Energy & Environment Health

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) released updates to its Tap Water Database on Wednesday. The environmental health nonprofit’s database makes public drinking water systems searchable by zip code. It also shows legal and illegal levels of contaminants and the health risks associated with them. 

But many chemicals found in drinking water are not regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, which sets drinking water safety standards. 

EWG sets its own safety standards for contaminants found in drinking water at levels far lower than what is allowable by law. 

Tasha Stoiber, a scientist with EWG, said many maximum chemical levels are outdated.

“Nitrate, for example, that standard was set based on a recommendation from the 60s, and many of the standards were set either in the 70s or 80s,” Stoiber said. “So a lot of that information is outdated. And for some unregulated contaminants, there simply is no federal limit.” 

PFAS or “forever chemicals” aren’t yet regulated in drinking water and have been found throughout Kentucky’s surface water.

According to the tap water database, Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia have exceeded legal limits for chemicals like arsenic, nitrite and trihalomethanes that can cause or lead to an increased risk for cancer.

Many small West Virginia utilities, that serve a few thousand people or less, have been in significant or serious violation of federal drinking water standards over the past three years, according to the tap water database.

Generally, Stoiber said, EWG recommends that tap water be filtered. 

“It’s a great way to reduce your exposure to a lot of these contaminants. And featured on the database is a drinking water filter guide, where you can learn about the different types of filter treatment technologies, and what contaminants that they filter out.”

Stoiber said filtration systems can be expensive and inaccessible. She says stricter policies would help limit exposure to chemicals.

In Martin County, KY residents have used bottled water regularly because of a history of water quality issues.

But EWG doesn’t recommend using bottled water as a long-term solution for water systems that have serious contamination issues. 

“It’s costly. There’s a lot of plastic waste that comes along with that,” Stoiber said. “Bottled water actually is not required to be as transparent as tap water is. There are certain requirements for it, but bottled water companies don’t have to make that data published.”

 

Corinne Boyer covers health issues for the ReSource from partner station WEKU in Richmond, KY.