Ask any municipal water department if the tap water in the area is safe and you’ll get an “of course” in response. You’ll be told that the water meets all regulations for safety, meaning that contaminant levels fall under the maximum amount allowed. But here’s what you won’t hear: the Safe Water Drinking Act, which governs tap water safety, is 35 years old, and in the last 35 years, many thousands of new chemicals have been developed and released into the environment. The Safe Water Drinking Act regulates 91 chemicals, but at this point, the US uses over 60,000 chemicals, and trace amounts of at least some of those end up in the water supply, without any law in place to regulate them. And of course, not all those 60,000 unregulated chemicals are benign. In fact, according to a recent article in the New York Times, hundreds of those chemicals are known to cause cancer or other diseases. But that estimate ignores the fact that thousands more have nott yet been investigated for health consequences. To date, government scientists have evaluated only 830 of the contaminants most often found in water supplies.
But let’s pretend for a moment that only the 91 chemicals now included in the Water Act existed (not the 60,000 that in fact are there); would your water be safe? Not at all. The regulations don’t ensure safety even for the 91 because research in the past few decades has found some of the compounds cause disease at far lower levels than the law sets forth. This means that water deemed legal and safe may not be safe at all. For instance, the Times notes that the current levels allowed for arsenic are so high that one in every 600 people who regularly drinks water containing the allowable arsenic content will eventually develop bladder cancer from it. Actually, this is nothing new. As I wrote 10 years ago in the first edition of Lessons from the Miracle Doctors, water authorities accept a 93% increase in the risk of cancer from the use of chlorine in water (as estimated by the US Council of Environmental Quality) in return for a reduction in cholera and other infectious diseases. Then again, maybe that’s not a trade off that you personally want to make.
As if these factors don’t give you enough to worry about, the Water Act isn’t necessarily enforced, at least in some areas. An analysis by the Times found that 20 percent of the nation’s water systems violated established standards within the past five years, allowing excessive levels of pollutants like raw sewage and chemicals such as rocket fuel additive and uranium to remain in the water. It’s not likely that compliance will improve any time soon unless something radical changes, because to date, only six percent of the locales found in violation of the Safe Water Drinking Act received fines or citations by the EPA or other regulators. The end result, according to the Times, is that 62 million Americans have been drinking water that may contain carcinogens or other disease causing agents. But again, that ignores chlorine, fluoride, and chloramines — all used as water additives, and all known carcinogens. Factor those puppies in and you’re looking at virtually all Americans consuming carcinogens in their drinking water.
The former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, William K. Reilly, comments, “For years, people said that America has the cleanest drinking water in the world. That was true 20 years ago. But people don’t realize how many new chemicals have emerged and how much more pollution has occurred. If they did, we would see very different attitudes.” In fact, studies published in numerous medical and environmental journals as well as reports published by the National Academy of Sciences contend that millions of people in the US get sick annually from drinking contaminated tap water.
Drinking a glass of water filled with chemical residue isn’t going to give you cancer overnight. Rather, the chemicals build up on body tissue over years, and so by the time you get sick, you haven’t a clue what caused the problem. And remember, it isn’t necessarily a single chemical causing problems in your water. Many water systems have excess levels of multiple chemicals, and research hasn’t been done on how the chemicals interact in the body over time. Even if your water system has multiple chemicals at safe levels, it’s possible that the interactive effect won’t be so safe.
It doesn’t help that lobbying groups have pressured regulators into stepping back efforts to set limits on chemical releases or on costly clean-up efforts. For instance, after perchlorate, a rocket fuel additive known to affect the central nervous system, was found toxic at low levels in EPA assessments, the US military complained that clean-up would cost billions of dollars. Subsequently, a military spokesman called the assessments “biased, unrealistic and scientifically imbalanced,” and military officials called EPA scientists unpatriotic. The dry-cleaning industry launched an equally vicious campaign to halt limits on the dry-cleaning solvent perchloroethylene, known to cause tumors.
In fact, the head of the EPA’s Environmental Risk Analysis division, Dr. Peter Preuss, describes the treatment he got from lobbying groups trying to prevent regulation: “It’s hard for me to describe the level of anger and animosity directed at us for trying to publish sound, scientific research that met the highest standards. It went way beyond what would be considered professional behavior.”
And so, perchlorate and perchloroethylene remain unregulated. The end result is that public water supplies in California, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon and eight other states have been found to contain these chemicals. Traces of perchlorate were recently found in every individual examined by CDC researchers. (It doesn’t help that the CDC also found perchlorate in all infant formulas tested.) And then, there are the other 59,999 or so chemicals to worry about.
Of course, there’s the rapidly growing problem of pharmaceutical drugs in your drinking water. They enter the water supply through virtually every toilet in the country, and practically no municipal water treatment plant has the capacity to remove them when treating water. The one piece of good news here is that some of those pharmaceuticals are highly toxic chemotherapy drugs. So yes, they may be killing you, but probably not from cancer. And with luck, maybe they’re even counteracting some of the carcinogenic chemicals in your water…or not.
In the end, the biggest offenders tend to be water systems serving fewer than 20,000 residents, because these systems lack resources and the expertise necessary to avoid problems. To find out how your tap water measured up in recent independent analyses, check here. Unless your public water supply turned up clean and problem-free (and none of the ones we checked did), don’t take chances, and don’t rely on bottled water, which often consists of repackaged tap water or spring water that’s as polluted as what comes out of your tap. Bottled water also has the plastic leaching effect, and does nothing about the water you absorb when showering. Your best bet is to protect yourself by installing high quality filters or steam distillation systems at the tap. And don’t forget your shower and bath, or better yet, get a whole-house filter if you can afford it.