Is Your Tap Water Safe to Drink? Pesticides, Radioactive Material, PFAS Among New Contaminants Found

Health + Wellness
A person pours water from the tap into a glass.

The EWG's Tap Water Database lets U.S. residents see what's in their water. vitapix / Getty Images

Is your tap water safe to drink?

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has updated its Tap Water Database for the first time since 2019, which allows U.S. residents to enter their zip code and view the contaminants in their water supply. The update reveals 56 new contaminants identified by regulators and utilities, The Guardian reported, including pesticides, radioactive materials and Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS). The non-profit says the results are an argument for more effective regulation.

“EWG’s Tap Water Database offers a panoramic view of what drinking water quality looks like when the federal office meant to protect our water is in an advanced stage of regulatory capture,” EWG President Ken Cook said in a press release.

The database is based on annual tests taken from 2014 to 2019 by nearly 50,000 utilities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, EWG explained.

The rise in contaminants is partly due to newly identified PFAS, substances known as forever chemicals because they persist in the human body and the environment, The Guardian explained. These have been linked to health risks including cancer and immune suppression, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Another chemical identified was HAA-9, a by-product of the water-disinfection process that has recently been linked to lower birth rates, The Guardian reported. Overall, the database turned up contaminants linked to a variety of ailments including cancer, brain damage, fertility problems, hormone disruption and more, EWG said.

Unsafe chemicals end up in tap water for two main reasons, the non-profit said:

  1. There is not enough funding to replace lead pipes and clean up existing pollutants.
  2. Federal safety standards lag behind the most recent science.

The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 gave the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) authority over setting maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for polluting substances, but the number of controlled pollutants has not been raised since 2000, and some existing safety levels are out-of-date. The MCL for nitrate, for example, is based on public health guidelines from 1962.

As the Flint water crisis made clear, there is also a major environmental justice component to safe drinking water access in the U.S., with low-income Black and Latino communities especially at risk.

In response to its findings, the EWG called for stronger regulation and federal funding.

“With more funding, stronger federal safety standards and a greater focus on helping historically disadvantaged areas, safe water could finally be a given for all communities across the country,” Cook said. “Until then, EWG’s Tap Water Database will continue to be a key part of our work to help consumers and communities learn about the true scope of the problem, empower themselves and advocate for better water quality.”

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