Synopsis: Most people assume their drinking water is safe However, many chemicals, especially new ones, are unregulated by the EPA, and thousands of water systems serving millions of people have lead levels higher than standards allow. Experts explain the danger of lead, especially to children, and other chemicals that may be in drinking water.
- Dr. Jeffrey K. Griffiths, Professor of Public Health, Tufts University and former chair, Drinking Water Committee, US EPA
- Dr. Kristi Pullen Fedinick, Staff Scientist, Health Program, Natural Resources Defense Council
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Drinking Water Safety
Reed Pence: Water is the source of life on our planet. We can go only a few days without it… And since our bodies are made of mostly water, the quality of the water we drink has a big influence on how well we function. Fortunately for us in the United States, water quality is generally pretty good.
Jeffrey Griffiths: We have water that is often unused by other people before we drink it. We’re not a country that is as short of water as say China is or many parts of Europe. And secondly, the science behind the drinking water regulations are pretty good and many people turn to the U.S. EPA globally in terms of the kind of guidance for what’s safe and what’s not for water and how to treat water and things like that.
Pence: That’s Dr. Jeffrey K. Griffiths, professor of public health at Tufts University and former chair of the Drinking Water Committee at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But while he says water quality is generally okay in the United States, it varies widely from place to place.
Griffiths: Many cities, let’s say they’re on a river and they’re taking water from the river, and that water’s been used by somebody else and somebody else and somebody else above stream to them and you know, different communities have different resources. The way we pay for drinking water in the U.S. is it’s up to each town. And so if you have a well off city or state or something like that, they can afford to do stuff with all the bells and whistles. And many people can get a relatively poor or to that circumstance, rural town where they really have not that much of a tax space and where they may be struggling to do the minimum so there’s quite a bit of variation.
Pence: But even wealthy communities that provide additional layers of treatment can’t guarantee their drinking water is absolutely pristine.
Griffiths: Sometimes people don’t want to hear about uncertainty in life. I’m a physician also and one of the things that people expect doctors to tell them is yes or no. And I think with something like drinking water or air pollution or something like that, there’s a more nuanced circumstance where there is a gradient of risk. We’re not drinking sterile water. We’re kind of drinking distilled water that has nothing in it. It’s always going to carry certain chemicals or it’s going to carry certain treatment or it’s going to reduce the number of bacteria or reduce the number of viruses or parasites. But there’s very little out there that will absolutely guarantee one hundred percent that all of those things are gone.
Pence: But while no one really expects sterile water to come out of the tap, we do expect the most dangerous things to be gone… The disease-causing organisms and toxic chemicals. However, you may be surprised to learn that many chemicals, especially new ones, are completely unregulated. And whether many of those chemicals are safe or not is a complete unknown. Griffiths says the law’s written in such a way that the EPA hasn’t clamped down on any new contaminant in 20 years.
Griffiths: It can’t say something like “Oh there’s a chemical in the water and we don’t really know that much about it, it’s a brand new chemical made by, you know, some new company or something like that, and it looks just like this other chemical that we know is bad.” They can’t regulate it on that basis. They actually need data on that chemical. And so, you know, there’s like tens of thousands of new chemicals that are introduced into our environment every year and we don’t know anything about them. And you can produce a chemical that’s useful for manufacturing or it’s useful for something, and you’re not required to test it in rats and see if it makes the rats grow three heads or something like that. Or whether or not it affects their reproduction. Or whether or not it gives some hypertension and tumors and stuff like that. No the assumption is kind of that these chemicals can just be put out there and that they’re gonna be okay.
Pence: In other words, a chemical is allowed free use in the U.S. until it’s proven dangerous. Griffiths says many other nations rely on a different philosophy, what’s called the precautionary principle.
Griffiths: If this chemical wasn’t in the environment the people grew up in and it wasn’t something that our bodies probably had some chance to deal with where it’s not naturally occurring, you know, those kinds of things… then it can’t be in the environment. So, if you make some kind of a chemical, if you’re gonna use that chemical then you have to responsibly track it and make sure it doesn’t get into the environment. So, a lot of European countries have adopted that for example. So, you know, somebody might complain that that means that some chemical, which is safe, is being captured not adding into the environment. But you can’t complain that a chemical that might be a carcinogen is also not being captured.
Pence: More stringent rules such as the precautionary principle are especially attractive for scientists who believe the effects of chemicals can’t be measured individually. Like the interactions of medications, which we’ve often reported on, the effects of chemicals may be additive, combining to become much more dangerous than they are by themselves.
Griffiths: Scientists don’t know how to study, nor really does anybody, our circumstances where we live in a sea of chemicals. We’re not exposed just to this chemical or that chemical. We’re exposed to hundreds of them. And so, the reality question here is, you know let’s say, you know, you live on an industrial river and there’ve been lots of people upstream from you putting trace amounts of stuff into the river, what’s it like to live drinking very small amounts of like 600 different chemicals? Nobody knows. And there’s no scientific way to study this. Because what scientists do is they use a principle reductionism. Which is they expose you to one chemical or they don’t expose you to the chemical. And then what you do is you look at the differences between those who are exposed and those who are not exposed.
