A June 8 report published in collaboration by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute at Northeastern University shows that drinking water in 27 states have unsafe levels of chemicals linked to cancer, thyroid disease, and other health problems. These nonstick chemicals, known as PFCs or PFASs, are advised (i.e. a non-enforceable standard) by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to be found combined at no more than 70 parts per trillion in drinking water. Yet EWG and Northeastern’s report found concentrations as high as 175 times this level, which prompts serious concerns of the health risks these chemicals pose to our drinking water.
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On the federal level, drinking water contaminants are regulated through National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWRs) set by the EPA under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). NPDWRs regulate various chemicals, microorganisms, and radionuclides, and set binding Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) and non-binding Maximum Contaminant Level Goals (MCLGs). EPA is required to determine every five years whether regulation is warranted for at least five contaminants, yet the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recognized in a 2012 report that it has not begun regulating any new contaminants since 1996, with the exception of a 2011 decision to begin regulating perchlorate. In its report, GAO noted various concerns with EPA’s ability to regulate contaminants under the SDWA, including that “EPA's implementation of requirements for determining whether additional drinking water contaminants warrant regulation have impeded the agency's progress in assuring the public of safe drinking water” and that “EPA does not have criteria for identifying contaminants of greatest public health concern.”
Yet even for those contaminants that are regulated, the SDWA faces issues in maintaining compliance after violations are issued. A 2015 study examining the effect of SDWA violations in California found that after violations for arsenic and nitrate concentrations were issued, arsenic concentrations remained the same while nitrate concentrations actually increased. The author noted that this may be in part due to the fact that the nitrate MCL has not been revised since the 1970s, although the arsenic MCL had been revised as recently as January 2001 yet still appeared to have no effect on reducing concentrations. These results are troubling evidence that the SDWA may not be effective even for those contaminants that it does regulate.
EWG noted in its report on PFASs that due to a variety of reasons, such as a lack of resources and lobbying by the chemical industry, EPA is falling behind on maintaining the SDWA, suggesting instead that “[t]he best chances for progress in setting limits for [PFASs] in the short term are at the state level.” Given the concerns noted by GAO and others, EWG may be correct in its analysis, as EPA’s current rate of NPDWR revision and publication is simply too slow to keep up with immediately-pressing novel health dangers present in our drinking water. Unless and until the SDWA regulation process is immediately revised and made more efficient to be able to adequately address these concerns, state regulation may remain the best means by which our drinking water can be kept safe.