It’s the latest in a long string of indicators that government safeguards to protect our drinking water do not go far enough.
The US Government Accountability Office has released its 2017 High Risk List. The list includes federal agencies and programs most vulnerable to fraud and waste, as well as those most in need of transformation.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Process for Assessing and Controlling Toxic Chemicals made the GAO’s High Risk List again this year. The GAO says the EPA’s ability to “effectively implement its mission of protecting public health and the environment is critically dependent on assessing the risks posed by chemicals in a credible and timely manner.”
The GAO determined “that because the EPA has not developed sufficient chemical assessment information…to limit exposure to many chemicals that may pose substantial health risks” this program is in need of “broad based transformation.”
The GAO notes that legislation enacted in 2016 gives the EPA greater authority to address chemical risks, but implementation will take time.
The EPA is in the process of studying more than 100 “emerging contaminants” that may pose a threat to human health. Many of them, like GenX and 1,4-Dioxane, have been found in public drinking water supplies, including the finished drinking water of residents in New Hanover and Brunswick counties.
Due to the rapid development of emerging contaminants by chemical and industrial manufacturers, and the limited resources of the EPA to study and regulate them, it has been over 20 years since the EPA has added a new contaminant to its list of regulated pollutants.
When asked for comment, an agency spokesperson provided the following statement:
America’s drinking water remains among the safest in the world and protecting drinking water is one of EPA’s top priorities. We take our commitment to protecting public health seriously and when issues arise, we work closely with states, local governments, and water suppliers to review and address, as appropriate.
When the GAO report was released the law hadn’t been in place for even a year and therefore the implementation was and still is in its early stages. The passing of the Lautenberg Act to amend TSCA on June 22, 2016, as the report illustrates, has the capacity to fully transform EPA’s chemicals program and provided EPA with greater authority to address chemical risks.
EPA has moved swiftly since the passage of amended TSCA. On June 22, 2017 EPA met statutory deadlines including the release of three final rules that serve as the framework for existing chemical prioritization and evaluation, ten scope documents for the initial chemicals evaluated under this framework, and a guidance document for those persons interested in submitting a draft risk evaluation to the Agency. In finalizing the three framework rules, EPA has put in place a program that can ensure chemical safety consistent with the rigorous timelines in the law.
GAO acknowledges that progress has been made and will continue under the new law so long as sufficient resources are dedicated.
New Database for Drinking Water Contaminants
The Environmental Working Group (EWG), an advocacy organization that studies drinking water, just released a nationwide tap water analysis. It pulled data from almost 50,000 water systems and compiled a database detailing pollutants in “virtually all US water systems” according to its assessment.
“We wanted to go beyond what was provided in (consumers) annual water quality report that they receive from their utility. Often times those water quality reports just give the average value of the contaminant detected and compare it to the legal limit and our analysis and our research in this area really shows that legal isn't necessarily safe," said Dr. David Andrews, a senior scientist with EWG.
In addition to the time it takes to research the impact of these chemicals on human health, Andrews noted there is political and economic pressure that hinders regulation.
EWG found that more than 40,000 water systems across the country had “detections of known or likely carcinogens exceeding established federal or state health guidelines – levels that pose minimal but real health risks, but are not legally enforceable.”
The chemical levels in the database were sampled by the water utilities between 2013 and 2015 as part of an EPA program that requires utility providers to monitor unregulated contaminants. But the EPA does not publish a comprehensive list of its findings, making the just-released EWG database a unique and helpful tool.
For the majority of the contaminants in questions, EWG used health guidelines established by federal or state public health authorities to determine what levels of these chemicals posed a threat to human health. In the cases where few studies have been done on a contaminant like GenX, EWG used the best available research to set safe standards.
Higher level of contaminants in Cape Fear River
Analyzing EWG’s findings at the local level, Cape Fear Public Utility Authority had 10 chemical compounds in the water which have been linked to cancer or have been found to cause harm to the immune system. H2G0 and Brunswick Regional Water had 11.
“In general, these numbers are a little bit higher than what I’ve been seeing across the country,” Andrews said.
In addition to the contaminants put in the water by manufacturers, Andrews said runoff from farms upstream along the Cape Fear River, and chemicals used by other cities upstream for disinfecting their own waste water before discharging it into the river contributed to the high number of contaminants found in the Wilmington water supply.
“It’s really this unintended consequence of the higher amount of garbage going into the system upstream, the higher amount of this disinfection byproduct in the finished drinking water,” Andrews said, noting he has seen similar problems in other downriver communities in the country.
Locally, the chemicals in the water include bromate, bromodichloromethane, chloroform, chromium, dibromochloromethane, dichloroacetic acid, perfluorinated chemicals (the chemical family which includes GenX), total trihalomethanes, and trichloroacetic acid.
In addition, chlorite was found in the Brunswick Regional and H2GO water supply. EWG says that chemical has been found to change blood chemistry.
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