Want To Know What’s In Your Water?

A New Version of This Tap Water Database Can Help

Hinkley. Flint. Benton Harbor. Newark. Navajo Nation. Camp Lejeune. Jackson. These communities, and many more, have become infamous for their water problems.

Millions of Americans are drinking water that includes an invisible toxic cocktail made up of contaminants linked to cancer, brain damage, and other serious health harms.

We can’t solve all these issues overnight, but we can help spread awareness and give more people tools and information to fight back. The first step is knowing what chemicals have been detected in your tap water.

That’s why I’m so excited for Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) newly released update to the Tap Water Database, adding two more years of test results from nearly 50,000 water utilities across all 50 states and cataloging more than 320 contaminants.

All you need is your zip code to use this tool and learn about the contaminants in your drinking water and what you can do about them.

In honor of the release of this 2021 Tap Water Database update, we interviewed my friend Ken Cook, EWG president and co-founder, to hear more about this important work and get his perspective on these important water issues.

Q: Can you talk more about what inspired you to create EWG and what motivates you to keep going today?

Ken: I founded EWG in 1993 after years researching the devastation wrought by industrial agriculture on the environment, including drinking water sources. By that time, it was clear that all the assurances by the agricultural industry that it was not harming the environment were wrong. On the contrary, industrial agriculture exacts an enormous toll on our land and water.

One of EWG’s very first reports focused on how dietary exposure to pesticides can harm children’s health. That report, along with a seminal study by colleagues at the National Academy of Sciences, helped spur a landmark federal law that set health-protective limits on pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables to protect babies and young children from exposure to toxic pesticides.

That work was the foundational building block that helped establish EWG as one of the leading national public interest groups focused on the environmental health of children and other vulnerable populations.

I’m proud to say that these days, EWG is the recognized leader when it comes to safeguarding the public from toxic chemicals and the ways we are exposed to them, whether that be from food, personal care products, or drinking water.

EWG’s research, advocacy, and the way we communicate with the media, policymakers, companies, and the public has led to significant and positive action at the state and federal levels, as well as in private industry, that have curbed consumers’ exposures to an array of toxic chemicals.

Of course, we have a lot more work to do. And that critical need continues to motivate me and my colleagues today.

Q: This updated Tap Water Database is a fabulous resource for so many people and communities. You collect data from nearly 50,000 local utilities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Any surprises with this update? Any trends to report on from that data?

Having worked to expose drinking water contamination and educate people about it for more than two decades, very little surprises me these days when it comes to the failure of the federal government to protect the public from tap water pollution.

That said, some of the new elements of this year’s tap water database that your readers might be interested in include 56 contaminants that utilities tested for, for the first time—I don’t want to say the contaminants themselves are new, because they aren’t—in the past two years, including several chemicals that are part of the enormous class of PFAS, or “forever” chemicals. (I’ll note here for your readers that just because utilities are testing for contaminants doesn’t mean they, or the government, are doing anything about the contamination.)

In terms of trends, we continue to see high levels of nitrate from agriculture fouling drinking water in rural areas of the country, as well as—and this might surprise some people—in many cities.

The bottom line is that it’s pretty clear that our tap water system is failing. The federal government needs to inject a massive amount of capital to update infrastructure across the country and make sure that all Americans have access to clean water, which is a human right.

And the Environmental Protection Agency needs to overhaul how it monitors and regulates widespread contamination to protect public health by taking into account the latest science, moving quickly to revisit outdated standards, and protecting the most vulnerable—and historically disadvantaged—among us.  

Q: Let’s talk about the fact that water can meet or exceed government standards but it’s not necessarily safe to drink. Can you talk about how you developed standards at EWG and how they differ from government regulations?  

Just because levels of toxic chemicals in drinking water are legal under federal law doesn’t mean they are safe. In fact, the federal tap water safety oversight system is rife with issues.

Since the passage of the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA has set legal limits, or Maximum Contaminant Limits (MCLs), for about 90 different contaminants.

In theory, water utilities must keep contamination levels at or below these MCLs. In practice, there is little consequence for utilities that don’t meet federal standards. Violations—where a contaminant exceeds the MCL—are likely underreported in the first place. Exemptions are rampant. And fines are rarely issued. Utilities can rack up violations year after year.

And those federal standards are, we think, already too high. Most of them, if not all, are woefully inadequate for protecting public health!

Drinking water contaminant limits—both the amounts, and which chemicals have them—have not been updated in decades. MCLs are often based on what water utilities and corporate polluters say is reasonable, not what would protect public health.

And contaminants are regulated on a case-by-case basis. No one is looking at the total threat posed by the combinations of contaminants—what we sometimes call a “toxic cocktail”—so many Americans imbibe every day in their tap water.

The regulatory process established by EPA to set an MCL does not consider the heightened vulnerability to toxic chemicals of children, infants, and the developing fetus.

Finally, there are many chemicals known to pose health risks that are found in the drinking water for many, many people and aren’t regulated at all by the EPA. Even hexavalent chromium, which is likely in the drinking water for more than 100 million Americans—and was, of course, first brought to the public’s attention by your landmark investigation in the mid-1990s—is still unregulated!

EWG decided to establish our own drinking water standards that are not based on compromises with polluters, politicians, or water utilities. Our scientists looked at the best and latest research to define our own water quality goals that truly protect public health.

Wanna hear more from Ken? Check out this convo where we discuss our battles with major corporations and government agencies to help improve drinking water quality and more.

Did you put your water to the test? Let me know in the comments below what you found out about your tap water from the new database: https://www.ewg.org/tapwater