The EWG's Latest Database Reveals Disturbing Trends In Our Tap Water

mbg Sustainability Editor By Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care."

Image by Leah Flores / Stocksy

Do you know what's in your tap water? I sure didn't, and I was met with a surprise when I entered my ZIP code into the Environmental Working Group's just-updated database.

Every year, the watchdog agency scans 50,000 utilities across all 50 states for the latest tap water reports—which are usually around four years old since these numbers take a while to update. The EWG then pools the data into an easy-to-navigate resource that compares levels of local contaminants to two sets of drinking water standards: the ones that have been accepted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for years, and the ones that the EWG sets.

The EWG standards are always evolving, and they usually call for much lower levels of contaminants than the ones the federal government enforces. "Often what we see when we release a new update is that we're beginning to learn a lot more about the science behind these contaminants and what levels might be safe in drinking water," Alexis Temkin, Ph.D., a toxicologist at the EWG, tells mindbodygreen. "But one thing we don't see change is any of the legally enforceable drinking water standards—which haven't been addressed in a meaningful way in the last 20 years."

To set its limits, the EWG looks to research by state risk assessment agencies such as the OEHHA in California. When deciding the point at which water contaminants become dangerous to human health, the OEHHA compiles all relevant data to "identify the level of the chemical in drinking water that would not cause significant adverse health effects in people who drink that water every day for 70 years." Its database of about 100 contaminants is updated whenever new information becomes available on drinking water chemicals, with the last change being made on July 20, 2018. The EPA's most recent database, comparatively, lists 23 categories of chemicals and doesn't appear to have changed since 2013.

This means that the contaminants in my New York City utility technically fall below legal limits set by the EPA, but eight of them are present in concentrations higher than what the EWG deems safe—hundreds of times higher in some cases. Needless to say, I'm holding tight to my water filter. You can get the scoop on your tap by typing in your ZIP code here.

3 things to look out for in your tap water this year.

In recent years, the EWG's tap water update has focused on the rise in carcinogens like Chloroform and Chromium-6. This year, a class of chemicals known as PFAS is the big emerging issue. As of July 2019, 712 utilities across 49 states have PFAS in their water, according to the EWG. "The more you look for [PFAS], the more you find. That doesn't mean levels are increasing per se, but there's been more comprehensive testing," says Temkin.

PFAS have been shown to weaken the immune system and interfere with hormones in preliminary studies. Those who live close to military bases and fire stations are more susceptible to these contaminants since they are often found in the foam used by military and emergency crews during training. More than 30 bills have been introduced in the House and Senate related to PFAS, but as of now, the EPA doesn't regulate them in drinking water.

In addition to PFAS, disinfection byproducts were widely found in taps across the country in this year's report. "They're the result of the essential process that's required to remove bacteria from drinking water," Temkin clarifies. "But as a result, you can get these carcinogenic contaminants."

High levels of nitrates were also common this year, especially in areas where there's agricultural runoff since the compound is found in fertilizer. According to the new database, 695 systems had two-year average nitrate levels in 2016 and 2017 that were at or above the amount the National Cancer Institute says increases the risk of colon, kidney, ovarian, and bladder cancers.

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What to do with this information.

Before you vow to stop drinking from the tap and switch over to bottled water (please, for the sake of the environment, do not do that), check out the EWG's recommendations for filters that can tackle the contaminants in your area listed here, or look into some of mbg's top picks for filtration at home and on the go. Also, remember that it's basically impossible to find water that's completely free of contaminants. As the OEHHA, that notoriously rigid department I mentioned earlier, says on its website, "It is natural for people to want their drinking water to be completely free of all contaminants. However, preventing or removing all contamination often is not economically or technologically feasible."

At the very least, let the EWG's database be an educational tool to help you better get to know your water source. Because we all deserve to know what we're drinking every day.

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