Just Add Water

A two year profile of drinking water quality in the US

Wednesday, May 1, 1996

Just Add Water

A two year profile of drinking water quality in the US

More than 45 million Americans in thousands of communities were served drinking water during 1994-1995 that was polluted with fecal matter, parasites, disease causing microbes, radiation, pesticides, toxic chemicals, and lead at levels that violated health standards established under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. More than 18,500 public water supplies reported at least one violation of a federal drinking water health standard during this two year period. Tap water contaminated at levels above federal health standards is deemed unsafe by federal health authorities and represents a serious health threat to the affected community. All health standard violations reported in Just Add Water represent situations where people may have been made ill by drinking water that contained excessive levels of bacteria or biological contaminants, or situations where people have been drinking tap water that contains high amounts of toxic chemicals that cause cancer and other adverse health effects. The contaminants most commonly found in excess of federal health standards during 1994-1995 (Table A), were:

  • Fecal Coliform (E. Coli) and other disease-causing fecal matter. Violations of federal fecal coliform standards were reported by 2,726 systems serving 11.9 million people.
  • Chronic Coliform Bacteria, a measure of overall contamination of treated tap water with microbes, parasites, bacteria, and other microorganisms. Violations of federal chronic coliform bacteria standards were reported by 12,246 systems serving more than 24 million people.
  • Lead, which can cause permanent loss of mental capacity in young children exposed at levels over the federal health standard. Violations of federal lead standards were reported by 3,641 systems serving more than 5 million people.
  • Toxic Chemicals and Radiation, which among other adverse effects, can cause cancer, interfere with the endocrine (hormone) system, disrupt the reproductive process, and cause sometimes fatal oxygen deprivation (methemoglobinemia) in infants. Violations of federal toxic chemical and radiation standards were reported by 1,050 systems serving 2.3 million people.
  • Inadequate Disinfection and Failure to Filter. The Safe Drinking Water Act requires water systems that rely on rivers or reservoirs to adequately filter and disinfect the water. Failure to meet this standard can result in serious disease outbreaks. Violations of EPA standards for filtration and disinfection were reported by 1,478 systems serving more than 20 million people.

Schools, Daycare Centers, and Medical Facilities

Many schools, medical facilities, and daycare centers have their own water supplies. These systems provide tap water to infants, children and hospitalized people, who are generally at higher risk from exposure to toxic chemicals and biological contaminants than healthy adults. During 1994-1995:

  • Violations of federal tap water health standards were reported by 1,583 schools, medical facilities and daycare centers with their own water systems. These facilities provide water to over 700,000 people.
  • The most common violations of EPA health standards at these facilities were for lead - with 857 systems serving 317,000 people exceeding the lead action level; chronic coliform - with violations in 678 systems serving 340,000 people; and fecal bacteria - with acute violations at 164 systems serving 63,000 people.

Just Add Water

To produce Just Add Water, the Environmental Working Group analyzed more than 16 million records submitted by public water supplies to state water agencies and the EPA. These records are maintained by the EPA in a computerized system known as the Safe Drinking Water Information System (SDWIS). Just Add Water analyzed only health standard violations, not monitoring or paperwork violations. This means that people drinking water from the systems cited in Just Add Water were exposed to chemical, radiation, or biological contamination at levels that federal health authorities consider unsafe. In addition to the national summary report, the Environmental Working Group produced 50 state analyses of drinking water health standard violations reported to the EPA by public water suppliers. Just Add Water underrepresents the actual number of violations of federal health standards in the United States because many states either fail to report violations to SDWIS, or do not report these violations on time (quarterly, as required). All violations of SDWA standards for the year 1995 should have been reported to the EPA by March 31, 1996. It appears that a significant number were not. Late reporting and entry into the EPA Safe Drinking Water Information System (SDWIS) was exacerbated this year by several federal government shutdowns. As a result, it is impossible to determine accurately whether the affected population has increased as compared to estimates of the number of people affected by health violations in the previous two year period. A full accounting of all violations for 1995 will not be possible for several months to a year. Based on this partial record of health violations it appears that basic bacterial contamination problems - represented by violations of the fecal and chronic coliform standards, and violations for inadequate filtration or failure to filter - increased in 1994-1995, compared to results from the 1993-1994 reporting period. Compared with violations calculated one year ago, the number of people served water that violated the chronic coliform standard increased by 700,000, from 22.7 million people in 1993-1994 to 23.4 million people in 1994-1995. The population served water that was inadequately filtered or disinfected rose by almost 4 million, from 16.4 million people in 1993-1994, to 20.3 million in 1994-1995. The population affected by fecal coliform violations remained the same at approximately 11.6 million people served; however, the number of communities reporting violations increased by ten percent. Compared to data from the previous two year period, the number of individuals affected by the chemical contaminant violations decreased slightly, but the number of systems reporting chemical increased substantially. In 1994-1995, 325 drinking water systems reported health standard violations for forty different chemical contaminants. The number of people served water that violated the federal health standard for cancer-causing trihalomethanes (THMs) remained the same in 1994-1995 compared to 1993-1994 (about 640,000). The number of people served water that violated other chemical contaminant standards during that time (excluding nitrate) decreased slightly from 1 million to about 890,000, at the samt time. The number of systems reporting chemical contaminant violations increased by more than 50 percent from 122 systems in 1993-1994, to 197 systems in 1994-1995. Nitrate violations were not calculated last year so no comparisons can be made. The EPA testing requirements for lead, complicate comparisons between 1994-1995, and 1993-1994. For large water systems, monitoring requirements for lead went into effect in 1992 and 1993. During these two years, thousands of water systems serving more than 10 million people identified unsafe levels of lead in their water systems that had previously gone undetected. Once these problems were identified, many water utilities started to fix them, taking measures like the addition of calcium carbonate to prevent lead leaching in pipes. Because they are in the process of solving lead problems, most of these systems are no longer reported in violation of the standards. It will take years, however, to be certain that lead problems have been remedied. Even so, it is important to note the good news, that lead exposure from drinking water, which accounts for 20 percent of all lead exposure in the U.S., appears to be dropping thanks to the Safe Drinking Water Act. Just Add Water underestimates the extent and severity of drinking water contamination in the United States, because the SDWIS data base contains information only on violations of federal health standards. SDWIS does not contain information on contamination at levels below federal health standards, or for contaminants that are not yet regulated. Many common contaminants remain unregulated, including the fecal borne parasite Cryptosporidium, pesticides like cyanazine and acetochlor, which contaminate the drinking water of 10 million people, and radon, which is found in the drinking water of about 80 million people.

