Flint Is Far From America's Only Drinking Water Concern

As many as 110 million Americans may be drinking contaminated water when they turn on the tap, according to a newly released analysis.

The nonprofit Environmental Working Group reported that certain chemicals have found their way into far more public drinking-water systems than experts had previously thought. The contaminants have been linked to cancer, thyroid disease, impaired immune systems and other ailments.

The official estimated number of people at risk would be much higher if the Environmental Protection Agency were required to report lower levels of contamination than the current 2.5-parts-per-trillion standard, the EWG alleges. The government has established no limit to the amount of some dangerous fluorinated chemicals that is legally acceptable in drinking water.

ThinkProgress noted that on the same day the EWG announced its findings, the EPA sponsored a summit concerning polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl. The so-called PFAS show up not only in water, but also in some carpeting, clothes, furniture fabrics, and pots and pans. Extended exposure to the chemicals can cause severe health problems.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt declared that protecting people from the “hazardous” PFAS is a “national priority,” and calling for stricter regulations. However, the official's critics are skeptical that anything meaningful will happen. “Given Scott Pruitt’s record of trying to roll back public-health protections and going easy on chemical polluters, taking him at his word that he’ll swing into action on PFAS is like believing a 7-year-old who promises to clean up his room after dessert,” said David Andrews, a scientist who wrote the EWG report.

Many news-media outlets were not allowed to attend the summit, which increased comcerns about the EPA's commitment to solving the crisis. “Even at a scientific conference, intended to find answers and educate the public about a serious drinking-water contamination problem, we see the influence of Pruitt’s style of secrecy and entitlement,” said Eric Pooley, senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund.

More details about the danger of PFAS were expected to be part of a report by the Centers for Disease Control, but the release of the document has been delayed under pressure from the Trump administration. A White House official told Politico that releasing the information would be a “public-relations nightmare.”

The CDC has warned that the fluoride chemicals PFOA and PFOS can be found in the bloodstream of nearly every U.S. resident. The American Red Cross conducted a study last year that confirmed the claim. Although the chemicals are now banned, they can remain in the body and the environment for years. They got into water systems from manufacturing plant emissions and other sources. Those exposed to PFOA and PFOS reportedly have significantly higher rates of cancer and hormone maladies.

Manufacturers have switched to other chemicals that allegedly have not been adequately tested and which may be as hazardous as the outlawed substances. Andrews pointed out that there is no national program for testing drinking-water supplies for PFAS like GenX, which DuPont developed when it was no longer allowed to use other chemicals. Clinical trials have indicated that GenX causes cancer in some animals.

In another recently issued report, “Threats on Tap,” the Natural Resources Defense Council cited more than 12,000 violations of health standards at 5,000 public-water systems that serve more than 27 million Americans. Facilities in Texas, Puerto Rico, Ohio, Maryland and Kentucky had the most violations.

Part of the problem may be inadequate enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, which established regulations for lead, arsenic and about 100 other contaminants. Another challenge is old water-delivery system infrastructure that needs to be replaced. The NRDC's Erik Olson, referring to the Michigan city dealing with high levels of lead in its water supply, told Mother Jones: “Flint was a wake-up call for Americans, but it’s not the only place in the United States with tap-water problems.”

The CDC estimates that tainted drinking water sickens more than 19 million people in the United States each year. Those in rural areas and small towns are most affected, largely because of nitrates from agricultural chemicals that farmers spray on crops. In 2015, more than half of the water-system health violations that the government found were in communities with 500 or fewer residents.

The American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave the government's regulatory agencies a D- grade for their efforts to remove lead from drinking-water systems. Between 6 million and 10 million homes have lead coursing through their water lines. Many treatment plants still use technology that was developed in the early 1900s. The needed infrastructure improvements would cost almost $40 billion, according to the EPA.

Pruitt, a long-time EPA critic before getting the Cabinet position, does not seem eager to tackle the problem. At an April meeting of coal miners, he proclaimed: “The regulatory assault is over.” The statement echoed one of President Trump's campaign promises, which he has continued to stress since entering the White House.

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