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Explainer: Who Regulates U.S. Drinking Water, and How?

Health + Wellness
Explainer: Who Regulates U.S. Drinking Water, and How?
In the U.S., a variety of federal, state and local entities are involved in regulating safe drinking water. PxHere / CC0

By Brett Walton

Who's responsible for making sure the water you drink is safe? Ultimately, you are. But if you live in the U.S., a variety of federal, state and local entities are involved as well.


The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) forms the foundation of federal oversight of public water systems — those that provide water to multiple homes or customers. Congress passed the landmark law in 1974 during a decade marked by accumulating evidence of cancer and other health damage caused by industrial chemicals that found their way into drinking water. The act authorized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the first time to set national standards for contaminants in drinking water. The EPA has since developed standards for 91 contaminants, a medley of undesirable intruders that range from arsenic and nitrate to lead, copper and volatile organic chemicals like benzene.

In 1996, amendments to the SDWA revised the process for developing drinking water standards, which limit the levels of specific contaminants. Nearly a quarter century after those amendments, an increasing number of policymakers and public health advocates today argue that the act is failing its mission to protect public health and is once again in need of major revision.

Setting Limits

The process for setting federal drinking water contaminant limits, which is overseen by the EPA, was not designed to be speedy.

First, the EPA identifies a list of several dozen unregulated chemical and microbial contaminants that might be harmful. Then water utilities, which are in charge of water quality monitoring, test their treated water to see what shows up. The identification and testing is done on a five-year cycle. The EPA examines those results and, for at least five contaminants, as required by the SDWA, it determines whether a regulation is needed.

Three factors go into the decision: Is the contaminant harmful? Is it widespread at high levels? Will a regulation meaningfully reduce health risks? If the answer is "Yes" to all three, then a national standard will be forthcoming. Altogether, the process can take a decade or more from start to finish.

Usually, however, one of the three answers is "No." Since the 1996 amendments were passed, the EPA has not regulated any new contaminants through this process, though it has strengthened existing rules for arsenic, microbes and the chemical byproducts of drinking water disinfection. The agency did decide in 2011 that it should regulate perchlorate — which is used in explosives and rocket fuel and damages the thyroid — but reversed that decision in June 2020, claiming that the chemical is not widespread enough to warrant a national regulation.

Two other chemicals have recently advanced to the standard-writing stage. In February, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler announced that the agency would regulate PFOA and PFOS, both members of the class of non-stick, flame-retarding chemicals known as PFAS. For those two chemicals, the EPA currently has issued a health advisory, which is a non-enforceable guideline.

The act of writing a national standard introduces more calculations: health risks, cost of treatment to remove the contaminant from water and availability of treatment technology. Considering these, the EPA establishes what is known as a maximum contaminant level goal (MCLG), which is the level at which no one is expected to become ill from the contaminant over a lifetime. The agency then sets a standard as close to the goal as possible, taking treatment cost into account.

Standards, in the end, are not purely based on health protection and sometimes are higher than the MCLG. These standards, except for lead, apply to water as it leaves the treatment plant or moves throughout the distribution system. They do not apply to water from a home faucet, which could be compromised by old plumbing.

The EPA also has 15 "secondary" standards that relate to how water tastes and smells. Unless mandated by a state, utilities are not required to meet these standards.

Once the EPA sets a drinking water standard, the nation's roughly 50,000 community water systems — plus tens of thousands of schools, office buildings, gas stations and campgrounds that operate their own water systems — are obligated to test for the contaminant. If a regulated substance is found, system operators must treat the water so that contaminant concentrations fall below the standard.

Omissions and Nuances

That is the regulatory process at the federal level. But there are omissions and nuances.

One big omission is private wells. Water in wells that supply individual homes is not regulated by federal statute. Rather, private well owners are responsible for testing and treating their own well water. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that about 15% of U.S. residents use a private well. Some states, such as New Jersey, require that private wells be tested for contaminants before a home is sold. County health departments might also have similar point-of-sale requirements.

The nuance comes at the state level. States generally carry out the day-to-day grunt work of gathering water quality data from utilities and enforcing action against violations. To gain this authority, they must set drinking water standards that are at least as protective as the federal ones. If they want, they can set stricter limits or regulate contaminants that the EPA has not touched.

State authority had long been uncontroversial because only a few states — California and some northeastern states — were setting their own standards. That has changed in the last few years as states, responding to public pressure in the absence of an EPA standard, began regulating PFAS compounds.

"There was always a little bit of state standards-setting," says Alan Roberson, executive director of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, an umbrella group for state regulators. "But it's gone from a little bit to a lot."

Six states — Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Vermont — adopted drinking water standards for certain PFAS compounds, while four others, including North Carolina and Minnesota, have issued health advisories or guidelines for groundwater cleanup.

States are also putting limits on other chemicals that the EPA has ignored. In July, New York adopted the nation's first drinking water standard for 1,4-dioxane, a synthetic chemical that was used before the 1990s as an additive to industrial solvents. The EPA deems it likely to cause cancer, but the agency has not regulated it in drinking water. In 2017, California approved a limit for 1,2,3-TCP, another manufactured industrial solvent that the EPA considers likely to be carcinogenic.

The burst of state standards, especially for PFAS chemicals, has raised eyebrows. Some lawmakers worry that mismatched standards are confusing to residents. New York and New Jersey, for instance, set different limits on PFOA and PFOS in drinking water.

"This can create poor risk communication and a crisis of confidence by the public who have diminished trust in their state's standard when it fails to align with a neighboring state," Rep. Paul Tonko of New York said during a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing in July.

Other representatives countered with the view that the EPA should concentrate on a select number of the most concerning contaminants so as not to overwhelm utilities and states with too many rules that are too hastily put together. Rep. John Shimkus from Illinois, echoing statements made by other committee members, said he does not want a system in which "quantity makes quality."

Tonko, however, argued that the federal process "has not worked," pointing to the two-plus decades since a new contaminant was regulated.

This debate, and other considerations like regional drinking water standards, is likely to carry over into the next Congress.

Editor's note: This story is part of a nine-month investigation of drinking water contamination across the U.S. The series is supported by funding from the Park Foundation and Water Foundation. Read the launch story, "Thirsting for Solutions," here.

Reposted with permission from Ensia.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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