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Research casts doubt on EPA drinking water standard

Research casts doubt on EPA drinking water standard

Drinking water standards not high enough

More than 5 million Americans get their drinking water from public water systems that could contain hazardous levels of a chemical called nitrate, which is linked to public health risks — including cancer and birth defects. And the concentrations found in the vast majority of that drinking water would be deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to a study published this month in the journal Environmental Health.

Nitrate occurs naturally in soil, water, and food. But when it is ingested, it can react with organic compounds in the body to form carcinogens.

A team of researchers at environmental health advocacy groups looked into nearly 40,000 public water systems that between 2010 and 2014 served 70 percent of Americans. They found that more than 1,600 of the systems they reviewed had average nitrate concentrations of at least 5 parts per million.

While that amount is just one-half of the level that the Environmental Protection Agency deems safe to drink, the lead study author told Grist that there is evidence that the federal standards may be outdated.

“The EPA is very slow in updating drinking water standards,” said lead author Laurel Schaider, a research scientist at the Silent Spring Institute, a non-profit research group in Massachusetts that studies the effects of chemicals on women’s health. In fact, just this week, Politico reported that the EPA won’t place federal limits on two chemicals associated with cancer and other health issues in drinking water — despite lawmakers on both sides of the aisle pressuring Andrew Wheeler, the agency’s acting administrator, to take action.

The EPA established 10 parts per million as its regulatory standard for nitrate in 1991 primarily to protect infants from “blue baby syndrome.” The syndrome, which can impact infants who are fed formula mixed with nitrate-contaminated water, causes a drop in in the amount of hemoglobin in the blood, which cuts the babies’ oxygen intake.

It’s unclear whether the EPA is considering revising its safety standard. In a December 2016 review of drinking water standards, it designated nitrate as “not appropriate for review at this time.” But in September 2017, the agency released a draft plan to reassess the health effects of nitrate, noting that health studies published since 1991 had called into question whether the EPA’s current maximum nitrate contaminant levels “provide adequate health protection for the general population.” The EPA declined to provide a comment to Grist.