Hard To Swallow

When it comes to our drinking water, the news is bad and getting worse: think arsenic, old pipes and rocket fuel. The question is, what are we going to do about it?
man drinking water
“We have an aging infrastructure, an aging population, more chemicals, less money and less political will,” says Jeffrey Griffiths. “And of course water is one of the least visible of our problems.” Photo: Vito Aluia
September 27, 2011


My suburban town’s annual report on water quality arrives each spring in a handsomely printed brochure on nice paper. The most recent report (2010) assures me that what comes out of my tap day after day is in perfect compliance with all state and federal regulations, and is in fact a source of great continuing local pride, but—rocket fuel?

There it is, halfway down the list of local contaminants: ammonium perchlorate, the oxidizing agent in solid rocket fuel, showing up in the test sample at 0.22 parts per billion, just enough to get me up and out of bed in the morning.

The story of how this foreign substance invades every glass of water I drink at home opens into a wider, ever more dispiriting tale of public drinking water, and with it the public health, gone bad. We Americans assume our drinking water is well-regulated and safe to consume. I’m probably typical in that regard. In the past, I’ve merely glanced at the town’s spiffy water quality report, reassuring myself that beneath the “Violation” heading there was nothing but No, No, No, No, No, and then turning to the daily business of life.

But after spending time with Jeffrey Griffiths, a professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts Medical School and a national expert on the quality of public drinking water (he has been a science advisor to the Environmental Protection Agency on the topic since 1997; currently, in fact, he chairs the Drinking Water Panel of the Science Advisory Board to EPA), my faith is shaken. I sip my water in a whole new way.

Just how safe is the water coming out of American taps right now? “The generic answer is that it’s pretty safe,” Griffiths replies, with a quietly placed, absolutely maddening qualifier. Almost healthy? Nearly lethal? “We still have things like lead in the water, for example,” he notes. “And there’s a nagging concern that we’re getting a mixture of chemicals at low doses. When you get a hundred of them, what does that mean? Nobody knows.”

The threat to public health from drinking water has gotten more subtle and elusive than it used to be. Back in 1972 and 1974, when the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, respectively, were signed into law, there were rivers in the U.S. that had caught fire from the raw sewage choking them. Everyone could see the problem.

Lead, known carcinogens and bacteria were flowing from taps across the country. Those sorts of obvious threats were readily identified, and since have been held in check. But over the past nearly 40 years, with the rapid growth of industrial processes, a largely unregulated, immense chemical profusion has occurred. By law, the EPA currently tracks just 91 contaminants in drinking water, while agency estimates put the number of chemicals entering U.S. waterways at 60,000.

The original laws stipulated that one or two new chemicals could be added to the official monitoring list annually. That seemed like a reasonable approach. Griffiths expresses the governmental history in arboreal terms, with a dash of sympathetic understanding. “Back in 1972 and 1974, we thought the forest had 15 trees in it, and we could regulate that many a year and be safe,” he says. “But we live in a forest with a million trees, and we don’t know anything about most of them. We need a totally different vision—one that’s more encompassing.”

A Presumption of Safety

There’s a nagging concern that we’re getting a mixture of chemicals at low doses in our water, says Jeffrey Griffiths. Photo: Kelvin Ma  We Americans take a big chance on what we drink partly for cultural reasons, Griffiths points out. The native way of thinking about water quality differs markedly from the European approach.

Here in the U.S., he says, the governing concept is that any new substance detected in drinking water is innocent until proven guilty; in other words, someone must conduct extensive testing of the substance to have it be deemed hazardous. In Europe, the monitoring agencies take a completely different tack. There, any substance that is not already naturally occurring in the water will not be permitted—it is guilty until proven innocent.

Unmonitored chemicals in the average American glass of water are just the beginning of the crisis. We are living through a perfect storm of negative trends. Weaker EPA regulations and steadily reduced environmental funding in this more conservative political period—the EPA suffered 15 percent budget cuts in the last cycle—plus lax enforcement of existing laws and crumbling, century-old underground infrastructure poised at the point of failure all portend some grim possibilities for a public that gulps its water freely and heedlessly day by day.

