EPA Must Protect Vulnerable Groups from Water Contamination

Setting safe tap water standards requires that we know how water contamination endangers children, pregnant women, and the elderly.

Twenty-five years ago, Congress directed the Environmental Protection Agency to research the health risks that contaminated drinking water poses to vulnerable groups of people, including infants, children, pregnant women, and the elderly. Congress instructed EPA to undertake an ongoing research program to study these risks and report back on the results periodically.

EPA started this research and sent an initial report to Congress in December 2000. In that report, EPA summarized the wide range of studies it had initiated, much of which was just getting underway. And EPA reported that “new insights are expected within the next few years,” as the results of ongoing work become available.

More than two decades have passed since EPA outlined its initial research program and predicted that new insights would be coming soon. Yet EPA has not made any subsequent report to Congress on the results. In light of recent lead contamination crises in Flint, Michigan and Newark, New Jersey—and with growing awareness of widespread drinking water problems elsewhere in the United States—it is time for EPA to update its research regarding harm to vulnerable groups of people, and to share its latest conclusions with Congress and the public. And it is past time for EPA to set new safety standards and revise existing ones to protect the people most at risk of harm.

Contaminated drinking water can pose serious health risks to vulnerable groups. Lead is a well-known example. Fetal exposure to lead in drinking water threatens health harms that include behavioral problems, learning impairment, and lower IQ. But last year EPA weakened the safeguards that help keep lead out of drinking water. Nitrate is another example. Infants who drink baby formula prepared with nitrate-contaminated water can develop “blue baby syndrome,” which is potentially fatal, and pregnant mothers exposed to low levels of nitrate may have a higher risk of having a child with certain birth defects. Yet EPA has not revised its nitrate standard in nearly half a century, despite mounting evidence that it fails to protect children. By studying and acting on these and other risks, EPA can make sure that current standards are as protective as they need to be.

The required research should inform new safeguards too. Under the law, EPA must decide whether to set limits for currently unregulated contaminants that endanger people’s health. In doing so, EPA is required to consider whether more vulnerable groups of people are at greater risk of harm. Prime candidates for future regulation include PFOA, PFOS, and other per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (known as PFAS), which can pose grave risks to infants, children, and people with compromised immune systems. Without up-to-date research on risks to sensitive groups, EPA will overlook or fail to act on dangerous contaminants.

EPA should re-commit to studying the health threats that contaminated drinking water poses to vulnerable groups of people. EPA should also update its decades-old report to Congress with new information about these risks. Doing so will help strengthen drinking water safeguards and ensure that those who are most at risk are adequately protected from harm.

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