Find Out What's in Your Tap Water
Starting Wednesday, the vast majority of Americans can learn about every potentially harmful chemical in their drinking water and what scientists say are the safe levels of those contaminants. The Environmental Working Group's (EWG) new national Tap Water Database is the most complete source available on the quality of U.S. drinking water, aggregating and analyzing data from almost 50,000 public water systems in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
The organization has earned a reputation for ambitious data-mining research projects that shake up policy debates and consumer markets. EWG's online Farm Subsidy Database, listing millions of subsidy recipients, and its Skin Deep guide to more than 70,000 personal care products, draw tens of millions of visitors every year.
With EWG's new Tap Water Database, simply by entering their zip code or local utility's name, users will find all contaminants detected in tests by the utilities themselves and reported to federal or state authorities. Instead of comparing the levels of pollutants to the legal limits set by regulatory agencies—often the result of political and economic compromise, or based on outdated studies—EWG's guide relies on what the best and most current science finds are the levels that will fully protect public health, especially that of infants, children, pregnant women and other vulnerable populations.
"Americans deserve the fullest picture possible of what's in their tap water," said EWG President Ken Cook. "But they won't get that information from the government or, in many cases, from their utilities. The only place they'll find that is EWG's drinking water report."
Click here to see how EWG's Tap Water Database stacks up against a local water utility's Consumer Confidence Report.
The disturbing truth is that, all too often, a glass of tap water also comes with a dose of industrial and agricultural contaminants that have been linked to cancer, brain and nervous system damage, or developmental defects.
"Just because your tap water gets a passing grade from the government doesn't always mean it's safe," Cook said. "It's time to stop basing environmental regulations on political or economic compromises, and instead listen to what scientists say about the long-term effects of toxic chemicals and empower Americans to protect themselves from pollutants even as they demand the protective action they deserve from government."
The vast majority of utilities are in compliance with federal regulations, but their water still often contains contaminants in concentrations exceeding the levels that scientists say pose health risks. Many of the existing legal limits are set far above levels that are truly health protective. Because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not added a new chemical to the list of regulated contaminants in 20 years, more than half of the contaminants detected in U.S. tap water had no regulatory limit at all, meaning they could legally be present at any concentration and that utilities don't have to test for them or tell their customers about them.
EWG researchers spent the last two years collecting data from state agencies and the EPA for drinking water tests conducted from 2010 to 2015 by 48,712 water utilities in all 50 states and DC. All told, the utilities tested for approximately 500 different contaminants and found 267.
Contaminants detected in the nation's tap water included:
- 93 linked to an increased risk of cancer. More than 40,000 water systems had detections of known or likely carcinogens exceeding established federal or state health guidelines—levels that pose minimal but real health risks, but are not legally enforceable.
- 78 associated with brain and nervous system damage.
- 63 connected to developmental harm to children or fetuses.
- 45 linked to hormone disruption.
- 38 that may cause fertility problems.
The safety of the nation's drinking water was thrust back into the headlines in the summer of 2015, when extremely high levels of lead were discovered in the water supply of Flint, Michigan. Data compiled by EWG shows that between 2010 and 2015, nearly 19,000 public water systems had at least one detection of lead at levels that could pose a risk to bottle-fed infants.
Other frequently found contaminants of concern include:
- Chromium-6, made notorious by the film Erin Brockovich. This carcinogen, for which there are no federal regulations, was detected in the drinking water supplies serving 250 million Americans in all 50 states.
- 1,4-Dioxane, an unregulated compound that contaminates tap water supplies for 8.5 million people in 27 states at levels above those the EPA considers to pose a minimal cancer risk.
- Nitrate, chemical from animal waste or agricultural fertilizers, was detected in more than 1,800 water systems in 2015, serving 7 million people in 48 states above the level that research by the National Cancer Institute shows increases the risk of cancer—a level just half of the federal government's legal limit for nitrate in drinking water.
The new national drinking water guide is the latest in a long line of large database projects from EWG that have helped shape federal policy debates and shifts in industry behavior alike.
EWG last published a national drinking water report in 2009 in collaboration with the New York Times' Charles Duhigg as part of the paper's award-winning investigative series, Toxic Waters. Using EWG's tap water data and analysis, the Times detailed how the failures of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act have allowed millions of Americans to drink water with levels of contaminants that "can pose what scientists say are serious health risks—and still be legal."
Because federal drinking regulations are inadequate, Americans are left to take matters into their own hands. The first step concerned consumers can take is to buy an in-home water filtration system. Along with the Tap Water Database, EWG also provides a list of filter systems that can significantly reduce the contaminant levels in their water.
The U.S. District Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 Tuesday saying that the Federal Environmental Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) failed to adequately review the environmental impacts of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the fracked gas Sabal Trail pipeline, which runs more than 500 miles through Alabama, Georgia and Florida.
As ocean waters warm and acidify, corals across the globe are disappearing. Desperate to prevent the demise of these vital ecosystems, researchers have developed ways to "garden" corals, buying the oceans some much-needed time. University of Miami Rosenstiel School marine biologist Diego Lirman sat down with Josh Chamot of Nexus Media to describe the process and explain what's at stake. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is killing coral?
I wish we had an easy, straightforward answer for what's killing corals. We know there are many, many different factors influencing coral abundance, diversity, distribution and health these days, but I think the specific answer varies based on where you are.
