Since the lead poisoning tragedy unfolded in Flint, Mich., numerous reports of tainted tap water in other communities have emerged, sparking outcry and shattering people’s confidence in the nation’s drinking water supply. According to public health experts quoted in the media, the water crisis in Flint may be “the tip of the iceberg.”
Scores of U.S. cities have had their troubles with lead-contaminated drinking water—Washington, D.C., Durham and Greenville, N.C., and Jackson, Miss., to name a few. As is often the case, a lack of oversight is to blame. In January, reports from Ohio revealed that it took state officials five months to warn residents in the northeast town of Sebring that their drinking water contained high levels of lead. In the case of Flint, it took a full year.
But the issue doesn’t stop at lead. A report from the Michigan Department of Community Health recently showed that Flint residents also may have been exposed to fluorinated chemicals in their drinking water. These contaminants, known as PFASs or PFCs, are hormone-disrupting chemicals that have been associated with cancer and developmental problems. They are found in consumer products such as pizza boxes, non-stick pans, and stain-resistant fabrics.
However, when high levels of PFASs are found in drinking water, the primary source is usually industrial wastewater from manufacturing plants, like those that make Teflon products, or fire training facilities that use PFAS-containing firefighting foams. Consider recent developments in upstate New York and Vermont, where residents are now grappling with water tainted with fluorinated chemicals from a nearby plastics plant.
“What happened in Flint was not an isolated incident,” says Laurel Schaider, a research scientist at Silent Spring who heads the institute’s water quality research. “Flint is symptomatic of a much larger and more pervasive problem throughout the country.”
Silent Spring’s own water research has found household and industrial chemicals, including pharmaceuticals, PFASs, and flame retardants, in drinking water supplies on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. “Because these contaminants are not regulated, water officials don’t test for them and so they often go undetected,” she says. “The health effects from chronic exposure to these chemicals are unknown and that’s very concerning.”
In one study, Schaider found high levels of PFASs in a public drinking well near an airport and fire training facility on Cape Cod. When officials learned of the study’s findings, the fire training area changed their policy to prohibit the use of PFAS-containing firefighting foams. Now officials are spending millions of dollars treating the water and cleaning up the contamination.
In a more recent study, Schaider found dozens of contaminants in drinking water from private wells on the Cape. Backyard septic systems, in this case, were likely the main source of contamination. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that private well owners have their water tested on an annual basis, yet such testing typically only looks for regulated contaminants like nitrate, bacteria, and heavy metals. Testing for unregulated chemicals like PFASs and pharmaceuticals is not routine and is expensive.
However, Schaider thinks she may have found a shortcut. One of the things she observed in her research is that well water with higher levels of nitrate tends to have higher levels of other contaminants, suggesting that nitrate could be a good marker for contamination. Knowing that can help consumers determine which precautionary steps to take, such as whether to install a solid carbon block filter to remove certain contaminants from their tap water.
Schaider is now embarking on an ambitious project to analyze nitrate levels in public water supplies in all 50 states throughout the U.S. Working in collaboration with the Environmental Working Group, she is investigating whether low-income communities have higher nitrate levels in their drinking water compared with the rest of the population. “Rural areas where farming activities can have a major impact on drinking water are often home to low-income communities,” says Schaider. “If there are disparities in access to safe drinking water in this country, then it’s important that we know the extent of the problem so we can take action.”