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Is tap water chemical soup?

Old Water Faucet by Rubén Díaz Alonso is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit

All the things that go down the drain and end up at the waste water treatment plant are not removed there. Some of the industrial byproducts, agricultural chemicals, and pharmaceuticals that pass through our bodies end up in our streams and lakes. It’s a soup of chemicals. Lester Graham with the Environment Report finds it’s hard to keep it out of drinking water.

Water treatments do a good job of killing the viruses and bacteria that cause waterborne diseases such as typhoid, cholera, and dysentery. There are some rare reports of pathogens such as cryptosporidium and legionella making people sick, or worse.

But dealing with chemicals seems more complicated for regulators. Only recently PFAS was discovered in drinking water, but it had been there for decades. More than likely there are other chemicals not yet detected.

Chemicals in water can mix. That’s where dealing with pollutants really falls short.

“The way the chemicals in general are evaluated is based upon a single chemical, and that just isn't reality, we're all exposed to multiple chemicals all of the time.”

Linda Birnbaum is the former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences as well as the National Toxicology Program. She says we don’t have the research facilities necessary to study what these mixtures of chemicals do to human health.

We have an increase in autism spectrum disorder. We have an increase in ADHD. Those are both neurodevelopmental issues. We have an increase in autoimmunity. You know, there's increases, say, in certain kinds of cancer like pancreatic cancer.”

Those increases are, at this point, unexplained.

The Environmental Working Group did a peer-reviewed study to estimate whether the chemical levels that don’t exceed government limits in drinking water could combine to cause increased health issues.

“Even at legal limits, we're seeing, you know, a hundred thousand potential lifetime cancer cases could be related to drinking water contaminants as they are in the water today.”

Evans says very little is being done to tackle all the possible combinations of chemicals in any meaningful way.

“And there's a huge cost of inaction. It's just hidden so most people can't see it up front.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and water treatment plant operators do participate in a program called the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule. It looks at a list of chemicals every five years to see if they’re in drinking water and if so, how prevalent they are.

Jaime Fleming runs the City of Wyoming’s water purification plant. She and her colleagues across the nation are working to see whether certain individual chemicals are a problem.

“Sometimes we have things that land on the list and we just can't develop a good method to be able to detect it reliably and then also prioritizing by what we think is most likely to be most prevalent. Right. We want to get to the things that are the most risk.

But they don’t look at more than 30 chemicals individually each five-year period. And they don’t look at combinations of chemicals that are often known to be in drinking water.

Fleming says the goal is to keep individual chemicals out of the water to begin with, so they are not part of that chemical soup.

“We look at drinking water, wastewater, other pieces of the environmental puzzle as individual pieces. They are really interrelated and the best way to protect your drinking water is to prevent something from entering it in the first place.”

Linda Birnbaum says the current process of looking at one chemical at a time is slow. And the rules protect companies until their chemicals are proven to be a significant risk.

“I think that the only way we can reduce exposures, we need better regulation and in some cases that may mean that we need new laws.”

But until that happens, what can you do to protect you and your family? Sidney Evans with the Environmental Working Group says she loves that question and she hates that question. The answer is: filter your tap water at home.  

Evans says that’s not equitable in an era when water affordability is increasingly burdensome to people with lower incomes.

“By expecting everyone to take their water quality into their own hands, we're creating safe drinking water as a privilege for those who can afford it or those who are educated enough to know about the contaminants present their water and to know that they're leading to those risks. That doesn't sit well with me.

The other choice is to shift the burden of keeping chemicals out of the water to the manufacturers and users of those chemicals. That’s something political leaders have not been willing to do.