News Feature | August 2, 2017

Database Makes Water Contamination Searchable

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome
@sarmje

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A nonprofit says it is making water utility data more accessible and transparent for ratepayers by providing a contamination database that highlights which chemicals cause cancer.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) says the information in the database, two years in the making, is far more detailed than what water utilities or the federal government provide to ratepayers. The group says the database draws on information from 50,000 public water systems across the country, constituting “the most complete source available” on tap water in the U.S. Users can search the database by zip code.

EWG President Ken Cook explained why the group thought the project was necessary

“Americans deserve the fullest picture possible of what’s in their tap water,” he said in a statement. “But they won’t get that information from the government or, in many cases, from their utilities. The only place they’ll find that is EWG’s drinking water report.”

The database grabbed headlines across the country. State and local newspapers published articles last week focusing on database contents for their region.

For instance, in Pennsylvania, Penn Live noted which contaminants are prevalent among local utilities.

“Almost every large utility in the area had higher levels of a class of contaminants called trihalomethanes. These show up when chlorine and other disinfectants are introduced into the water to counteract any pathogens that may be present, according to EWG. The chemicals added as disinfectants can react with plant and animal waste in the drinking water, forming harmful disinfectant byproducts,” the report said.

The Des Moines Register highlighted the fact that Iowans are drinking tap water that sometimes carries a risk.

"Just because your tap water gets a passing grade from the government doesn't always mean it's safe," said Cook.

In Iowa, 1,100 utilities reported 89 contaminants, according to the article. Of those, The Des Moines Register reported:

  • Ten pollutants exceed "health guidelines," which are lower, sometimes significantly, than U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards. The contaminants primarily are byproducts from disinfecting water, but also include nitrates, radium and chromium.
  • Four contaminants exceeded federal safe drinking water standards, based on data from January to March. The pollutants were radium, disinfectant byproducts and arsenic.

The Detroit Free Press highlighted the fact that millions of people in Michigan are exposed to potentially unsafe chemicals in their water.

“Nearly 6 million Michigan residents drink, cook with and otherwise use tap water with an unregulated heavy metal, hexavalent chromium, at levels above where scientific study shows a cancer risk exists, a database compiled by an environmental nonprofit organization shows,” the report said.

Time Out New York noted the number of cancer-causing contaminants in local water systems.

“Six different contaminants that are connected to cancer were detected at levels that exceed guidelines established by public health authorities. None of those toxins, which include chloroform, bromodichloromethane and dichloroacetic acid, exceed legal limits but nonetheless pose slight health risks for New Yorkers,” the report said.

For similar stories visit Water Online’s Consumer Outreach Solutions Center.

Image credit: "playing with water," nicholas wang © 2012, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/