Last updated on November 18, 2022.
Now that you’ve read What’s in Your Water? Part 1 and Part 2, Water Filtration Systems, and my list of Common Water Contaminants, you have probably assessed what is in your water and chosen a water filter system. But you may be wondering, what laws protect our drinking water?
How did all of those chemicals get into our water?
In an effort to improve human life, the corporations and industries of the post-World War II era invented, produced, and disposed of hundreds of chemicals. As Elizabeth Royte, the author of Bottlemania: Big Business, Local Springs, and the Battle Over America’s Drinking Water, wrote: “[Contaminants] come from industry (plasticizers, solvents, propellants), agriculture (fertilizer and pesticide ingredients), from development (runoff polluted by auto emissions and lawn chemicals, and effluent from sewage treatment plants), and from water treatment itself.”1
Obviously, long-term studies into how chemicals affect the body weren’t available then. Later, corporations and government representatives discouraged those sorts of studies because they considered them bad for business. Further, government regulations for many things are usually woefully behind, because they often require proof, not just evidence, before legislators will pass any laws. Proof means that a study is required, which adds years or even decades before any action is taken.
In the capitalist society of the United States, chemicals are innocent until proven guilty.
Stopping the improper disposal of chemicals or pollutants costs industries and corporations money. And outlawing the use of specific chemicals and pollutants can cause those businesses to lose millions of dollars. So instead, they spend millions on preventing government regulations.
All at the cost of our health, our families, and our lives.
“It was, after all, the chemical age in the decades following World War II. About all that was known about the thousands of new products brought to the market by new compounds and processes was that they greatly improved the quality of life for millions of people. As for the waste that these advancements produced, an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality prevailed across America.” -Mike Magner, author and journalist2
A Brief History of Regulation
The Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948
This was the first major federal water pollution law in the United States. Legislators had made numerous attempts to pass legislation in the first half of the 20th century but without success. In the years after World War II, industrial and urban growth was polluting rivers and lakes, so Congress passed this act. “Unfortunately, the act was not well designed and achieved little.”3 At the time, “water pollution was viewed as primarily a state and local problem, hence, there were no federally required goals, objectives, limits, or even guidelines.”4
According to a Public Health Report from 1962, the 1948 act was meant to be temporary and experimental, but extendable and revisable “on the basis of experience.”5 And it was extended and revised several times throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but the pace of progress was slow. Frustration, “along with increased public interest in environmental protection set the stage for the 1972 amendments.”6
The Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972
This was created to protect large bodies of water (streams, rivers, lakes) from sewage, biological waste, radiological waste, industrial waste, and agricultural waste.7 Until the 1970s, there were no state or federal regulations for chemical contaminants. Though initially vetoed by President Nixon because he felt it was too costly, Congress totally rewrote the Federal Water Pollution Control Act and passed the Clean Water Act of 1972. It created the structure for regulating pollutant discharges and established drinking water qualities.8 It “required all municipal and industrial wastewater to be treated before being discharged into waterways, increased federal assistance for municipal treatment plant construction, strengthened and streamlined enforcement, and expanded the federal role” within water pollution issues.9 The act’s major goals were zero discharge of pollutants by 1985 and water quality that was both ‘fishable’ and ‘swimmable’ by mid-1983. While those dates were not met, the goals remain the same.10
But the act did not address runoff of stormwater or snowmelt from agricultural lands, forests, construction sites, and urban areas. This is “despite estimates that it represents more than 50% of the nation’s remaining water pollution problems.” As water travels across land, it picks up pollutants, sediments, toxic materials, and other waste that can pollute the water. In 1987, new amendments to the Clean Water Act addressed these issues. They also set up financial assistance to help states implement programs to control such pollution.11
Another exception that allows companies to legally dump their waste into waterways is an NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permit. While the permit limits what a company can discharge and requires monitoring and reporting, it does allow them to dump some pollutants “through a ‘point source’…[which] includes pipes, ditches, channels, containers, and concentrated animal feeding operations.”12
Safe Drinking Water Act, 1974
Congress passed this act in 1974 since the Clean Water act does not directly address groundwater contamination. It authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set national health-based standards for contaminants in drinking water. It delegates the responsibilities of monitoring and reporting to the states. The EPA started developing limits for microbiological contaminants, ten inorganic chemicals, six organic pesticides, turbidity (or murkiness), and radiological contamination. Those safe drinking water standards went into effect in mid-1977, and required community and public water utilities to test their water on a routine basis. It also required utilities to notify consumers if there were problems with health standards or sampling requirements.13 Congress amended the act in 1986 and 1996.
