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contaminants and the regulations — or the maximum contaminant level — that we do have for a lot of the contaminants are outdated and based on old science.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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Jean-Marc Neveu and Olivier Civil never expected to find themselves battling against disposable mask pollution.
When they founded their recycling start-up Plaxtil in 2017, it was textile waste they set their sights on. The project developed a process that turned fabrics into a new recyclable material they describe as "ecological plastic."
Mounting Piles of Waste<p>It is not only the streets of Chatellerault where pandemic pollution is piling-up, but also the world's beaches and oceans. Once there, they can take up to 450 years to degrade and disappear.</p><p>Esther Röling, co-organizer of the annual Adventure Clean Up Challenge held on Hong Kong Island, has seen this waste firsthand. In October the sports challenge pitted teams against one another in a competition to remove trash from 13 hard-to-reach coastal areas around the city.</p><p>They find tons of both disposable and reusable masks, said Röling. "You wonder how it ended up there. Was it just thrown on the ground? Or was it in a garbage bag that broke open?"</p><p>Almost 10,000 kilometers away in Antibes on the sunny French Riviera, it's a similar picture. For the past few months, divers and clean-up volunteers working with an ocean clean-up non-profit called Operation Mer Propre have been collecting an increasing number of masks found on land and in the sea.</p><p>"Since the beginning of the lockdown when we started to count, we've reached 800, 900, [and now in total] 1000 masks," said co-founder Joko Peltier. </p><p>According to <a href="https://unctad.org/news/growing-plastic-pollution-wake-covid-19-how-trade-policy-can-help" target="_blank">UN estimates</a>, up to 75% of all coronavirus-related plastic could end up as waste in oceans and landfills.</p>
The Limits of Recycling<p>Yet not all are convinced the recycling of this waste is possible on a global scale. </p><p>"What those citizen groups are doing is really beneficial but once they collect it, it should just go to a landfill or an incinerator. They shouldn't necessarily expect it to get recycled," said Jonathan Krones, an industrial ecologist and visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Boston College.</p><p>That's because mask recycling programs like Plaxtil are few and far between and most don't have the benefit of a readily adaptable production process. </p><p>Even in countries with solid recycling infrastructure, he says, the system is designed to separate out specific types of waste like bottles or cardboard.</p><p>"I imagine that it would be technically feasible to develop a separation process to filter out masks, but there simply aren't enough of them to make that economical," he said.</p><p>Collection is a big hurdle, he adds. Since each mask only weighs a fraction of a gram and they're scattered on roads or mixed with other trash, it is difficult and costly. </p><p>"You need a lot of raw material of the right quality to make investing in the recycling technology and the recycling system worthwhile," he said.<span></span><br></p>
Hemp, Sugar Cane and Sustainable Alternatives<p>Some projects are instead addressing the material used to make masks.</p><p>French company Geochanvre have created a mask made primarily from hemp, while in Australia, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology are experimenting with a disposable product made from agricultural waste. </p><p>Biodegradable options are exciting alternatives to reduce the fossil fuels needed for the creation of plastic-based masks, said Krones, but they don't absolve the wearer from the responsibility of what happens afterwards. </p><p>Bio-based masks often need their own composing solutions, he explains, because in landfill they can produce high amounts of the greenhouse gas methane when anaerobic bacteria feeds on the organic material. Methane is known to be significantly more potent than carbon dioxide.</p><p>"I think as long as we have in our mind that we want to have disposability, we're going to have to wrestle with a variety of different sorts of environmental tradeoffs," he said, adding that reusable, fabric masks are the best option available to most people.</p><p>Precimask is developing a clear face covering with an optional visor made from hard plastic, designed to be long-lasting.<br></p><p>Air enters either side of the cheeks through a technology normally found in pool filters and car exhaust systems, said company spokeswoman Juliette Chambet.</p><p>"We wanted to make ceramic-based filters that would be washable and cleanable, which would allow them to be reused as many times as desired without having to buy a new consumable or produce waste," she said. </p><p>Ultimately, encouraging mask wearers to think about the entire lifecycle of a mask is key, explains Neveu. </p><p>"We want people who put on the masks to realize that they are also responsible for the waste, he said. "It's not inevitable that this [pandemic] will become an environmental catastrophe.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/covid-19-recycling-pollution-trash-pandemic/a-55707817" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649032193#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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