Even with rudimentary standards in place, a 2009 investigative series by the New York Times determined that “more than 20 percent of the nation’s water treatment systems have violated key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act over the last five years.… That law requires communities to deliver safe tap water to local residents. But since 2004, the water provided to more than 49 million people has contained illegal concentrations of chemicals like arsenic or radioactive substances like uranium, as well as dangerous bacteria often found in sewage.”

A review of regulatory records by the newspaper revealed that fewer than 6 percent of the violators were fined or punished by state or federal officials.

Jeff Griffiths can see the dangers better than most. Pressed to describe just how bad things are when it comes to the continued safety of drinking water in our country, Griffiths doesn’t even blink. “The train is hurtling toward a bridge over a precipice, and it’s not clear the bridge is going to make it,” he replies.

Like it or not, you and I are passengers on that train.

A Taste of Rocket Fuel

Politics determines everything. Seven years ago, a man named Peter Preuss became head of the EPA division charged with analyzing environmental risks. Perchlorate, the unregulated rocket fuel additive that turns up in my town water supply, was one of the contaminants at the top of his list. But as soon as the EPA had conducted its tests to confirm the chemical was toxic—a necessary first step in establishing a standard for the substance—the business community began intense lobbying efforts to resist that noxious classification.

Military contractors who were responsible for introducing perchlorate into the environment, for example, argued that cleaning things up at all these missile sites going back to Cold War days would cost them billions, according to the New York Times.

An Air Force colonel asserted that the EPA evaluation of the chemical showing it to be more toxic than previously thought had been “biased, unrealistic and scientifically unbalanced.” Military officials went so far as to tell EPA scientists they were being unpatriotic for suggesting that bases around the country were contaminated with the substance. Preuss was warned by more than one superior that he could be fired for pressing the issue. The naysayers won that day’s battle, managing to keep perchlorate off limits to regulators.

How widely dispersed is rocket fuel? A 2003 analysis of governmental data conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit organization of scientists, engineers and policy experts, identified perchlorate in the drinking water, groundwater or soil in at least 43 states. A later review of data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, published by the EWG in 2008, found that 75 percent of common American foods and beverages showed traces of rocket fuel. These numbers are backed up by studies from the Centers for Disease Control that have detected perchlorate in the urine of every person tested.

Rocket fuel and the human body don’t go together well. “We have known for 30 or 40 years that it could affect thyroid function, even at low levels,” Griffiths says of perchlorate. “There is an inverse relationship between thyroid function and perchlorate levels in the blood.”

Recent research has shown that perchlorate tends to concentrate in a mother’s breast milk, effectively replacing iodine there. This means that a nursing baby will, with each suck of mother’s milk, ingest a concentrated dose of rocket fuel and depleted amounts of iodine needed for thyroid function. “It’s a big deal for breast-fed babies,” Griffiths suggests, with stunted nervous system development being one possible consequence for the child.

The good news is that the EPA, under a new administration, reversed its position early this year, declaring in February that it would begin regulating perchlorate levels in drinking water after all.

Arsenic and Lead

Griffiths cites lead as a parallel example of shifting, patchy laws posing a threat to public health. There is really no safe level for lead in drinking water, he says, but the EPA “action level” for the substance is 15 parts per billion. The lead comes mostly from materials used in service lines and home plumbing; old pipes tend to have a lot of it.

My suburban town tests for lead every three years and posts a bar graph summing up the most recent, invariably fluctuating levels, ranging in the 2010 report from about two to eight parts per billion, like a stubby picket fence. Griffiths glances at the page briefly before commenting, “I wouldn’t want to be drinking that water at eight parts per billion,” and handing it back to me.

