation of the dangerous ones.

But this is not enough. Our research system will never be able to overcome the massive backlog of work needed to understand the health implications of the vast numbers and complexities of chemicals released into the environment. EPA will never be able to regulate any but the worst of these chemicals, and so there will always be unanswered questions about safety.

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