The Environmental Working Group’s new national drinking water database allows virtually anyone in the U.S. to see a comprehensive list of the contents and contaminants found in their city utility’s finished drinking water by simply entering their ZIP code. The database also documents the levels of each contaminant detected. It can tell you if those levels are above either the Environmental Protection Agency’s legal limits, or if they are amounts that may be legal, but that scientists still believe could pose a risk to human health. This feature is key because certain water pollutants are associated with serious health problems including cancer and developmental issues in children.
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In building the database, scientists collected more than 30 million water supply test results from 50,000 utilities across the 50 states. Utilities are already required to send their Consumer Confidence Reports to the EPA, but this only gives a snapshot of what you’re drinking, as it just includes the annual average of contaminants detected without accounting for seasonal fluctuations and increases in agricultural activity.
“EWG’s database provides data for both the ‘regulated’ and ‘unregulated’ drinking water contaminants, giving consumers the fullest picture possible of what’s in their tap water,” says Nneka Leiba, director of healthy living science at the Environmental Working Group. “Having this database available is important because it really is the only resource available to tell you exactly what you’re drinking.”
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One thing many consumers may not be aware of is that the EPA has not added a single contaminant to its list of regulated pollutants under the Safe Drinking Water Act since 1996, when the most recent amendments were made to the law. The reason for this is likely a lack of resources, and pressure on the EPA from industry that’s making and using these chemicals, Leiba says.
“With the way laws and policies are made, the industry can keep asking for more studies before new guidelines can be set in place, thus leading to an endless loop of inaction,” she says.
Since those last amendments, scientists have found more than 260 unregulated contaminants, 78 of which have been linked to nervous system and brain damage risks, 38 of which have been shown to cause fertility problems, and 93 of which have been linked to an increased cancer risk (including Chromium-6, also known as the Erin Brockovich chemical). Because these chemicals have no legal limits set in place, utilities don’t have to test for them or report them on their own—but this new tool will.
What to do with your local water results
Contaminants don’t have any taste, smell or color, Leiba says; the only way to know for sure what’s in your water is to consult the utility tests and reports available via the database.
Once users have viewed the information for their area’s water utility, the EWG advises they look for a certified filter to reduce or remove the contaminants and make their water safe to drink. The database includes a list of recommended certified filters to remove or reduce given contaminants. An activated carbon pitcher or sink filter such as those by Brita can cost as little as $20, but these won't be effective for all contaminants. Be sure to check out the EWG's Updated Water Filter Buying Guide.
“You don’t necessarily need to invest thousands of dollars or switch to exclusively drinking bottled water to reduce your risk of drinking these contaminants,” Leiba says. “That said, it’s important to be mindful and replace your filter as recommended to reduce the risk of it harboring bacteria.”
The next step, Leiba says, is taking action within your local community. This means contacting local elected officials to let them know water quality is an issue and that it’s important to you.
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“For the first time we are comparing contaminant levels in Americans’ water not just to legal limits but also to limits scientists have determined as posing more than a negligible risk,” Leiba says. “If contaminants in your drinking water are above the legal or health-based limit, you should know. If you are pregnant or you have a baby, it’s especially important to take action if your drinking water has pollutants.”