How healthy is your tap water?

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Outdated water standards may mean people are drinking tap water that is legally clean, but likely unhealthy, according to a series of investigative reports from Charles Duhigg at the New York Times. While some 60,000 chemicals may be present in the public water supply, only 91 are currently regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, and standards for most of those haven’t been changed since the 1980s, Duhigg says.

According to the Times analysis of more than 19 million tap water tests across 45 states and Washington, D.C., as many as 62 million Americans have likely consumed “unhealthy” water—or water that didn’t meet established government guidelines meant to prevent the development of cancer or other serious conditions—since 2004. Duhigg gives the example of the city of Maywood, California, home to some 30,000 residents, where, according to residents tap water is often brown and “tastes bitter.” Duhigg writes:

“Laboratory tests show Maywood’s tap water has contained toxic levels of mercury, lead, manganese and other chemicals that have been associated with liver and kidney damage, neurological diseases or cancer… But when Maywood’s residents asked for cleaner water, they were told what was flowing from the taps satisfied the Safe Drinking Water Act, and so the managers didn’t have to do more.”

The problem, Duhigg argues, is that many of the potentially harmful chemicals found in drinking water—such as manganese, which has been linked the the development of Parkinson’s disease—are effectively unregulated due to out of date standards. Yet, even for chemicals that are regulated, enforcement of standards is lacking. Since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 2004, roughly 20% of public water systems have violated the established clean drinking water requirements, but only 6% have been penalized by local or federal governments for those violations.

Efforts to improve EPA regulations have often been thwarted as well, Duhigg says. This is particularly the case with arsenic, which recent studies have shown can be dangerous even in low concentrations.

In 2000, the E.P.A. proposed setting a limit on arsenic in drinking water at five parts per billion — roughly equivalent to one drop in 50 drums of water. But water systems and industries that use arsenic complained, arguing that the science was uncertain and the chemical was expensive to remove. Regulators relented, doubling the arsenic limit to 10 parts per billion.

E.P.A. officials have expressed a commitment to improving water standards and the Senate Environment and Public Works committee convened earlier this month to question E.P.A. officials on enforcement of standards. Additionally, the E.P.A. is expected to announce a new strategy for regulating clean water supply. Yet, while critics suggest that the dangers posed by a possibly dirty water supply are overblown, even those who are convinced of the severity of the problem are skeptical about how soon E.P.A. promises will materialize into action. As Duhigg writes:

“A half-dozen current and former E.P.A. officials said in interviews that they tried to prod the agency to enforce the drinking-water law, but found little support. ‘I proposed drinking water cases, but they got shut down so fast that I’ve pretty much stopped even looking at the violations,” said one longtime E.P.A. enforcement official who, like others, requested anonymity for fear of reprisals. “The top people want big headlines and million-dollar settlements. That’s not drinking-water cases.”’

Are you concerned about the quality of your tap water? And how quickly do you feel should E.P.A. regulations should reflect the latest scientific research?