A man loading bottled water into his car.
Photo-Illustration: Photo by Max Whittaker, Illustration by Ricardo Santos

Millions of people in the U.S. are drinking water that fails to meet federal health standards, including by violating limits for dangerous contaminants.

Latinos are disproportionately exposed, according to the Guardian’s review of more than 140,000 public water systems across the U.S. and county-level demographic data. Water systems in counties that are 25 percent or more Latino are violating drinking water contamination rules at twice the rate of those in the rest of the country.

America’s worst public water systems—those that have accrued more than 15 “violation points” for breaking standards over five years—serve more than 25 million Americans, the research shows. An estimated 5.8 million are Latino. (Read more about how the Guardian did its analysis.)

Texas, where millions of residents lost access to water and power during the recent storm, has the most water systems that meet this threshold, followed by California and Oklahoma. The average number of violations is highest in Oklahoma, West Virginia, and New Mexico.

The six-month investigation of five years of Environmental Protection Agency and other data also shows how:

  • Access to clean drinking water is highly unequal in the U.S., based on race, income, and geography.
  • Poorer counties have more than twice as many violation points as wealthy ones.
  • Some water systems report hundreds of violation points year after year without any action from the government and without being required to notify customers.
  • Rural counties have 28 percent more violation points than metropolitan ones.

Scientists and former government officials describe a water regulation system that is broken. “Most policymakers believe compliance with environmental rules is high,” says Cynthia Giles, the former head of enforcement at the EPA under former President Barack Obama, but she says that belief is wrong.

More on Water Quality

Experts are most concerned about systems serving smaller communities. They say Latinos are particularly at risk because they often live near industrial farms in California and the West that have polluted local water with nitrates in runoff from fertilizers and manure. They are also more likely to live in the Southwest, where arsenic violations are common.

Research has found that Latinos are more likely to distrust tap water.

Paloma Beamer, a public health researcher at the University of Arizona, found that most Latino residents in Nogales, Ariz., thought that drinking tap water was as unsafe as drinking alcohol and driving, and more detrimental to their health than smoking. Many turn to bottled water, but it is not subject to the same testing requirements and regulations and may be as risky as or worse than tap water, Beamer says.

“There needs to be more transparency explaining how the water is tested, and what standards it’s held to and how they can rely on it to be a safe drinking water source. It is important for people to understand in their community what the primary violations are for and what their alternative water sources are.”

The consequences of even tiny levels of contaminants in water can be high.

The EPA sets a limit of 10 mg of nitrate per liter of water, but it is frequently exceeded. The standard is meant to protect against “blue baby syndrome,” which happens when a fetus hasn’t received enough oxygen, and thyroid disease, which can cause fatigue, weight gain, and hair loss.

Nitrates are a big issue in communities in California’s Central Valley, such as East Orosi, an unincorporated community of about 700 where children grow up learning not to open their eyes or mouths while they shower.

Resident Maria Orozco, 30, doesn’t remember a time when she felt safe drinking water from the faucet. Recently, her daughters’ hair started falling out in the shower, more than usual. Her hair has begun falling out, too. “It’s like a knot in your stomach,” she says of this constant worry over the water and her family’s health.

Water Systems in Latino, Low-Income, and Rural Areas Struggle to Meet Drinking Water Standards
Average Violation Points Per Water System

Source: The Guardian. Design by Niko Kommenda.

Advocates in East Orosi say they face multiple challenges just securing safe water. “The Central Valley produces a variety of food from grapes, almonds, apricots, blueberries, and we also create a variety of blended, toxic water,” says Susana de Anda, executive director of the Community Water Center. “Our groundwater is a toxic blend of nitrates, arsenic, 123TCP, chromium.”

Since 2015, the town’s water system has exceeded the federal legal limit for nitrates 15 times.

Worry About Nitrates in Water

Public health campaigners are increasingly concerned about nitrates in drinking water.

“We’re just seeing so many new studies that show lower and lower levels of nitrate can be dangerous. They can increase the risk of cancer if you have low-level exposure over many years,” says Anne Schechinger, a senior economic analyst with the Environmental Working Group (EWG) who wrote a recent report on nitrates. “It really makes you wonder if the EPA is keeping us safe with a lot of their maximum contaminant limits they’ve established.”

