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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Drinking Dirty Water

Mounting disclosures about unsafe drinking water systems throughout the United States have now reached a level requiring the urgent attention of concerned citizens. Everyone knows of the pollution of our lakes, rivers and streams but few people are focusing on the fact that too much of these lethal wastes are getting past archaic water purification systems and into the homes.

The General Accounting Office, Congress’ watchdog, has just released information on several states which show gross inadequacies in water treatment which are releasing water for household faucets below minimum public health standards. Even these standards, issued by the federal government as guidelines in 1942 (they are being revised) were very weak and do not cover many chemicals and other wastes presently intruding into the water. Yet four years ago, the Public Health Service declared that one of every two Americans were drinking water which did not meet these standards.
The entire subject of drinking water contamination needs greater testing, research, and investment in newer purification facilities. These are the objectives of bills now pending in Congress. Legislation sponsored by Senators Warren Magnuson and Philip Hart, for example, would have the federal government establish more comprehensive national drinking water standards. The states would have primary enforcement responsibility but if they fell down on the job the federal government would be empowered to enforce these regulations. Federal research, technical assistance and training of personnel aid for the states is also included in the bill.
Just how badly is the need for upgrading purification systems can be gleaned from the following statement by two environmental scientists, Prof. J.E. Singley and A.P. Black:
“Approaching the [water] treatment units however, the calendar rolls back 50 years….One sees before him the same old mixing basins, flooculators, and sedimentation basins that have served as treatment units for more than 5 decades…the engineer has been slow to realize that many new advances in treatment methods or materials are at his disposal. The conservatism in the design of water treatment units is also caused by the fact that, in many cases, engineers are required by regulatroy agencies to follow arbitrary design criteria, some of which have been obsolete for many years.”
The reason for urging new technologies is not just to replace worn out systems but to amplify the capability of these systems to detect and screen out wastes such as heavy metals (cadmium, mercury, arsenic, lead) that pour out of the giant dumping pipes of industry. Synthetic organic chemicals, numbering about 12,000, are heavily used in industry and present a growing threat of cancer and other diseases, according to numerous medical and biochemical specialists.
Recently, two independent regional laboratories of the Environmental Protection Agency(EPA) have isolated and identified toxic organic compounds in the treated drinking water in the region of the lower Mississippi River and in Evansville, Indiana. The lower Mississippi River, affectionately known as the “colon of America,” is the source of drinking water for more than half of all the people in Louisiana. Sampling from the tap water at the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital at Carville and the Carrollton Purification Plant in New Orleans, the EPA laboratory identified as many as 40 synthetic organic compounds. Preliminary research has identified six of these compounds to be toxic in laboratory animal tests and three of the compounds have been shown to be cancerous.
These studies are only beginning. The EPA reports that chronic toxicity data are not available for most of these compounds and warns that there may be a myriad of organic chemicals not yet isolated and identified.
Health investigators are beginning to zero in on ground water contamination. For well water in Ames, Iowa, researchers were able to isolate and identify 14 potentially toxic organic compounds. With greater deep well dumping of industrial waste under ground and the proposed storage of hot radioactive wastes near major acquifiers in the southeast U.S., this issue also merits examination immediately. Tests in Lawrence and Billerica, Massachusetts, and Paris, France, and in Israel have found enteric viruses in treated drinking water.
The quest for safe drinking water should be a primary involvement of citizen action. Citizens who have information on drinking water hazards may wish to send them to my associate, Dr. Robert Harris, P.O. Box 19312, Washington, D.C. 20036.