Chemicals, Special Topics in Environmental Management

Water, Water Everywhere—But Is It Safe to Drink?

On a planet that is 71% water, concerns about the safety of our water supply and the measures necessary to preserve and protect our water resources should still be top of mind.

drinking water

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The EPA requires each U.S. community water system to deliver an annual drinking water quality report, known as a Consumer Confidence Report (CCR), to its customers. This annual report contains information that includes:

  • The source of the drinking water;
  • A summary of contamination risks for that source;
  • Regulated contaminants found in the water;
  • Potential health effects of any contaminant detected in violation of an EPA health standard;
  • An accounting of the system’s actions to restore safe drinking water;
  • An educational statement for vulnerable populations about avoiding Cryptosporidium, a microscopic parasite that is one of the leading causes of waterborne disease among humans in the United States; and
  • Educational information on nitrate, arsenic, or lead in areas where these contaminants may be a concern.

So what are some of the significant issues impacting our water supply?

PFAS

Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are one of the regulated contaminants often found in drinking water. These “forever chemicals” have virtually no expiration date. Some scientists believe PFAS are likely detectable in all major water supplies in the United States, according to Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment.

To address growing concerns about these chemicals, the EPA acted in February to begin the process to further regulate PFAS in drinking water. The agency reproposed the Fifth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR 5) to collect new data on PFAS in drinking water and reissued final regulatory determinations for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).  According to the EPA, the Agency “will build on them using a strong foundation of science while working to harmonize multiple authorities to address the impacts of PFAS on public health and the environment. EPA is also committed to a flexible approach and working collaboratively with states, tribes, water systems, and local communities that have been impacted by PFAS.”

Section 1445(a)(2) of the SDWA provides the EPA with the authority to monitor unregulated contaminants and determine if enforcement limits should be created for those contaminants.  In 2020, Congress amended the SDWA to require certain PFAS to be included in UCMR 5, which was published in the Federal Register on March 11, 2021. According to the National Law Review (NLR), “[w]hereas UCMR 3 collected data for only six types of PFAS, UCMR 5 proposes to require public water systems to collect data for 29 different types of PFAS and lithium.”

In addition, the reissuing of the final regulatory determination for PFOS and PFOA on March 3, 2021, will provide the EPA with the necessary regulatory framework to evaluate additional PFAS.

What does it mean? Even though these PFAS are no longer manufactured in the United States, the NLR believes that these two actions confirm that the EPA will move forward “to develop enforceable drinking water standards (Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs)) for those two legacy PFAS.”

If the EPA establishes MCLs for PFOA and PFOS, site cleanups will be impacted, and the costs associated with these actions will likely increase. Additionally, public water systems will incur costs to meet more stringent standards.

“Additionally, monitoring of a larger group of PFAS proposed in UCMR 5 – many of which are still in production and use – suggests this is only the beginning of a long story on federal data gathering and research – and, potentially, greater regulation – of PFAS,” according to the NLR.

Related PFAS actions. “In a related regulatory development, also mandated by Congress in 2020, the EPA added 172 PFAS to the list of toxic chemicals that must be reported in the annual Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) under the Emergency Planning, Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA),” according to the NLR. “These programs and other agency initiatives will result in a large body of new information about the presence of PFAS in the environment that will inform the Agency’s future regulatory decisions.”

There is also an extensive variety of growing state regulations with a wide range of “regulatory triggers.”

The end result of all these actions related to PFAS is that impacted industries face a great deal of uncertainty in attempting to mitigate risk from these “forever chemicals.”

molecule

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The Unknown

More than 4,700 chemicals are classified as PFAS, and they have many different chemical properties and toxicological profiles, according to the NLR.

PFOA and PFOS created industry breakthroughs in the 1940s and 1950s for their ability to repel water and oil. At the time, little was known about their harmful side effects, much less how long they would stick around and how difficult they are to break down. But as more information became available, manufacturing of these legacy PFAS ended.

“Now, mounting evidence shows that the emergence of seemingly safer and less persistent ‘alternatives’ to legacy PFASs may pose the same problems as their predecessors,” according to Food and Water Watch, an organization dedicated to fighting for clean water.

In fact, a study published by the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) on March 17, 2021, in Environmental Science & Technology detected “109 chemicals in … pregnant women, including 55 chemicals never before reported in people and 42 ‘mystery chemicals,’ whose sources and uses are unknown.”

“These chemicals have probably been in people for quite some time, but our technology is now helping us to identify more of them,” said Tracey J. Woodruff, PhD, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at UCSF and a former EPA scientist. “It is alarming that we keep seeing certain chemicals travel from pregnant women to their children, which means these chemicals can be with us for generations,” she said.