Chemicals & Contaminants in Water
While it sounds like we have the right legislation, agencies, and testing in place, it actually isn’t enough. There are hundreds of chemicals on the market that have never been assessed for human health effects. Those types of studies take years and a lot of money. Public utilities typically test only for the contaminants they are required to. Why isn’t the EPA or the government doing more? Elizabeth Royte explained:
“It’s expensive to identify and detect these contaminants, to determine their health effects, and then to treat the water. Any changes are likely to require massive capital projects with long lead times – exactly the sort of projects that drinking-water plant managers, concerned with meeting current state standards, are unlikely to propose to their boss, who’s usually an elected official. Moreover, any ultimate improvements in drinking water are unlikely to be noticed by the folks who will end up paying for it. All in all, not a formula for improvement.”14
Unfortunately, in the U.S., chemicals are innocent until proven guilty. Regulation requires hard scientific proof to set an enforceable regulation. “If the [Environmental Protection Agency] establishes a regulation for a contaminant, then public water systems need to comply with it. But if the EPA decides not to regulate a contaminant, then it may issue a health advisory, which is a non-enforceable federal limit that serves as technical guidance for federal, state, and local officials.”15 But the water treatment facilities are not required to follow health advisories.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) started investigating tap water in the early 2000s. In 42 states, they found 255 contaminants and chemicals, and 141 of those had no government standards or regulations. Some of those chemicals were used in water treatment. The medical community has now linked these unregulated contaminants to many illnesses and diseases including cancer, reproductive toxicity, developmental toxicity, and immune system damage. Those in vulnerable stages of life (fetal, infant, immune-deficient, elderly) have a higher risk of chemical effects.16
Monitoring Our Water
In 2013, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) designed a tap water database to analyze more than 31 million state water records, information obtained from water utilities’ own testing. EWG maintains and regularly updates this database and it is accessible to everyone with internet access.17
The EWG acknowledges that “the EPA and states do have some standards in place to protect drinking water supplies, but these limits on specific pollutants are often too weak to make the water safe to drink.” But even when the standards are sufficient, they are often unable to enforce those limits. Or, the water utilities do not have the funding to upgrade their systems. The EPA hasn’t set a new legal limit for a drinking water pollutant since 2000. “For some other chemicals, the EPA’s maximum contaminant levels, or MCLs – the upper limit on a pollutant legally allowed in drinking water – haven’t been updated in 50 years.”18
“Progress on regulating pollutants has stalled instead of keeping up with current science.” -Environmental Working Group (EWG)19
“Legal doesn’t necessarily mean safe.”
Most of the water utilities in the U.S. pass federal and state regulations. There are hundreds of chemicals the EPA hasn’t yet assessed, so there is nothing preventing those from entering our water supply. But “even for chemicals that are regulated, the legal limit is often hundreds of times higher than the health standards recommended by scientists and public health agencies. Too often, legal limits are based more on what can be achieved in terms of treatment costs, and less on public health.” 20
Some “suggest the sky’s the limit when it comes to unregulated contaminants – industry pumps out new ones faster than regulating agencies can test them.” -Elizabeth Royte21
Since ‘legal’ sometimes means unregulated (therefore, allowed), we should consider the amounts of unregulated contaminants that end up in our water systems. The chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and hormones we excrete, pour, or flush, combine with the pesticides, drugs, and hormones from agricultural production that flows into rivers and groundwater. Hormones, especially, do not break down easily. Many species, including humans, experience adverse reactions to endocrine disruptors, such as estrogen and synthetic hormones.
Tap Water is an Example of Climate Injustice
Marginalized, low-income, and rural communities often have the least access to safe drinking water. Rural communities drink water from wells that were polluted by industrial agriculture. Underserved urban communities that have contaminated water are not receiving the resources and funding they need to fix the problems, such as the replacement of pipes and outdated equipment. Instead, governments often shift responsibility to citizens, encouraging them to buy bottled water (which is often just tap water and does have contaminants) or water filtration systems, which those citizens cannot necessarily afford. Nor should they have to shoulder the cost.