Water to Watch

Just Add Water provides a two year profile of drinking water quality in the United States. Although some of the problems identified here have been addressed, many are recurring and a represent the serious and persistent deterioration of drinking water quality that is occurring throughout the nation. In order to inform the public about some of the most serious contamination problems in large drinking water systems in the United States, we created a list of communities with Water to Watch. All drinking water systems listed on the Water to Watch list were either characterized by the EPA as significant non-compliers, or reported violations of federal health standards for at least two different contaminants during the past two years. The 74 water systems (Table B) (Table C) on the 1996 Water to Watch list fall into three categories:

  1. Water suppliers with newly identified serious contamination problems. Thirty four (34) water systems including Jersey City, New Jersey, and Modesto, California, made the Water to Watch list due to multiple violations reported in 1995.
  2. Water systems on the last year's Water to Watch list due to violations in 1993-1994, that reported multiple or severe violations again in 1995. Seventeen (17) water systems met this criterion including Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and Camden, New Jersey.
  3. Water systems listed on last year's Water to Watch list based on 1994 violations, with no new violations in 1995. These are the potential success stories of the Safe Drinking Water Act, and some of these systems have in fact begun to seriously address the source of their drinking water contamination. Weakening health standards and monitoring requirements in the Safe Drinking Water Act will jeopardize the public health in these and other communities with contaminated drinking water.

Proposals to Weaken the Safe Drinking Water Act

A rewrite of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the law that ensures that America's tap water is safe to drink, is scheduled for a vote in the House of Representatives in May, 1996. Draft legislation released by Thomas Billy (R-VA), the Chairman of the House Commerce Committee, proposes major rollbacks in the levels of health protection and information provided to the public under current law. The draft bill - which has been the subject of intense lobbying by the pesticide and chlorine industries - would:

  • Weaken basic public health standards in current law, allowing more toxins in tap water.
  • Undercut and delay EPA efforts to control cancer causing byproducts of chlorination.
  • Deny the public's Right to Know.
  • Handcuff efforts at the state and local level to prevent pollution of drinking water supplies.
  • Weaken or delay standards for arsenic and radon, known human carcinogens
  • Allow up to 50 million people in small communities to drink water with higher levels of chemical and microbial contaminants than people in large cities.


Tens of millions of people drink water each year that is considered unsafe by federal health authorities. While some of the violations of health standards identified in this report have been remediated, many represent contamination problems that recur intermitently. Indeed, not quite a year ago, the Centers for Disease Control and the Environmental Protection Agency issued a guidance document advising anyone with a compromised immune system to consult their physician before drinking ordinary tap water (CDC 1995). The American Water Works Association took this warning one step further, advising all HIV infected individuals in the Unites States to boil their tap water before drinking it (AWWA 1995). That fact that a water system is not listed in this or any one of the state reports does not mean that the drinking water in that community is safe. Conversely, that fact that a system was listed in Just Add Water, does not mean that drinking water is contaminated in violation of federal health standards today. Just Add Water shows that the United States has a serious drinking water contamination problem. Without question, strong federal drinking water monitoring and health standards are necessary to ensure a minimum level of health protection for all Americans. Many basic improvements, however, are needed. In order to adequately protect public health, Congress must strengthen, not weaken the Safe Drinking Water Act. Any revisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act must:

  • Ensure strong standards that protect the public health and explicitly provide increased protection for infants, children, the elderly, the sick, and other sensitive subpopulations.
  • Guarantee the public right to know about all contaminants in tap water, including those that are not yet regulated and those that are present at levels that do not yet violate health standards.
  • Require enforcable health standards for commonly found contaminants that are currently unregulated, including Cryptosporidium, many pesticides, and radon.
  • Give states and local governments adequate and unencumbered powers to prevent pollution of drinking water, and to make polluters pay to clean up their contamination whey they foul public drinking water sources.
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