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How Safe is Your Drinking Water?

1/27/2010 12:00:00 AM

Tags: Safe Drinking Water Act, drinking water, tap water, chemicals

The water flowing from your faucets could be harboring hundreds of potentially cancer- and disease-causing chemicals—even if it meets federal regulations.

The Safe Drinking Water Act, passed in 1974, originally required local water systems to monitor water for only 20 substances. Since then, our knowledge and use of chemicals has expanded and the list of regulated substances has increased to 91 (the last substance was added in 2000). According to an investigative report in The New York Times, more than 60,000 chemicals are used in the United States, hundreds of which scientists have linked to cancer and other diseases when found in small concentrations in drinking water and thousands of which have yet to analyzed.

water with lemon slice
Do you know what's in your drinking water? Photo By Andreas Levers/Courtesy Flickr. 

Guidelines are lax, even for the substances listed in the act. For example, Environmental Protection Agency studies have found that the standard for arsenic is at a level where 1 in 600 people would likely develop bladder cancer from drinking water contaminated with this poison.

Most scientists agree that the chemicals found in drinking water can cause serious health problems, even at small concentrations, but people who become ill from drinking contaminated water may never realize the source of their problems because the diseases take so long to develop.

Although federal law is behind the times, some local water officials have made efforts to make their cities’ water supplies cleaner than federal regulations require. On the federal level, some lawmakers and government officials are trying to improve water regulations. Last May, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed an act that could potentially supply $14.7 billion in loans to help states improve their water systems. Top EPA officials are also pressuring Congress to amend laws that mandate how the EPA assesses chemicals.

If you’re concerned about your tap water’s quality, check out our guide to water filters and learn what you can do to protect yourself and your family.

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