EPA is Failing to Identify Drinking Water Contaminants Posing the Greatest Health Risk

By Edwin Mora | July 18, 2011 | 6:03 PM EDT

The GAO notes that the number of potential drinking water contaminants is vast, with as many as tens of thousands of chemicals possibly being used across the country. (Photo: Nino Barbieri/Wikimedia Commons)

(CNSNews.com) – The Environment Protection Agency (EPA) has failed to identify drinking water contaminants that pose the greatest public health risk because it lacks the process and effective criteria to do so, according to a federal audit.

Under 1996 amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act, EPA is required to “identify and publish a list every 5 years of unregulated contaminants that may require regulation; the list is called the contaminant candidate list,” according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit, published on July 12.

The GAO said EPA’s ability to ensure the public is consuming safe drinking water had been hindered by “systemic limitations in EPA’s implementation” of those amendments.

In particular, EPA has not fully taken into consideration public health when designating chemicals in drinking water as contaminants.

“EPA officials told us that its Office of Water, which has primary responsibility for implementing the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act, has not (1) further ranked or otherwise prioritized the contaminants on the [candidate] list on the basis of public health concern or (2) prioritized contaminants on the basis of public health concern when selecting them for regulatory determinations,” stated the GAO.

Instead, “for 16 of the 20 regulatory determinations made through January 2011, EPA based its decisions to not regulate on its assessment that public exposure to these drinking water contaminants was minimal – that is, there was limited or no occurrence of them in public drinking water systems,” the audit continued.

“An EPA official described these determinations as addressing the ‘low hanging fruit’ – rather than the contaminants of greatest public health concern. Overall, data availability – not consideration of greatest public health concern – has been the primary driver of EPA’s selection of contaminants for regulatory determinations.”

“As a result, EPA lacks criteria and a process for identifying those contaminants on its candidate list that pose the greatest public health concern,” the report said.

According to the audit, “the number of potential drinking water contaminants is vast – as many as tens of thousands of chemicals may be used across the country, and EPA has identified more than 6,000 chemicals that it considers to be the most likely source of human or environmental exposure.”

The GAO warned that children may be at risk as a result of EPA not identifying the most dangerous contaminants in drinking water, since the “Office of Water did not implement a specific approach for considering children’s health in developing” some of its latest water contaminant determinations.

“Children, for example, represent a sensitive subpopulation because they may be more highly exposed to toxic substances in drinking water and at greater risk of adverse health effects than adults as a result of consuming more water per unit of body weight than adults,” the audit stated. “Children may also have increased susceptibility following exposure to drinking water contaminants because they continue to develop both behaviorally and physiologically throughout childhood.”

Another problem the EPA faces in identifying contaminants that may require regulation is that some of the criteria for making such determinations are too broad.

“In the absence of regulations or guidance for applying the broad statutory criteria, EPA appears to apply an informal policy that contaminants warranting regulation should occur in public water systems on a ‘national’ scale,” the GAO noted.

This is despite the fact that “the Safe Drinking Water Act does not require that contaminants be found in public water systems on a national basis for an Administrator to find a meaningful opportunity for health risk reduction.”

Other limitations highlighted in the GAO report included the finding that EPA was not articulating “guidelines or thresholds for how it is to assess whether regulating a specific contaminant would provide a meaningful opportunity for health risk reduction.” The report also found that the agency was not developing “any guidance on the circumstances that would trigger a re-evaluation of a prior decision to not regulate or the process the agency would use in conducting a re-evaluation.”

“The credibility of some of EPA’s regulatory determinations as presented in federal register notices and support documents is limited by a lack of transparency, clarity, and consistency,” it added.

The GAO noted that “EPA issued final regulatory determinations in 2003 and 2008 on a total of 20 contaminants, deciding in each case not to regulate. In fact, EPA did not recommend any new contaminants for regulation until February 2011, when it reversed its controversial 2008 preliminary decision to not regulate perchlorate, an ingredient in rocket fuel and other products.”

“EPA used a less inclusive, less transparent, and more directive process in developing its preliminary regulatory determination on perchlorate than its usual process.”

Meanwhile, according to a November 2010 GAO report, the U.S. government spent about $250 million between 2002 and the second quarter of 2010 to “improve access to safe drinking water and sanitation, agriculture irrigation, and water-sector management” in Afghanistan.

The U.S. government estimates “it would need an additional $2.1 billion in funding to achieve U.S. development efforts in Afghanistan’s water sector from fiscal year 2010 through fiscal year 2014.”