“EWG’s research finds that people living in such areas might have a greater collective risk of cancer from the contaminants in their drinking water supplies than people in other parts of the country…particularly those with higher Black or Latino populations.” – Environmental Working Group (EWG)22
Even in the most egregious cases, such as in the lead poisoning of Flint, Michigan’s water supply (where the majority of Flint’s citizens are black and 45% live in poverty), the state government provided Flint residents with bottled water. However, citizens were responsible for going to the distribution centers to pick up water and haul it home. This was not possible for elderly or disabled people, so either neighbors or small state-funded programs assisted them.
“The Michigan Civil Rights Commission, a state-established body, concluded that the poor governmental response to the Flint crisis was a ‘result of systemic racism.'” -Natural Resources Defense Council23
Also, consider the long-term costs of health care for those with lead poisoning or any other health problems caused by contaminated water. Some, including children, will have life-long health problems from it. Will those with health problems be able to work full-time and afford healthcare? The suffering, both financial and physical, can last a lifetime.
“Disadvantaged communities that have shouldered an unfair burden of some of the most-polluted drinking water in the country must finally get the help they need, and only a major federal funding boost can achieve community-level improvements.” -Environmental Working Group24
Who is to blame?
“As we hurtle into the future, all of our drinking-water choices seem to be problematic. If only we’d taken better care of our resources yesterday, we wouldn’t be in this mess today. And while my first instinct is to blame the government for letting agriculture, industry, and developers off the hook, I have to admit it’s all of us; it’s the way we’ve come to live. We want convenience, cheap food, a drug for every mood, bigger homes, and faster gadgets.” -Elizabeth Royte25
There is no one entity to place singular blame on for the pollution in our water. We all contributed in some way – consumers, corporations, local, state, and federal governments, lobbyists, politicians, and lawmakers. In the same way, there is no one entity that can fix it all, either. We all have to change our practices and demand that corporations and industries do as well. Because everything we do takes a toll on our water. We can’t wait around for the politicians and lawmakers and corporations to do something. We can’t wait around for the science to catch up, either. As Erin Brockovich noted, “Academic scientists do not have clout with the regulators who ultimately must determine the kinds of studies that can help oversee these chemicals and their impact on human health.”26 So we, as consumers, must demand it.
For example, how has it become regular, legal practice to dump sewage into rivers and oceans? While that’s an article for another day, here are some examples from my city:
“So there is shit in the water; I’d have to make peace with that.” -Elizabeth Royte27
Updates to Existing Laws
Though environmental issues have always been somewhat partisan, the divisions have increased in recent years. The George W. Bush administration scaled back enforcement of the Clean Water Act. “The EPA, on Bush’s watch, declined to set and enforce limits for dozens of industrial contaminants…In 2006, Bush rolled back the Toxics Release Inventory,” which meant that industries reported less frequently on the contaminants they released into the environment.28
“Polluted tap water is not and should not be a partisan issue; it affects everyone.” -Environmental Working Group29
Waters of the United States
In 2015, under President Barack Obama’s administration, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) introduced the Clean Water Rule (also called Waters of the United States). Its goal was to address “the 117 million people getting drinking water from waterways not explicitly protected by the Clean Water Act.”30 It increased the number of protected waterways and limited the dumping of pollutants (including fertilizers, pesticides, and industrial chemicals) into those waters.31
President Trump tried to reverse this with the Navigable Waters Protection Rule in 2020. But the EPA halted its implementation in late 2021.32,33
“There is a threat affecting millions of Americans – drinking contaminated water in this country – and it is business as usual.” -Erin Brockovich34
Recall that the last time the Environmental Protection Agency set a new legal limit for a drinking water pollutant was in 2000. They have not yet addressed regulating PFAS, hexavalent chromium, and 160 other contaminants. Other contaminant levels, though studied, have not had their limits in drinking water updated in 50 years.35 The EPA planned to release a proposal designating PFAS as hazardous substances under the Superfund law in June 2022. But they missed that deadline and it is not clear when they will finalize the proposal.36
We’ve got to do better. Please learn, read, and educate! Go vote for representatives that actually care about our health and safety! Call your water board or utility and ask for information! Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!
Publication, “Understanding the Safe Drinking Water Act ,” Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), June 2004.
Factsheet, “U.S. Wastewater Treatment Factsheet,” Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan, 2021. Pub. No. CSS04-14.
Press Release, “Protecting America’s Drinking Water: Our Responsibilities Under the Safe Drinking Water Act,” by James L. Agee, EPA Journal, March 1975.