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See Inside October 2011

Is It Safe to Drink? The Problem with the Nation's Drinking Water Standards

The government may not be doing enough to regulate contaminants in tap water



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More than 6,000 chemicals pollute U.S. drinking water, yet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has added only one new pollutant to its regulatory roster in the past 15 years. Environmental groups have long raised questions about this track record, and the U.S. Government Accountability Office recently joined the chorus, releasing a report that charges the agency with taking actions that have “impeded ... progress in helping assure the public of safe drinking water.”

Among other things, the GAO report says, the EPA relies on flawed data. To determine the level of a particular pollutant in drinking water—which the EPA does before making a regulatory ruling on it—the agency relies on analytic testing methods so insensitive that they cannot identify the contaminants at levels expected to cause health effects. In addition, since 1996 the EPA has been required to make regulatory decisions about five new pollutants each year, ruling on those that might pose the biggest threats to public health. The GAO report asserts that the agency has been ruling only on the “low-hanging fruit”—contaminants for which regulatory decisions are easy rather than those that might be the most dangerous. “They’re not actually doing anything to protect public health,” says Mae Wu, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

For its part, the EPA has pledged to review the nation’s drinking-water standards and to add at least 16 new contaminants to the list of those it regulates. This past February the agency reversed a long-standing decision to not regulate the rocket-fuel ingredient perchlorate, making the chemical the first new drinking-water contaminant to be regulated since 1996. In its response to the GAO, the EPA stated that “no action” was necessary to better prioritize the contaminants on which the agency will rule in the future, nor did it acknowledge the need for improvements in data collection. The agency did, however, agree to consider improving its methods for alerting the public when there are drinking-water advisories.

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