Tap Water Safety: There’s Good News and Bad News
Sometimes our drinking water systems experience dangerous failures, such as the Flint lead poisoning disaster that made major news beginning in 2014. But outside those headline grabbing crises, how safe is our drinking.
The nonprofit Environmental Working Group wants to help you answer that question. It has collected all the water-quality information that utilities in the U.S. submit to their state environmental or public health agencies. That information has been compiled into a newly updated database that allows residents to check the safety of tap water in their community and then learn what kind of actions they can take if their water contains contaminants. In many cases it's as simple as adding a filter.
JUST LAUNCHED: EWG's new Tap Water Database: What's in Your Drinking Water? https://t.co/VURb072ROS https://t.co/zl5ry8IGqE— EWG (@EWG)1571835619.0
But there are some bigger issues lurking that could affect our water quality far into the future. For starters, regulations and standards aren't keeping up with science, and there are many unregulated contaminants that could pose a health threat. There are also big data gaps on water quality for some people living in more rural areas.
We spoke with Environmental Working Group senior scientist Tasha Stoiber about what we know and don't know about the safety of our drinking water — and what steps communities can take protect themselves.
Overall, how safe is drinking water for most people in the United States?
I think a lot of people think that because water is tested in the U.S. and it comes out of the tap, it must be completely fine. Probably most of the time it might be, but there still could be pollutants in there that you should be concerned about.
Many of the federal standards that we do have are not protective enough of health. There hasn't been a new drinking-water regulation passed in nearly 20 years. We still don't have regulations for about half of the detected contaminants and the regulations — or the maximum contaminant level — that we do have for a lot of the contaminants are outdated and based on old science.
For example, the maximum contaminant level for nitrate was set based on a standard back in 1962. Science has come a long way since then. [Editor's note: The U.S. sets the legal limit for nitrates at 10 milligrams per liter, while some recent research suggests that levels above 5 milligrams increase the risk for certain cancers and birth defects.]
So even though the drinking water is legal for them to serve it to us, it might still be associated with some potential risks for health, especially those who are more susceptible like children or pregnant women.
What should people do? We can’t just switch our tap water to another company.
That's one of the reasons that we put this tap-water database out. We'd love to start a national conversation about drinking-water quality and how it can be improved. We want people to be informed and we want them to understand more about their water.
We recommend doing your research, finding out what's in your water and filtering your tap water to eliminate as much of that health risk as you can.
We want consumers to be empowered to ask their water utility or their elected officials about their water. Why are these contaminants in my water? What are you doing to remove them? What treatment technology is available in my community and how are we creating funding to improve water in our area?
There are about 44 million people in the United States who rely on private wells for drinking water. What do we know about the safety of their water?
That's a big data gap — we don't have a lot of information on private wells.
There are actually no federal requirements for private well testing. Sometimes depending on the state that you're in there could be requirements to get a well tested if there's a real-estate transaction.
But usually in most states it falls on the homeowner to get their well tested. And it just doesn't happen that much. One issue might be that people have a false sense of security if they're drinking the water and it seems fine. But the other issue is that testing also costs money. So unless there's some kind of reason to test for it, most people don't do it.
And when it comes to public water systems, the most vulnerable are often water systems that serve smaller or rural communities — especially those that rely on just one water source, such as a single well. If you're a larger system with a number of different sources and one gets contaminated, you can shut it off and not have capacity issues. Large systems usually have the resources and scale of economy to deal with problems that come up. But for the smaller systems, that's going to be a little bit more difficult.
Which contaminants are you most concerned with right now?
Something that you've likely been hearing about in the news is a group of highly toxic fluorinated chemicals called perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) [that have been linked to cancer and harm to reproductive and immune systems]. We don't have any enforceable national regulations for them and they are pervasive. Some communities may test for them. New Jersey, for example, is setting its own levels for certain PFAS chemicals. [California has also just mandated testing in high-risk areas.] It is really one of the most notorious chemical groups that needs to be addressed.
[Cancer-causing] hexavalent chromium is another one where there's no federal standard specifically. California did attempt a state maximum contaminant level, but there were issues [after a legal challenge from a taxpayers group] and they had to go back to the drawing board.
It can become a hugely political issue in dealing with any of these things. Communities shouldn't have to pay for the pollution in their drinking water if a specific industry caused it, but often it ultimately falls on the ratepayers if industry hasn't taken responsibility.
So we want people to have all of the information available to them. You do get a consumer confidence report every year [from your water utility], but that might not include information on all of the different contaminants that were tested.
But all of that information is in our database. And it breaks down all of the health-associated risks with each of the contaminants and what our gold standard health limits would be for each of those.
Most of our health standards are based California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment and their public health goals. Those are based purely on protection of health and no other economic or political factors.
Are you worried that more bad press about tap water will lead people to drink bottled water instead?
Bottled water is no safer than tap water. It can also contain contaminants, as well as microplastics. What's more, companies don't have to disclose bottled-water testing results to the public, so you often don't know what you're getting.
