The Safe Drinking Water Act Must Be Updated Now

Safe, sufficient, and affordable drinking water is a human right—and strengthening the Safe Drinking Water Act will help save lives.

Residents pick up cases of bottled water at the Newark Department of Health & Welfare in Newark, New Jersey, last summer after high levels of lead were found in the municipal water supply.

Credit: Demetrius Freeman for NRDC

Safe, sufficient, and affordable drinking water is a human right—and strengthening the Safe Drinking Water Act will help save lives.


This is my oral testimony for a hearing titled “There’s Something in the Water: Reforming Our Nation’s Drinking Water Standards,” which will be held remotely in front of the Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change of the Committee on Energy and Commerce on July 28. My written testimony can be found here.

Good morning Chairman Tonko, Ranking Member Shimkus, and members of the subcommittee. My name is Mae Wu, and I am the senior director for Health & Food at NRDC. Thank you for the opportunity to talk about the Safe Drinking Water Act’s standard settings provisions.

I still remember vividly my friend Gary—not his real name—returning home from the hospital after his colon had ripped open, and he almost died. He had ulcerative colitis and had his colon removed. I saw a guy who used to bike eight miles a day barely be able to walk around the block. He had dropped 50 pounds in six weeks. He can’t eat fresh vegetables. He can’t be away from a toilet now for more than a few hours at a time; he can’t go camping with his five-year-old daughter; he is missing dance recitals; and he and his wife have to recalibrate what their future will look like.

I bring up Gary’s story to highlight the cost of disease beyond the final tally on the medical bill. The EPA can’t and doesn’t quantify these intangibles, and under the Safe Drinking Water Act, can exploit this failing to set weaker standards. This, and other problems in the statute, has left the EPA unable—and perhaps unwilling—to set health protective standards despite science that demands otherwise.

Between 1975 and 1992, the EPA set about 100 standards for drinking water contaminants. Everything basically came to a screeching halt after the 1996 amendments created a new process to regulate contaminants.

Take perchlorate, for example. By the 1990s, science showed that perchlorate exposure to pregnant women could significantly interfere with developing brains of fetuses and infants, with significant lifetime consequences. And it was found contaminating the drinking water of millions of Americans.

In 2011, the EPA finally announced that it would regulate it, which triggered important statutory deadlines. But those deadlines came and went—with no perchlorate standard. And now the Trump administration is trying to defy a court order requiring the EPA to act on the 2011 finding. I note that NRDC challenged the delay in court and is now challenging this most recent action.

History may soon repeat itself. The EPA recently made a preliminary decision to regulate PFOA and PFOS. A massive study shows a link between PFOA-contaminated water and ulcerative colitis, kidney and testicular cancer, and other harmful effects. And it is found in the drinking water of millions of Americans.

But without important changes to the Safe Drinking Water Act, we may not see PFOA and PFOS standards that protect the most vulnerable populations.


So, here are five things that could fix the Safe Drinking Water Act and get the EPA back into the business of protecting us and our drinking water.

First, fix the legal standard. The EPA should regulate a contaminant when 1) it may have an adverse effect on human health and 2) it occurs in water at levels of public health concern. The third element in the current law—requiring the EPA administrator to find there is a “meaningful” opportunity to reduce risk—is unnecessary with the first two already in place.

Second, stop allowing the EPA to cherry-pick contaminants not to regulate. Over the past 17 years, the EPA has made final decisions for 25 unregulated contaminants and decided not to regulate 24 of them. And the 25th one is perchlorate, which remains unregulated.

The statute should push the EPA to act. For example, finding a contaminant in the water of a lot of people at levels above a scientifically derived value should automatically trigger a regulation. And the EPA should be required to regulate certain high-hazard contaminants that have languished as unregulated for far too long.

Third, get rid of the extra cost-benefit analysis. The EPA is required to set drinking water standards based on feasibility—meaning using the best technology available and taking cost into consideration. Then the EPA can set a standard that is weaker than is feasible if it finds the benefits do not justify the costs. The problem is that while costs of regulation are fairly straightforward to quantify, the benefits are often undercounted.

For perchlorate, the EPA didn’t consider many benefits like reduced likelihood of ADHD and autism in children, or people’s willingness to pay for better drinking water, or calculate the cobenefits of reducing other contaminants when treating for perchlorate.

When it’s developing the PFOA and PFOS regulation, will the EPA consider all the intangible impacts of disease—like Gary’s—when calculating the benefits of regulation? If not, we could end up with ineffectively weak regulations.

Fourth, standards need to be as stringent as feasible and not just consider but protect pregnant women, infants, children, and other vulnerable populations.

Finally, the EPA needs to move beyond the whack-a-mole approach toward a class-based approach. PFOA and PFOS are but two of more than 7,000 chemicals in that class. While U.S. manufacturers recently phased out PFOA and PFOS production, their replacements are showing similar adverse health and environmental effects. Going one by one (or even two by two) will leave drinking water contaminated with toxic forever chemicals for hundreds of years. The EPA needs to take a class-based approach to regulating drinking water contaminants.

The Safe Drinking Water Act is due for an update.


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