What’s Really in Our Drinking Water?

Charleston Gazette
27 March 2014
By Ken Ward Jr.

In the wake of the January chemical spill on the Elk River, West Virginians have been lectured a time or two by water company representatives and state officials who tout how much they say is done to protect our drinking water from contamination. One of the refrains is to remind us how many chemicals water utilities have to test the water for before they pump it to our homes and businesses.

The state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management helpfully posted a list of these chemicals on its website here.  And during one public meeting in Huntington , West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre explained:

… That West Virginia American Water keeps in line with standards set forth in state and federal regulations, noting that the federal Safe Drinking Water Act requires monitor and control for 100 different parameters and there are more than 85,000 chemicals that are regulated through the Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976.

First, it’s worth noting — as has been reported many times before — that terribly few of those 85,000 chemicals that Mr. McIntyre talked about being “regulated” by TSCA have actually had complete safety testing.  As Jennifer Sass, a Ph.D. scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, testified to Congress last month:

… In the nearly forty years of TSCA, EPA has required a full set of testing on only a few hundred chemicals of the 62,000 grandfathered under the law in 1976.

Sass went on to explain how the Elk River chemical spill highlighted these concerns:

The leaking of 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM) and other chemicals into the Elk River in West Virginia brought home – literally into people’s homes – some of the ways that timely access to updated and accurate information is a basic requirement for both informing and protecting the public. The Elk River spill presented an acute situation: the public drinking water supply for thousands of people was suddenly contaminated with a chemical about which virtually nothing was known, other than it smelled and tasted so badly that people found the water undrinkable in many cases. Contamination of a tap water supply – and of course the water was being used for drinking, cooking, bathing, laundry and other uses leading to direct skin contact and consumption – is one of the starkest situations any community may face. It was surprising to many people – and wholly unacceptable – that thousands of gallons of a hazardous chemical could be stored and spill upstream of a drinking water intake – and that there was essentially no useful information available for the public, drinking water system operators, state or federal public health officials, or medical professionals and first responders, as to the safety or potential health and environmental effects of the substance.

In a story a few years ago, Charles Duhigg of The New York Times explained:

Only 91 contaminants are regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, yet more than 60,000 chemicals are used within the United States, according to Environmental Protection Agency estimates. Government and independent scientists have scrutinized thousands of those chemicals in recent decades, and identified hundreds associated with a risk of cancer and other diseases at small concentrations in drinking water … But not one chemical has been added to the list of those regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act since 2000.

Other recent studies have found that even some chemicals regulated by that law pose risks at much smaller concentrations than previously known. However, many of the act’s standards for those chemicals have not been updated since the 1980s, and some remain essentially unchanged since the law was passed in 1974.

And just yesterday, Elizabeth Shogren of NPR News reported:

West Virginia’s drinking water crisis earlier this year highlighted an unsettling truth about tap water: Treatment plants test for only a fraction of the chemicals in use.