That's why we don't consider bottled water a long-term solution, and recommend it only be used in extreme cases — such as after storms or earthquakes.
I do think it's easy to look at the information and to panic or to even get desensitized. Drinking water quality is going to vary depending on where you live. In California, or some other areas where there is longstanding legacy pollution, there are situations where there is an acute risk with water quality and you shouldn't be drinking what's out of the tap.
But that's an extreme situation. For most people there's not going to be that need to panic immediately. We're talking about the risk of drinking this water over your lifetime.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Joe Roman and Taylor Ricketts
The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States is the deepest and longest period of malaise in a dozen years. Our colleagues at the University of Vermont have concluded this by analyzing posts on Twitter. The Vermont Complex Systems Center studies 50 million tweets a day, scoring the "happiness" of people's words to monitor the national mood. That mood today is at its lowest point since 2008 when they started this project.
The Hedonometer measures happiness through analysis of key words on Twitter, which is now used by one in five Americans. This chart covers 18 months from early 2019 to July 2020, showing major dips in 2020. hedonometer.org<p>These same tweets also indicate a potential salve. Before pandemic lockdowns began, doctoral student <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=0P0ZYbIAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">Aaron Schwartz</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/pan3.10045" target="_blank">compared tweets before, during, and after visits to 150 parks, playgrounds and plazas</a> in San Francisco. He found that park visits corresponded with a spike in happiness, followed by an afterglow lasting up to four hours.</p><p>Tweets from parks contained fewer negative words such as "no," "not" and "can't," and fewer first-person pronouns like "I" and "me." It seems that nature makes people more positive and less self-obsessed.</p><p>Parks keep people happy in times of global crisis, economic shutdown and public anger. Research has also shown that transmission rates for COVID-19 are <a href="https://www.sfchronicle.com/news/article/Is-risk-of-coronavirus-transmission-lower-15287602.php" target="_blank">much lower outdoors than inside</a>. As scholars who study <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=yFzb2EUAAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">conservation</a> and how nature <a href="https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=CCnUeN8AAAAJ&hl=en" target="_blank">contributes to human well-being</a>, we see opening up parks and creating new ones as a straightforward remedy for Americans' current blues.</p>
Park Visits Are Up During the Pandemic<p>According to the Hedonometer, sentiments expressed online started trending lower in mid-March as the impacts of the pandemic became clear. As lockdowns continued, they registered the lowest sentiment scores on record. Then in late May, effects from George Floyd's death in police custody and the following protests and police response once again could be seen on Twitter. May 31, 2020 was the saddest day of the project.</p><p>Recent surveys of park visitors around the University of Vermont have shown people <a href="https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/sd3h6" target="_blank">using green spaces more</a> since COVID-19 lockdowns began. Many people reported that parks were highly important to their well-being during the pandemic.</p>
<div id="4c7e4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="bc0ac146ab2a94228f32d973fc2ab272"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1289428912879964160" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">#Goldengatepark #sf #quarantinemood https://t.co/9l3ufnbkt6</div> — Suvd (@Suvd)<a href="https://twitter.com/Suvd19486406/statuses/1289428912879964160">1596258783.0</a></blockquote></div><p>The powerful effects of nature are strongest in large parks with more trees, but smaller neighborhood parks also provide a significant boost. Their impact on happiness is real, measurable and lasting.</p><p>Twitter records show that parks increase happiness to a level similar to the bounce at Christmas, which typically is the happiest day of the year. Schwartz has since expanded his <a href="https://arxiv.org/pdf/2006.10658.pdf" target="_blank">Twitter study</a> to the 25 largest cities in the U.S. and found this bounce everywhere.</p><p>Parks and public spaces won't cure COVID-19 or stop police brutality, but they are far more than playgrounds. There is growing evidence that parks contribute to mental and physical health in a range of communities.</p><p>In a 2015 study, for example, Stanford researchers sent people out for one of two walks: through a local park or on a busy street. Those who walked in nature showed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2015.02.005" target="_blank">improved moods and better memory performance</a> compared to the urban group. And a team led by <a href="https://penniur.upenn.edu/people/eugenia-gina-south" target="_blank">Gina South</a> of the University of Pennsylvania showed in a 2018 study that greening and cleaning up blighted vacant lots in Philadelphia <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.0298" target="_blank">reduced local residents' feelings of depression, worthlessness and poor mental health</a>.</p>
