Quantcast
Health

170 Million Americans Drink Radioactive Tap Water

Drinking water for more than 170 million Americans in all 50 states contains radioactive elements that may increase the risk of cancer, according to an Environmental Working Group (EWG) investigation released Thursday.

Radiation in tap water is a serious health threat, especially during pregnancy, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's legal limits for the most widespread radioactive elements are more than 40 years old. But President Trump's nominee to be the White House environment czar rejects the need for water systems to comply even with those inadequate standards.


The most common radioactive element in American tap water is radium. EWG's analysis of test data from almost 50,000 public water systems found that from 2010 to 2015, more than 22,000 utilities in all 50 states reported radium in the treated water delivered to customers' taps. EWG's interactive map shows the utilities with radium contamination and how many people were affected.

Only a small percentage of those systems exceeded the EPA's legal limits for radium, set in 1976. But almost all exceeded California state scientists' public health goals for two separate radium isotopes, set in 2006, which are hundreds of times more stringent than the EPA's standard for the two isotopes combined. The elevated risk of cancer, as well as potential harm to fetal growth and brain development, decreases with lower doses of radiation but does not go away.

"Most radioactive elements in tap water come from natural sources, but that doesn't take away the need to protect people through stronger standards and better water treatment," said Olga Naidenko, Ph.D., EWG's senior science advisor for children's environmental health. "Millions of Americans are drinking water with potentially harmful levels of radioactive elements, but the outdated federal standards mean many people don't know about the risk they face when they turn on the tap."

California has the most residents affected by radiation in drinking water. From 2010 to 2015, about 64 percent of the state's residents were served by public water systems that reported detectable levels of the two radium isotopes. In Texas, which has a smaller population, about 80 percent of the population was served by utilities reporting detectable levels of those elements.

But while President Trump's nominee to head the White House Council on Environmental Quality, or CEQ, was Texas's top environmental regulator, the state regularly and deliberately lowered the levels of radiation in tap water it reported to the EPA.

The nominee, Kathleen Hartnett White, admitted in a 2011 investigation by Houston's KHOU-TV that if utility tests found radiation levels over the EPA limit, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality would subtract the test's margin of error to make it appear the water met federal standards. In some cases, this meant that Texans whose tap water posed the extraordinarily elevated lifetime cancer risk of 1 in 400 were not informed of the danger.

Hartnett White told KHOU she did not trust the science behind the EPA's standard. When pressed by a reporter—"What if you're wrong and EPA's right?"—she said: "It would be regrettable."

Last month, after Hartnett White acknowledged to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that she knew the commission was cooking the books, her nomination was sent back to the White House. But on Monday the White House stubbornly renominated her.

"Putting someone in charge of CEQ who deliberately falsified data to get around federal regulations is outrageous, and the fact that her deception left people at serious risk of cancer is even more alarming," said Scott Faber, EWG's vice president of government affairs. "The Senate should reject this radioactive nominee."

"With the renomination of Kathleen Hartnett White to the White House Council of Environmental Quality, President Trump is failing these 170 million at-risk Americans who are drinking contaminated water," said Christy Goldfuss, vice president for energy and environmental policy at the Center for American Progress. "When Hartnett White was tasked with addressing radiation in Texas's drinking water as a government official, she regularly and deliberately underreported the amount of radiation in drinking water, keeping families in the dark about their health and safety. Putting her in charge of the Council of Environmental Quality could do untold damage to even more Americans. With [Thursday's] data revealed, it is even more vital that our leaders and representatives prioritize clean and safe drinking water for all."

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Animals

Close-up of beluga whale swimming in water. Graham Swain / EyeEm / Getty Images

Beluga Whale in River Thames 'Very Lost and Quite Possibly in Trouble'

Beluga whales are normally found in icy Arctic and subarctic waters. So onlookers were undoubtedly surprised to spot one of the distinctive white whales swimming very far south in the UK's River Thames.

Ecologist and ornithologist Dave Andrews first posted footage of the unusual sighting onto Twitter on Tuesday and said the whale was feeding around the barges near the town of Gravesend in northwest Kent.


Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Environmentalists paint "DIRTY" onto a silo at an Indonesia palm oil plant. Jurnasyanto Sukarno / Greenpeace

Rock Band Occupies Palm Oil Tanks With Activists Protesting Deforestation

Thirty activists, including members of Greenpeace and the Indonesian rock band Boomerang, occupied a palm oil refinery owned by Wilmar International, the world's largest palm oil trader, on Tuesday to protest deforestation in Indonesia.

The environmentalists abseiled down silos and unfurled a banner that read "Drop Dirty Palm Oil Now" and painted the word "DIRTY" onto another tank.

Keep reading... Show less
Health
Pixabay

Trump Administration Asks Court to Re-Hear Case That Banned Chlorpyrifos

The Trump administration is appealing a federal court ruling that ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ban chlorpyrifos, a widely used pesticide tied to brain damage and other health problems in children.

In August, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the EPA must ban the pesticide within 60 days based on strong scientific evidence that chlorpyrifos—which is applied on dozens of fruit, nut and vegetable crops—is unsafe for public health.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Katharina Jaeger / LOOK / Getty Images

Locals Unite to Stop Hog Farms From Polluting Their Community

By Wyatt Massey

Sue George never intended to be an activist. The soft-spoken, retired elementary school teacher was content on her century farm near Lime Springs, a town in the rolling hills of northeast Iowa with a tad under 500 people.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Science
Young Florida panthers, one of the most endangered species in the U.S. according to the Center for Biological Diversity. USFWS

9,000+ Scientists Defend Endangered Species Act in Letter to Trump Administration

Thousands of scientists have signed two letters opposing changes to the Endangered Species Act proposed by the Trump administration that critics say would weaken protections in favor of developers, Reuters reported Monday.

The proposed changes were announced by the Interior and Commerce Departments in July, and include axing the "blanket rule' granting threatened species the same protections as endangered species and removing language telling officials not to consider economic impacts when listing a species.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Sandy Huffaker / Corbis / Getty Images

EPA Watchdog: 'Emergency' Pesticide Approval Process Is Flawed

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of the Inspector General released a report Tuesday finding that the agency's practice of routinely granting "emergency" approval for use of pesticides across millions of acres does not effectively measure risks to human health or the environment.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Oceans
Russian and U.S. students carry bug spray for the mosquitoes, bear spray for the grizzlies and notebooks for the salmon science, while studying in Alaska's backcountry. John Simeone on behalf of WWF

Sharing Knowledge and Salmon Across the Bering Sea

By Amy McDermott

At the height of the Alaskan summer, a troupe of students hiked up the middle of a shallow creek. Undergraduates and grads from the University of Washington, the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Kamchatka State Technical University in eastern Russia carried handheld clickers to count the multitudes of salmon thrashing upstream to spawn. Some of the students spoke English, others Russian, but they all came to see salmon: fish that their two countries share.

Keep reading... Show less
Food
The Orangutans in Indonesia have been known to be on the verge of extinction as a result of deforestation and poaching.
Ulet Ifansasti / Getty Images News

5 Ways to Make Food Production and Land Use More Earth-Friendly

By Edward Davey

The world is vastly underestimating the benefits of acting on climate change. Recent research from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate finds that bold climate action could deliver at least $26 trillion in economic benefits through 2030. This ground-breaking research, produced by the Global Commission and more than 200 experts, highlights proof points of the global shift to a low-carbon economy, and identifies ways to accelerate action in five sectors: energy, cities, food and land use, water and industry. Our blog series, The $26 Trillion Opportunity, explores these economic opportunities in greater detail.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!