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New York Times All Wet About Drinking Water Crisis

Officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are working hard to hype drinking water risks as they ask Congress to expand their authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). They have the assistance of sensationalist journalism at the New York Times, whose main source of information appears to be are left-leaning activists at the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

In a story on this topic today, the New York Times claims that data collected by EWG from EPA databases between 2004 to present shows that there is a growing body of evidence that individuals are increasingly exposed to dangerous chemicals in our water supply. Their arguments are wrong for myriad reasons.

First, the idea of a national drinking water crisis is off the mark. Most of the U.S. water supply is quite safe—among the safest in the world. And consumers have a variety of options that include bottle water—whose record is even better than tap—when problems in their public water systems do emerge.

More importantly, exposure to chemicals does not translate into significant risks. Humans are exposed to hundreds of thousands of trace chemicals every day—man-made and natural—without ill effect. Risks result not from low exposures but from relatively high ones to certain chemicals over decades.

Consider bromate. It is the subject of a controversial program in Los Angeles that involved pouring $2 million worth of black rubber balls into the city drinking water reservoir. The effort is supposed to “save residents” from the formation of “cancer-causing” bromate. One way this chemical forms involves sunlight—which the rubber balls block.

Bromate currently appears in L.A.’s drinking water at trace levels below extremely stringent EPA standards. The best research shows that it would take long-term exposures that are hundreds of times higher than EPA standards for anyone to experience an elevated cancer risk.

Yet the risk of bromate is most likely much lower than EPA estimates. The chemical—like so many other EPA regulated chemicals—is classified as a possible carcinogen because it produces tumors in rodents exposed to massive doses. But so does broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, oxygen and thousands of other things! It’s the dose that makes the poison; there’s no reason to fear these trace exposures.

In fact, the best cancer research available—as cited by the World Health Organization in its health reports—indicates that the overwhelming majority of cancers are caused by personal lifestyle choices like poor diets and smoking. At most, all environmental pollution causes 2 percent of cancers in Western nations and only a small fraction of that—probably approaching zero—could be associated with drinking water. And not surprisingly, people are living longer than ever before and waterborne-related deaths are extremely low in Western nations.

Drinking water systems do face some challenges. But ratcheting up regulations on trace chemicals—currently regulated or not—is highly unlikely to improve things. The feds are likely to set one-size-doesn’t-fit-all targets that are needlessly stringent and expensive and that divert resources away from the most significant problems. This is already a big problem.

In particular, some small towns can’t even afford to provide piped water because federal regulations make it too expensive. And some of the small towns that do have public water systems must divert millions of dollars to pay for excessive, nonsensical regulations, forcing them to ignore other needs like purchasing new fire trucks.

Big cities face issues as well, particularly associated with infrastructure. They can’t afford expensive water line upgrades because they have to devote millions trying to meet overly stringent EPA standards on trace chemicals. And outdated infrastructure can produce water quality problems associated with biological pathogens like Cryptosporidium and E-coli.

In fact, The New York Times story notes that EPA studies report many public health issues related to drinking water. Yet these studies don’t address chemicals very much—they address problems associated with biological pathogens entering cracked and dirty old city pipes. 

Fortunately, most illnesses involve temporary gastrointestinal upsets, which resolve on it their own.

There may also be areas where chemical contaminants exceed trace levels that need to be addressed—maybe even for chemicals not covered under the SDWA. In that case, communities need the flexibility and resources to address those, not more government red tape.

Solutions lie not in expanding EPA regulations; they lie in establishing more reasonable standards and giving cities and towns more flexibility in how they apply them. If cities are ever going to be able to address infrastructure or other contamination problems, they need the freedom to allocate resources where they will do the most good.

And if one city thinks that means pouring rubber balls into their reservoir, they should be free to try it no matter how absurd—as long as they can answer to their constituents. But don’t ask EPA to step in because every affordable option may soon disappear along with the rubber balls.

Angela Logomasini, Ph.D. is the director of Risk and Environmental Policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.