Creative Strategies<p>It isn't easy to create new parks on the scale of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park or the Washington Mall, but smaller projects can expand outdoor space. Options include greening vacant lots, closing streets and investing in existing parks to make them safer, greener and shadier and support wildlife.</p><p>These initiatives don't have to be capital-intensive. In the University of Pennsylvania study, for example, renovating a vacant lot by removing trash, planting grass and trees and installing a low fence cost only about US$1,600.</p><p>Urban green space is most needed in neighborhoods that have lacked funding for parks, especially given <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/08/nyregion/coronavirus-race-deaths.html" target="_blank">COVID-19's disproportionate impact on Black and Latinx people</a>.</p><p>Cities can also create parklike spaces by <a href="https://theconversation.com/with-fewer-cars-on-us-streets-now-is-the-time-to-reinvent-roadways-and-how-we-use-them-140408" target="_blank">closing streets to cars</a>. Many cities worldwide are currently retooling their transportation systems for the post-COVID-19 world in order to <a href="https://thecityfix.com/blog/bicycles-slower-speeds-livable-city-paris-mayor-anne-hidalgo-plans-ambitious-second-term-dario-hidalgo/" target="_blank">reallocate public space</a>, widen sidewalks and make more space for nature.</p><p>Urban designers, artists, ecologists and other citizens can play a direct role, too, creating pop-up parks and green spaces. Some advocates <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-09-15/a-brief-history-of-park-ing-day" target="_blank">transform parking spaces into mini-parks</a> with grass, potted trees and seating for just the time on the meter, to make a larger point about turning so much public space over to cars.</p><p>Or cities can invest a little more. Minneapolis, Cincinnati and Arlington, Virginia, have won <a href="https://www.tpl.org/parkscore" target="_blank">national recognition</a> for their ambitious investments in public park systems. These areas could serve as models for neighborhoods that lack access to parks.</p>
<div id="25fd0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="383f0d2df0237e9359c30dcce6cd6c42"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1276558744835379201" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Looking to safely get outside? Check out the best parks for social distancing in this year's top ten ParkScore citi… https://t.co/HJjEtDsrTD</div> — The Trust for Public Land (@The Trust for Public Land)<a href="https://twitter.com/tpl_org/statuses/1276558744835379201">1593190296.0</a></blockquote></div>
A New Park Deal?<p>The United States has historically driven economic recovery with major infrastructure investments, like the New Deal in the 1930s and the 2009 <a href="https://www.investopedia.com/terms/a/american-recovery-and-reinvestment-act.asp" target="_blank">American Reinvestment and Recovery Act</a>. Such investments could easily include nature-positive spaces.</p><p>Parks are not panaceas, as evidenced by the widely publicized <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/06/nyregion/amy-cooper-false-report-charge.html" target="_blank">racist confrontation between a white woman and a Black birder</a> in New York's Central Park in early July. But Hedonometer data add to a <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/5/7/eaax0903?utm_source=miragenews&utm_medium=miragenews&utm_campaign=news" target="_blank">growing body of evidence</a> that they provide <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1807504116" target="_blank">clear mental health benefits</a>. Creating and expanding parks also <a href="https://www.nrpa.org/contentassets/f568e0ca499743a08148e3593c860fc5/economic-impact-study-summary.pdf" target="_blank">generates jobs and economic activity</a>, with much of the money spent locally.</p><p>We believe investments in nature are well worth it, offering both short-term solace in difficult times and long-term benefits to health, economies and communities.</p>
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New York State Attorney General Letitia James announced Thursday that she will attempt to dismantle the National Rifle Association (NRA), arguing that years of corruption and mismanagement warrant the dissolution of the activist organization, as CNN reported.
<div id="7eb49" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="83819841e380a7072ec66d3186c160e8"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1291705003984510977" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">🚨RESPONSE to #Mauritius #OILSpill 🚨 “Once again we see the risks in oil: aggravating the #ClimateCrisis, as well as… https://t.co/PBLioZat6X</div> — Greenpeace Africa (@Greenpeace Africa)<a href="https://twitter.com/Greenpeaceafric/statuses/1291705003984510977">1596801446.0</a></blockquote></div><p>"There is no guaranteed safe way to extract, transport and store fossil fuel products. This oil leak is not a twist of fate, but the choice of our twisted addiction to fossil fuels. We must react by accelerating our withdrawal from fossil fuels," Greenpeace Africa Senior Climate and Energy Campaign Manager Happy Khambule said in a <a href="https://www.greenpeace.org/africa/en/press/11864/greenpeace-africa-response-to-mauritius-oil-spill/?utm_campaign=oil&utm_source=t.co&utm_medium=post&utm_content=single-image&utm_term=mauritius-oil-spill-reactive" target="_blank">statement Friday</a>. "Once again we see the risks in oil: aggravating the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis" target="_self">climate crisis</a>, as well as devastating oceans and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/biodiversity" target="_self">biodiversity</a> and threatening local livelihoods around some of Africa's most precious lagoons."</p>
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By Gianna-Carina Grün
While the first countries are easing their lockdowns, others are reporting more and more new cases every day. Data for the global picture shows the pandemic is far from over. DW has the latest statistics.
What's the Current Global Trend?<p>The goal for all countries is to make it to the blue part of the chart and stay there. Countries and territories in this section reported zero new cases both this week (past seven days) and the week before.</p><p>Currently, that is the case for 14 out of 209 countries and territories. </p>
How Has the Covid-19 Trend Evolved Over the Past Weeks?<p>The situation has improved slightly: 87 countries report more cases this week than last week. </p>
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