Pence: But while scientists don’t know much about a lot of new chemicals in our water, they’re sure that one old one–lead–is exceptionally dangerous. Skyrocketing lead levels in the drinking water in Flint, Michigan have made headlines, but according to a report by the natural resources defense council, they’re far from alone.
Kristi Fedinick: We often assume that the water coming out of our taps is safe and clean…but that isn’t always the case. So what we found in our report is that from coast to coast, in every state in the nation, millions of people are being served by systems that have broken the rule that protects people from lead contamination in their water or at least should protect people from lead contamination in their water.
Pence: That’s Kristi Pullen Fedinick, staff scientist for the health program at the NRDC and co-author of the organization’s investigation.
Fedinick: One of the major findings from our report was that even though we found over five thousand systems and over eight thousand violations, two of the lead and copper rule that we know that systems that have significant problems like Flint, Michigan didn’t show up at all in the database as having any lead violations or any issues with lead at all. So we know that there are systems that are not in the database that should be.
Pence: Fedinick says 18 million people are served by those water systems with too-high lead levels. And it puts children especially at risk.
Fedinick: Lead can be extremely dangerous to developing brains, so even that level we once thought safe… very low amounts of lead can interrupt the way that our brain signals, the way that our brain develops and can be very detrimental to a developing child. And these issues or these disruptions that can happen with lead can lead to cognitive issues in the future, behavioral problems and can really affect not only individuals but entire communities.
Griffiths: We’re now finding things like kids who are exposed as infants. It doesn’t take much lead exposure to drop their IQ. So, it’s not like you get exposed to some level of lead and you get this much of a decrease and then you get exposed to twice as much lead and you get twice the decrease, it turns out you actually get more of it, more of a relative decrease at the lower low. So that’s that, that means that in fact even exposure to low levels is bad for you. And then, at the other end of the pH spectrum, you know when you get older, it looks like what lead does is not only creates things like hypertension in adults, it also affects your thinking, your cognition. You may live longer, but you want to live with all your marbles.
Pence: Most of the time, lead gets into drinking water as it flows through lead pipes on the way to our homes, offices and schools. We didn’t know about the danger of lead when those pipes were laid down, sometimes 100 years ago. Now we do. But Griffiths says regulations don’t seem to take that into account.
Griffiths: The reality is, there’s no such thing as a safe level of lead. So, if you ask me about holes in the regulations, this is like one of these big ones, which is that the regulations deal with what is trimming off the top of the most risky water, if you want to think of it that way. And this has to do with the concept that there was a lot of lead in pipes and a lot of lead in water and when these regulations were first written like in the 1940s and then through the seventies and stuff like that as they went through various generations. The concept was well you know, lead’s not good for you but let’s identify where the lead is worst and we’ll identify that. And so that’s why we have these action levels for lead. But the truth is, there’s no level of lead that’s safe.
Pence: Many utilities try to coat lead service lines with a film to keep lead from contacting the water flowing through them, but Fedinick says that’s far from a complete fix. And when water utilities are over the limit on lead? Don’t count on enforcement to make it right.
Griffiths: It works when you have people who actually live up to the, and I use this word voluntary compliance that we’re supposed to do, we’ve seen that a lot of communities are taken care of, if you will, by ethical and well meaning and well trained water professionals in their utilities or similar kinds of things. But then you have bad actors. And we rely on voluntary reporting of data. So there are examples where people have covered up bad data.
Fedinick: What we found in our report was that in almost or nearly nine times out of 10, the violations that were occurring face no formal enforcement action at all. And only three percent of over eight thousand violations faced penalties at all. So enforcement isn’t necessarily happening, especially formal enforcement in the way that we’d like to see it happen.
Pence: Griffiths wonders why we’re merely talking about lead in water instead of doing something about it. He says the lack of leadership when the danger is so clear amounts to cowardice.
Griffiths: We have a system that’s basically falling apart in the United States. If Al Quaida dumped a tasteless poison in our system, it would make our kids stupid and make us develop Alzheimer’s sooner and make our hypertension worse. It kind of acted in an insidious way to make us all stupider and more sick and you know, that kind of stuff… we’d be outraged. We’d go there and we’d fix it all up, there’d be a national response. But that’s what we have with lead and people are sitting on their hands.
Pence: Griffiths says the quality of our drinking water isn’t just an environmental concern… It’s a public health issue. But it’s a silent one. So investment may not seem critical. Nationally, the EPA’s budget has been cut by 20 percent in recent years. And in local communities, funding for water treatment competes with critical needs like police, fire, and schools. Water quality, however, affects everyone… From our children’s IQ to our home’s value. We can’t simply take it for granted that when we turn on the tap, clean water will come out.
You can find out more about all our guests on our website, radiohealthjournal.net. You’ll also find archives of our shows there, as well as on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Reed Pence.