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A couple weeks ago, I received an unassuming pamphlet in the mail titled “Your Drinking Water” from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA). You should have received something similar from your water supplier. Why? The pamphlet is actually a federally mandated annual Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) that provides a summary of your drinking water quality and sourcing. You should receive this report before July 1 every year (I received mine in the last weeks of June.)
The Consumer Confidence Report must disclose any regulated contaminants that were detected in the water system along with the level and associated standards. Regulated contaminant levels that exceed the standard in the year covered by the report must be disclosed along with a description of the relevant health concerns.
Luckily, the Boston CCR reported test results for only nine regulated compounds (barium, mono-chloramine, fluoride, nitrate, nitrite, total trihalomethanes, haloacetic acids-5, total coliform and radium). There were no violations of national or state standards.
Still, I had questions. For example, were these really the only compounds detected all year? How was the average calculated? Was it an average of all samples (hundreds of thousands per year) collected at all sampling sites across the water system? What about contaminants with emerging health concerns?
More information and monthly reports are available on the MWRA website for the curious consumer. There were even test results for a list of unregulated contaminants under the EPA’s Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring rule, which requires public water supplies to monitor a new list of up to 30 potential contaminants every five years.
Still, environmental groups like the National Resources Defense Council have criticized the EPA for the agency’s failure to add a single new standard to the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations in over two decades. And, if the contaminant is not regulated, for the most part—you are not hearing about it.
Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database
My theory is that many of the people reliant on public water are unaware of their Consumer Confidence Report and ignore their annual mailing. For the modern consumer, most questions are answered by Google, and one of their first search results is surely to be the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Tap Water Database.
During an internship at a local health department, I remember having a conversation with the head of the Department of Public Works about the headache the EWG site had been causing him.
“People call me, and they tell me we have unsafe levels of 1,4-dioxane in our water like we’re not actually testing this stuff,” he said, visibly frustrated.
EWG’s Tap Water Database actually uses the same publicly available data from your water supplier that creates the Consumer Confidence report. You enter in your zip code, and it tells you “contaminants detected above health guidelines” and other detected contaminants in your water supply. The database is a handy option to get years of your water supplier’s data in one user-friendly site.
The “health guidelines” in question are where this gets tricky. The health guidelines on the EWG’s site seem to be a moving target—for example the guideline for bromodichloromethane was proposed in 2018 by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, the guideline for nitrate was defined in a peer-reviewed scientific study by EWG.
The EWG’s apparent use of the strictest standard for each compound often leads to test results that seem to be over the “health guideline” but are under the legal limit, i.e. national standards. In the small town where I was working, the average nitrate level for 2015 was 0.817 ppm, over the “health guideline” of 0.14 ppm (cue the panicked calls to your local Department of Works) but not even close to the national maximum contaminant level of 10 ppm.
If you are one of the 13 million households in the United States that relies on private well water supplies for drinking water, then you are largely responsible for your own water quality testing. EPA recommends that you test your well water annually for total coliform bacteria, nitrates, total dissolved solids, pH levels, and others “if you suspect the presence of other contaminants.”
Of course, this lack of regulation may put those at risk who may not test regularly or who may not test for the specific contaminants that threaten their particular area. Your water quality may be dependent on what your neighbors are doing with their land— water is notorious for not respecting property lines. My work with that local Board of Health centered around a farm that was accepting tons of toxic soil from construction sites, thereby threatening the groundwater supply and neighbors’ wells.
If you have a private well, it might be worthwhile to do some research about local factors that may affect your water quality before you decide on a water quality test: the bedrock your water sits on, local landfills and industrial operations, and other concerns.
Drinking water presents a unique opportunity for exposure to potentially dangerous substances over long periods of time. Even when present in seemingly negligible amounts, the fact that we need to drink water every day means repeated exposure to a dangerous chemical that may linger in our water supply, potentially over a lifetime.
Water quality if one of the ways environmental racism can manifest. Recent headlines and active water crises like that in Flint, Michigan have unearthed the ways water issues affect Black, Indigenous, and people of color disproportionately and generally bred a mistrust in government’s ability to protect this precious resource. We all have a right to clean drinking water, although our definition of “clean” may vary (not to mention, the degree to which you are able to adhere to your definition will be a function of socioeconomic factors, where you live, etc.).
Still, it’s important to assess our water supply, interrogate our officials, and make personal decisions about how to source, filter and treat our water to the extent that we are able.
For example, I could see that in 2015, Boston’s water supply had an average of 13.1 ppb total trihalomethanes and be happy that the level was well under the national standard of 80 ppb.
Or I could see on the EWG’s site that this level was above California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment’s draft public health goal and start using a cheap carbon filter. Or, I could do a total rehaul and install a reverse osmosis system at the tap.
For more information on filtering your drinking water, stay tuned for my upcoming post on choosing a drinking water filtration system.