Temperatures play a major role at global scales, and then you have all of these other, more local factors like disease, physical impacts of storms, or ship groundings.
Researcher Stephanie Schopmeyer prepares to out-plant Staghorn coral onto a Miami reef. Rescue-A-Reef, UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science
We had the dredging of the Port of Miami channel a couple of years ago and that caused a lot of localized mortality due to sediment burial and sediment stress. You also have land-based sources of pollution that can damage by location and nutrient influence that causes algal overgrowth of corals.
Local factors are superimposed on regional factors directly related to global climate change. Changes in temperature, more temperature extremes, acidification of the water, changes in storm frequency and sea level rise— all are at different scales — but they all combine to cause coral mortality.
Factors vary both spatially and temporally, but the outcomes are all the same. Regardless of where you are, we've lost a tremendous amount of coral.
Nursery-raised Staghorn coral out-planted onto a reef by a citizen scientist.
In the face of all those threats, can restoration work?
Historically, restoration was developed and used for acute disturbances. A ship runs aground, and so then there's a recovery, and funds are allocated to recovering the reef structure at a given location, and then corals are planted on top of that. But as global conditions decline for coral reefs, there's now a need to scale up. So, we're not just dealing with the localized impact—we're looking at species declining throughout their range.
We need other tools at larger scales, and that's where coral reef gardening has come into play, because it works at larger scales compared to just dumping cement and rebuilding reef structures, costly endeavors that recover just a very small footprint. We're growing and planting these organisms.
Do you worry about planted coral dominating the reefs?
Initially, these techniques were developed for fast-growing corals. The genus that we're focusing on, Acropora, is threatened, so these are very important reef-building species.
When abundant, they monopolize shallow environments. They form thickets, extensive areas of high-density colonies. That's the way they used to grow, until about three to four decades ago when they got wiped out by disease and other factors. The branching corals that we're working with grow between 10 and 15 cm per branch per year, so that's very fast growth.
Through recent advances in coral aquaculture, we're now also able to grow massive species, the ones that grow very slowly. Mote Marine Lab has developed microfragmentation techniques where they can cut coral colonies very, very small and make them grow very, very fast. Although we focused on branching corals initially, now most of the programs, especially here in Florida, are expanding onto other threatened species.
Citizen scientists plant coral. Rescue-A-Reef, UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science
Can these efforts solve the problem, or are they a placeholder until climate stabilizes?
You hit the nail on the head. One of the early criticisms of reef restoration was the scale issue and spending a lot of resources working on a very small footprint.
We've dealt with that now, over the past 10 years we've expanded to the point where we're growing thousands and thousands of corals—we're planting thousands and thousands of corals—so that issue of scale is no longer a valid criticism.
The other major criticism is that, even though we're planting a lot of corals, we're planting them onto environments where the same stressors that caused their initial mortality are in place. Now there is ocean acidification and increased temperatures, so things have gotten, in some cases, progressively worse.
Staghorn corals create a sustainable source of corals for use in restoration. Rescue-A-Reef, UM Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science
That is a valid concern if we were just planting corals, but we're not just doing that. We're still concentrating on all of the other aspects of reef restoration, setting up marine protected areas to protect fish stocks and coral impacts, working to curb land-based sources of pollution, and setting up sedimentation and nutrient controls. And then, on a much larger scale, we're all trying to curb carbon emissions, trying to limit the greenhouse impacts and acidification impacts. All these tools just help us buy time.
We're also doing a lot of genomics work to see how corals can increase their resilience. A colleague of mine here at the Rosenstiel School at University of Miami, Andrew Baker, is stress-hardening corals. He works on coral symbiosis, and he found that by applying a little bit of non-lethal stress, he can make corals shuffle their Zooxanthellae, which are the endosymbiotic microalgae that provide energy to the corals. In that process, they're able to uptake Zooxanthellae that are more thermally tolerant. So, through the forced shuffling of symbionts, you may be able to buy these corals one or two degrees of tolerance, so that they become more tolerant to bleaching in future years. That is cutting-edge science.
We're trying to actually find out what makes corals survive, and trying to beef up their defenses and their resilience over time. And that's because we have access to all these coral genotypes through the active propagation from coral gardening.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
By Karen Perry Stillerman
This job has responsibility for scientific integrity at the USDA, as well as oversight of the department's various research arms and multi-billion dollar annual investments in agricultural research and education that are essential to farmers and eaters alike.
The Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club lodged formal comments with the federal government Monday opposing a massive gas fracking project that spans 220 square miles of public land in Wyoming south of Yellowstone National Park.
The Normally Pressured Lance gas field would destroy wildlife habitat and worsen ozone pollution, a major cause of childhood asthma, in areas already suffering from extreme air pollution.
Sierra received complete surveys from a record-breaking 227 schools—in 36 states, the District of Columbia, and for the first time ever, Canada.
By Andy Rowell
The decades-long struggle for social and environmental justice in the Niger Delta continues, largely unseen by the wider world.
On Aug. 11, hundreds of people from the Niger Delta stormed the Belema flow station gas plant owned by Shell in the Rivers State region of the Delta. The plant transports crude oil to the Bonny Light export terminal, from where it is shipped overseas.
The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine said in a statement the Interior Department has directed it to cease its study on the potential health risks for people living near surface coal mines in Central Appalachia.
The Interior Department, which committed more than $1 million to the study last year, has begun an agency-wide review of grants over $100,000 because of the "Department's changing budget situation."