Protecting the Public’s Right to Know about Drinking Water Contamination

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can improve public awareness by fixing defects in the Safe Drinking Water Act’s right-to-know reports.
Credit: Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can improve public awareness by fixing defects in the Safe Drinking Water Act’s right-to-know reports.

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, community water systems must send their customers annual reports about the source and quality of the drinking water they provide. These annual disclosures—called right-to-know reports—include information about contaminants in tap water and possible health risks from that contamination. The reports must be delivered to more than 300 million drinking water consumers every year.

The point of these reports is to give people meaningful information about health threats from their tap water. But in practice, the reports are often long, technical, full of jargon, and confusing. Many people never see them. As a result, the public may not get timely, clear information about potential risks from contaminated drinking water.

Some of the worst examples relate to lead. Lead contamination in drinking water causes serious health harms, especially to infants and children. Even very low levels of lead in children’s blood can result in behavioral problems and lower IQ. Lead contamination and childhood lead poisoning disproportionately harm Black people and other people of color in the United States. Yet when some water systems identify high lead levels, their public disclosure almost seems designed to obscure the threat.

In recent amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act, Congress directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to revise the rules governing drinking water right-to-know reports by no later than October 2020. EPA is required to increase the readability, clarity, and understandability of the reports; to make them more accurate and more effective at communicating risk; and to increase reporting frequency. In amending the rules, EPA must consult with environmental groups, states, risk communication experts, and other interested parties.

EPA failed to meet the deadline set by Congress. To date, EPA has not proposed new rules, let alone finalized them. Because of the agency’s delay, NRDC filed a lawsuit last week to prod EPA to act.

The defects in right-to-know reports undermine the Safe Drinking Water Act. Community water systems routinely violate drinking water standards. According to an NRDC report, in one recent year, there were 12,000 health-based violations of drinking water standards in some 5,000 community water systems serving 27 million people. More than 14 million people never received their right-to-know reports. If people don’t get meaningful, accessible information about contamination in their tap water, they can’t take steps to protect themselves. They also can’t put pressure on their water system to fix problems quickly. By updating the right-to-know rules—and enforcing them to make sure the reports are delivered—EPA can make sure consumers get the information they need about potentially serious health risks.

Improving right-to-know reports would also promote environmental justice. Another NRDC report found that drinking water protections in this country are not equally distributed: Communities of color, low-income communities, and communities that lack transportation or live under crowded housing conditions have higher rates of drinking water violations than others. One way to mitigate the harm in disproportionately burdened communities is to provide prompt, clear information to community members about health threats from local water contamination. Upgrading the right-to-know reporting rules would promote that goal.

This is an important issue that relates to the safety of tap water delivered to hundreds of millions of people. EPA will undoubtedly be busy in the weeks and months ahead, restoring climate and health protections that the previous administration tried to dismantle. But upgrading the rules governing drinking water right-to-know reports is a modest undertaking that would carry outsize benefits.

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