The study surmises the chemicals come from consumer products and other industrial sources.  While the “mystery chemicals” can be tentatively identified through chemical libraries, they cannot be confirmed until they are compared with “analytical standards,” which are the pure chemicals produced by manufacturers. According to UCSF, manufacturers do not always make these available.

“Recently, for example, chemical manufacturer Solvay stopped providing access to a chemical standard for one [PFAS] compound that has emerged as a replacement for phased-out PFAS compounds,” according to UCSF.  “The researchers have been using this chemical standard to evaluate the presence and the toxicity of the replacement PFAS.”

The study reports that of the 109 chemicals found:

  • 40 are used as plasticizers.
  • 28 are used in cosmetics.
  • 25 are used in consumer products.
  • 29 are used as pharmaceuticals.
  • 23 are used as pesticides.
  • 3 are used as flame retardants.
  • 7 are PFAS compounds.

Although new technology is helpful in identifying more chemicals in humans, without analytical standards for comparison, it is difficult to confirm the presence of chemicals and complete toxicity evaluations.

“It’s very concerning that we are unable to identify the uses or sources of so many of these chemicals,” Woodruff said. “EPA must do a better job of requiring the chemical industry to standardize its reporting of chemical compounds and uses.  And they need to use their authority to ensure that we have adequate information to evaluate potential health harms and remove chemicals from the market that pose a risk.”

Other Drinking Water Contaminants

Business Insider lists the following 10 contaminants, in addition to PFAS, commonly found in drinking water supplies:

  • Lead
  • Arsenic
  • Radioactive substances
  • Copper
  • Chlorine byproducts
  • Perchlorate
  • Nitrate
  • Excess fluoride
  • Manganese
  • Mercury

While these types of contaminants are generally found in rural areas, some major cities have also found some of these in their water supply.

While there never seems to be agreement about how much is too much, exposure to these substances can have lifelong health consequences such as brain damage, seizures, kidney failure, reproductive issues, cancer, heart disease, and myriad other health issues.

What about bacteria? The water industry typically relies upon coliform bacteria, a bacterial indicator, to test source water. Some bacteria, such as H. pylori, “have commonly been found in waters where coliform indicators were absent, thus making its detection in water sources very difficult,” according to SafeWater.org, a Canada-based charitable organization whose mission is to educate leaders about drinking water-quality issues.

H. pylori is known to cause ulcers, stomach cancer, and indigestion. In fact, studies have shown that this bacterium is responsible for 75% of stomach ulcers and two types of stomach cancer, according to SafeWater.org.

Some might be surprised to learn that the EPA has set MCL criteria for microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses in public water supplies. In addition to H. pylori, the EPA list includes:

  • Adenovirus
  • Caliciviruses
  • Campylobacter jejuni
  • Enterovirus
  • Escherichia coli (0157)
  • Hepatitis A virus
  • Legionella pneumophila
  • Mycobacterium avium
  • Naegleria fowleri
  • Salmonella enterica
  • Shigella sonnei
Drinking water

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Status of Water Quality Regulations

All in all, Americans are “fortunate to have one of the safest public drinking water supplies in the world,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The EPA reports “92 per cent of the population supplied by community water systems receives drinking water that meets all health-based standards all of the time.”

Critics say this is still not good enough and that it may be up for debate.

“In a 2018 peer-reviewed study, researchers from the University of California at Irvine and Columbia University found that health-related violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act — the federal law that regulates our tap water — are widespread, with ‘9–45 million people possibly affected during each of the past 34 years,’” according to the news website Down to Earth. “In 2015 alone, more than 20 million people ‘relied on community water systems that violated health-based quality standards,’ the authors wrote.

“‘There is a growing concern about more and more pockets and places where we don’t have safe water,’ said [Michigan State University professor and water microbiologist Joan] Rose, adding that it’s often rural areas, people with low incomes and communities of color who are disproportionately affected and impacted by polluted drinking water,” according to Down to Earth.

But The NLR points out that the regulatory process is slow and, to demonstrate this point, uses the example of how long it took to put regulations in place for perchlorate, a PFAS used as a missile and rocket propellant. According to the NLR, “[c]alls to set an MCL for perchlorate began in earnest in the 1990s.… The perchlorate debate stirred intense political interest and prompted a review of the epidemiology and toxicology by the National Academy of Sciences, which published its analysis in January 2005. The EPA then took 14 years to propose an MCL for perchlorate in 2019, only to withdraw the regulatory determination that prompted the proposal in July 2020.” The NLR believes that the perchlorate example has similarities to the situations with certain types of PFAS.

So, while patience is called for in creating additional water quality regulations, many believe more stringent regulations cannot come quickly enough to ensure the health and safety of all U.S. drinking water sources. Some critics are quick to point to the Flint, Michigan, water crisis as a recent example of how quickly things can go terribly wrong.