Remember the movie “Erin Brockovich”? Of course, you do.
But unless you’ve rewatched it recently, you may not remember that Brockovich—in real life, and in the movie—was fighting a company suspected of polluting a small California town’s drinking water with a cancer-causing contaminant called chromium-6 (aka, hexavalent chromium).
Fast-forward 20 years, and it may shock you to learn that chromium-6 is still a threat to 218 million Americans, including residents of every state. That’s just one of the many findings of a just-released Environmental Working Group (EWG) report on the state of our nation’s drinking water.
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“We’ve known about chromium-6 since Erin Brockovich, but it’s still a pervasive problem, and there’s no federal legal standard for it,” says Nneka Leiba, MPH, the director of Healthy Living Science at the EWG.
Unfortunately, chromium-6 isn’t the only dangerous chemical of concern. After examining data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and almost 50,000 public water systems across the nation, the EWG found 267 different contaminants in our nation’s water supply—more than half of which have no established legal limit.
How could this be, you ask? “The Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t put a new contaminant on its regulated list since 1996, which is when the Clean Water Act was passed. We’ve learned so much more about chemicals since then, but we still haven’t made any improvements in our policies,” Leiba explains.
Arsenic, lead, the agricultural herbicide Atrazine, perchlorate, and perfluorinated chemicals are just a handful of the hundreds of contaminants the EWG found to be widespread in public tap water systems. Many of these chemicals have been shown to be carcinogenic, impair thyroid function, and cause harm to fetal growth and development.
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When asked for a response, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spokesperson was quick to point out that “more than 90 percent of the country’s drinking water systems meet all of EPA’s health-based drinking water standards” and that the EPA has “set drinking water standards for more than 90 contaminants, including microorganisms, disinfectants, disinfection byproducts, inorganic and organic chemicals, and radionuclides.”
How you can protect yourself
Start by plugging your zip code into the EWG’s database to learn what contaminants are in your local tap water.
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Next, check out the EWG water filter guide and buy one, stat. You can input contaminants of concern and find filters that are third-party certified by NSF International, a product testing, inspection, and certification organization.
“In most cases, activated carbon water filters will reduce many or all contaminants,” Leiba says, referring to the pitcher-style water filters many of us already use. “Having one is especially important if there’s a vulnerable population in your house—someone who is pregnant or sick, or a baby,” Leiba says. (One EWG-approved filter to try: Brita Chrome 8-Cup Water Filter Pitcher, $40, amazon.com)
Put your water filter to good use with this de-bloating sassy water recipe:
One thing you shouldn’t do: turn to bottled water.
“In many cases, bottled water is just filtered tap water, so it’s the same thing you’d get using a filter,” Leiba says. “But bottled water is much more expensive, and it can also expose you to contaminants leaching into your water from the plastic bottle itself.”
Protecting future generations
Leiba says we all need to “raise our voices” and let elected officials know we need greater source-water protections and infrastructure upgrades (contact information for local government officials can be found on USA.gov.) “Our water utilities are constantly dealing with the influx of contaminants, but the onus isn’t only on the utility,” she says. “They’re usually within federal safety limits, but being within federal limits does not mean our water is safe. In many cases, we’ve done the science and the testing, and we know that these contaminants are unsafe, but there’s been no action taken.”