We Americans take a big chance on what we drink partly for cultural reasons, Griffiths points out. Photo: Vito Aluia Yikes! That was the stuff I was drinking in 2002, and using to make my coffee, tea and lemonade. Lead reflects where we stand with drinking water, given our current political frame: the amount of the substance in my water is certainly legal, but probably unsafe. The same is true of the rocket fuel and the arsenic and a dozen other potentially debilitating agents that have managed to clear the bar of legality to percolate through my daily life.

One curiosity of the law pertaining to lead is that new pipes in a house cannot have any trace of the substance, but—up until last year, when the policy was reversed—kitchen faucets were allowed to contain up to 8 percent lead and still be considered “lead-free,” Griffiths notes. Well, how crazy is that? We know and dread the chemical monster and welcome him to our dinner table all the same.

Arsenic, a product of natural erosion as well as runoff from orchards and glass and electronic production facilities, is another bad player caught in the political tug-of-war.

Back in 2000, the EPA proposed a limit of arsenic in drinking water at five parts per billion. For comparison, that would amount to about one drop in 2,500 gallons of milk. But almost immediately, the managers of water systems and industries that deal with arsenic complained, arguing that the cost of getting arsenic out of the water was extreme, and besides, the science behind the new standard was debatable.

EPA regulators gave in, doubling the arsenic limit to 10 parts per billion. Research conducted over the past decade confirms that arsenic at low concentrations is a health risk, but what degree of risk and at what concentration, exactly? This is not yet known.

Griffiths points out that arsenic may already be wielding a mysterious, subterranean influence on public health not that far from the medical school in Boston. Eighteen percent of wells in southern New Hampshire have detectable arsenic in them, he says. (About one in seven Americans, some 45 million people, uses a well for drinking water.)

Arsenic can promote high blood pressure in those who imbibe it, but how many doctors would make such a remote connection in the case of one of their patients?

“Up until a year or two ago, if I saw a person with hypertension, I probably wouldn’t have thought of [arsenic] as a cause,” Griffiths admits.

The Legal Dance

A maze of loopholes, trap doors and random puffs of smoke works to obscure the monitoring and enforcement side of our nation’s water supply. The back side of water quality regulation is like a parallel universe to the front end of the process, with its sketchy standard-setting laws.

Consider atrazine. It’s a weed killer widely used by farmers and lawn-care workers to keep agricultural fields, golf courses and suburban yards pristine—and it ranks among the most common contaminants found in American reservoirs, lakes, ponds and streams.

Even minuscule amounts of atrazine have been linked, in five recent epidemiological studies, with birth defects, including skull and facial malformations, as well as low birth weights in newborns. A study conducted at Purdue University suggests that concentrations as small as 0.1 parts per billion can have deleterious effects. (The EPA standard for atrazine is three parts per billion.)

Atrazine concentrations tend to rise during the mild spring and summer months, as crops and lawns are grown. There’s a predictable annual spike in exposure then. The methodology set up by the EPA to monitor atrazine, however, requires only that local water systems notify residents if the yearly average exceeds three parts per billion. In effect, a poison can flood through a town’s faucets in June, July and August, before tapering off in the fall, and still be considered safe for consumption. Many systems test just once a year.

Piqua, Ohio, offers one such cautionary tale. By examining EPA records, the New York Times determined that the town saw a huge spike in April 2005 of more than 59 parts per billion of atrazine. Yet the 20,000 residents of the town were never notified of this spike, or any other that may have occurred over the course of the year. “This makes my blood boil,” said one resident. “I have friends and family drinking this water. How are pregnant women or sick people supposed to know when to avoid it?”

The calendar supplies one loophole, farmland another.

Places like Wisconsin are full of dairy farms. This means that the state has tens of thousands of cows standing around, producing tons of manure annually. Much of this waste material is spread on nearby grain fields. Some farmers also use slaughterhouse waste and treated sewage to coat their acres of land. In small doses this mixed organic material is beneficial fertilizer for the soil. But on a large scale it can easily constitute a public health hazard, enabling bacteria and parasites to seep into the ground and enter the drinking water supply.

