by Dan Ross, Fair Warning
Special to Wausau Pilot & Review
Want to know what hazards might be lurking in your local water supply? An updated online database launched today by the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization, provides some answers.
The online resource is known as the EWG’s Tap Water Database. It lists contaminants as well as their levels and likely sources, and any federal drinking water violations by local water utilities. Consumers, after typing in their zip code, get a detailed analysis based on testing from 2010 through 2015.
That information surpasses what is available in the federally mandated Consumer Confidence Reports issued by water utilities annually. Those reports, for example, are required to identify only regulated contaminants found in drinking water.
The EWG database, in contrast, identifies more than 160 unregulated contaminants —- including solvents such as acetone and chloroform -— routinely found in drinking water but not subject to federal standards.
The aim is to make a complicated array of information “easy and more personal for people to look at, and for them to understand what it all means,” said Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst with EWG who helped put the database together.
“So many people rely on smell and color and taste as an indicator of water quality,” Lunger said. The database “is a necessary reminder that there are a lot of contaminants that are invisible, and don’t have a taste or an odor.”
The EWG database also goes beyond the federally mandated annual reports by comparing contamination levels not only to national and state averages, but also to government health guidelines. Lunder explained that national and state averages often exceed advisory health guidelines and that even legally permissible levels of contamination can be unsafe.
EWG took two years to build the website, pulling data from 28 million records from nearly 49,000 local utilities, along with state environmental agencies, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the agency’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online database. Each utility had the opportunity to review its data. Authorities tested for 500 contaminants in all, and detected 267 in one or more cases.
In Wausau, EWG’s drinking water quality report shows results of tests conducted by the water utility and provided to the Environmental Working Group by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, along with information from the U.S. EPA Enforcement and Compliance History database, or ECHO.
The report shows six contaminants in Wausau water detected in 2015, though the city is not in violation of federal drinking water standards. All six contaminants are known carcinogens, according to the report.
Lead pipes are also a concern for Wausau residents. Under the federal Lead and Copper Rule, lead concentrations must be below 15 parts per billion (ppb) in 90 percent of households sampled. If this legal limit is exceeded, the water utility must apply measures to control lead leaching from water pipes. In 2015, Wausau’s lead levels were high in nearly 6 percent of households sampled, a number that met federal guidelines.
But in some Wausau households, the amount of lead skyrocketed to 170 ppb, more than 11 times the regulatory limit, the report shows.
Philip Landrigan, a professor of environmental health at Harvard University, called the database another “step forward.” He lauded the project for putting “information relevant to public health into the hands of consumers” and for providing “comprehensive information that’s easily accessible 24/7.”
But Diane VanDe Hei, chief executive of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, said the database doesn’t address the problem of contaminated waterways that provide drinking water.
“Data collected from streams and rivers that serve as sources of drinking water would provide a much better indicator of pollution levels and the need for source water protection,” she said in a written statement.
An EPA spokesperson said in an email that U.S. drinking water remains “among the safest” in the world and added, “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.”