Farmland in the U.S. is mostly unregulated by federal laws designed to protect water sources from contamination, even though agricultural runoff represents the single largest source of pollution in the nation’s river and streams, according to the EPA.

The consequences can be serious. A study published last year in the scientific journal Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology estimated that some 19.5 million Americans are sickened annually from waterborne parasites, viruses and bacteria linked to human and animal waste, including farm runoff.

Water pollution in the U.S. is worsening generally, as the range of the Clean Water Act’s jurisdiction is curtailed through ever more stringent court rulings. The general idea behind the 1972 law was to rein in major sources of pollution around the country.

But many known corporate offenders these days—as many as half, some EPA regulators say—are not being prosecuted. “We are, in essence, shutting down our Clean Water programs in some states,” an EPA lawyer in Atlanta recently remarked. “This is a huge step backward.”

In the original Clean Water Act, federal jurisdiction covered the discharge of pollutants into “the navigable waters” of the nation. That used to be interpreted broadly as including wetlands and streams that fed major rivers.

But more restrictive readings have proliferated of late, so that creeks and streams, or lakes unlinked to larger water systems, have been excluded from review since they do not qualify as “navigable” waterways. That one word is the legal argument and the escape hatch for polluters. The pollution in question might consist of tailings from a coal mine entering a creek in West Virginia, for example.

“Cases now are lost because the company is discharging into a stream that flows into a river, rather than the river itself,” David Uhlmann, the former head of the environmental crimes section of the Justice Department, told the Times last year.

Old, Crumbling Pipes

All the water we drink comes from elsewhere. At home, when we open the spigot, water pours out. The tap is connected to pipes that hook up to bigger pipes that join still larger pipes that, deep underground, spread out for miles in every direction. The good news is that the plumbing basically works. The bad news is that it’s starting to fall apart.

In 2005, after a comprehensive review, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the U.S. drinking water and wastewater infrastructure a grade of D-minus, down from D four years earlier.

According to the report, “the nation’s drinking water system faces a staggering public investment need to replace aging facilities, comply with safe drinking water regulations and meet future needs.” Estimates for the job run into hundreds of billions of dollars.

“We’re relying on water systems built by our great-grandparents, and no one wants to pay for the decades we’ve spent ignoring them,” says Griffiths. “It’s a huge cost, and if you don’t deal with the problem, it comes up like a two-by-four and hits you in the head.”

Compared with those early generations, we’ve gotten cheap about public expenditures in the modern age. Griffiths notes that Bostonians in the late 19th century paid an average 6 percent of their annual income to create the giant water systems that we use today. “That’s a lot,” he points out, “but they knew enough about what was needed that they worked together to get it done.”

Underground ruptures are occurring with increased frequency. An engineering rule of thumb stipulates that a community should replace about 2 percent of its underground pipes each year, but “lots of places are doing less than one percent replacement,” according to Griffiths.

The results are about what you might expect. EPA data show that, on average, a significant water line bursts every two minutes in the U.S.

Other potential failures loom. For two weeks in the spring of 1993, Milwaukee, Wis., suffered the largest outbreak of waterborne illness in American history when a failure of the filtration process at the city’s treatment plant released Cryptosporidium into the water supply.

Some 1.4 million people were infected with the microscopic parasite; 400,000 got sick with fever, vomiting and diarrhea, and more than a hundred of them died. Griffiths, an expert on the pathogen who has traveled the world helping underdeveloped nations create safe and reliable water supplies, personally treated 20 of the Milwaukee victims, all of whom eventually died.

Are Americans headed for a calamity like that on a larger scale? “It seems that way,” Griffiths responds in a calm, utterly resigned voice, much faster than you want to hear. His summary of the evidence is like a terrible arithmetic being scratched out on the blackboard after school.

“We have an aging infrastructure, an aging population, more chemicals, less money and less political will,” he says thoughtfully. “And of course water is one of the least visible of our problems.”

This article first appeared in the fall Tufts Medicine magazine.

Bruce Morgan can be reached at bruce.morgan@tufts.edu.