Asked to comment, an EPA spokesperson said that “ensuring that all Americans have access to safe drinking water—including in communities of color and low-income communities—is a priority.” The agency added, “While over 92 percent of Americans receive drinking water that meets all health-based standards all of the time, EPA is continuing to work with its partners to close remaining gaps.”

Views of a radically altered natural environment in southern West Virginia due to extensive mountaintop removal, coal mining, and logging.
Extensive coal mining and logging in West Virginia has affected local water supplies.
Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

In California alone, 5.25 million people in majority-Latino communities are drinking water that exceeds federal nitrate limits, according to Schechinger’s report for the EWG. Even more could be at risk from contaminated water in private wells, which are not regulated.

The Biden administration has promised to make tackling environmental justice a priority after four years of cutting regulations under former President Donald Trump.

The Guardian data investigation captures some of the scale of the challenge.

While Americans largely don’t have to worry about the type of biological contaminants that plague developing nations, they are likely to be exposed to much quieter threats—heavy metals, radiation, and chemicals that can lead to significant health problems over time. Small systems—which can serve individual mobile home parks, highway fast food restaurants, churches, and schools—often have the worst problems and the fewest resources to fix them.

“The horror stories start when you look at utilities serving fewer than 10,000 people,” says Betsy Southerland, former director of the Office of Science and Technology for the Office of Water at the EPA.

A Range of Contaminants

Water contamination in the U.S. is wide-reaching.

The dangerous pollutants that water systems have difficulty filtering out vary across the country, from the nitrate from farm runoff in states where agriculture is prominent, including California, to radioactive mining substances in states such as West Virginia.

Health effects are also wide-ranging. Arsenic, chlorine, and radionuclides are tied with higher incidences of cancer. Nitrate fertilizers can hinder the delivery of oxygen to red blood cells. And the weed killer atrazine is linked to hormone disruption in women, premature births, and lower IQ levels in children.

Among the communities with major drinking water challenges, the analysis showed:

Coal Mountain, W.Va., which serves around 118 people—tops the list in our analysis with its water system having the most violation points in the country: 595 points over five years. It has detected high levels of radionuclides, disinfection byproducts, arsenic, lead,  copper, nitrates, and coliform. The county’s median household income is $35,460, which is about half the U.S. median household income. The community has seen a rise in mountaintop removal coal mining. The Appalachian Regional Commission—a federal-state partnership—is spending millions to upgrade the system, the local public water utility says. 

Lubbock County, Texas, is home to 24 of the top 1,000 water systems with the most violation points, including those for mobile home parks, a children’s sports camp, and an assisted living facility for seniors.

The Klondike Independent School District in Dawson County and Martin County, in West Texas, had 390 violation points over five years. Its roughly 270 students in pre-K through grade 12 could have been exposed to arsenic, nitrates, coliform bacteria, disinfectants and disinfection byproducts, copper, inorganic chemicals, and radionuclides. The district spans 600 square miles of oil fields and cotton and peanut farms. About half the students are Latino, superintendent Steve McLaren estimates. Klondike spent about $1 million on upgrades to meet tightened standards, including some funds from a philanthropic foundation. “We want to do the right thing, but sometimes it’s difficult to do the right thing because of finances,” McLaren says.

The smaller a water system is, the more likely it is to experience problems. That’s often because there are fewer customers to charge for needed upgrades.

The American Water Works Association—whose members supply most of the nation’s drinking water—acknowledged that small systems have fewer resources to fix problems. But it said many of their violations are for inadequate monitoring, not for contaminants.

Of the more than 140,000 public water systems in the U.S., more than 97 percent serve fewer than 10,000 people. Small systems can struggle to afford testing and treating the water, or even issuing the public violation notices that the federal government requires when contaminant levels are too high. There is no government agency dedicated to responding to chronic diseases from water contamination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention responds only to acute outbreaks, such as coliform bacteria.

“If no one is immediately dying, there’s no rush to do analysis on substances of concern,” says Carl Reeverts, a former program director at the EPA who was with the agency for 38 years. “Enforcement is incredibly low, and we don’t have a strong program for bringing people in line.”

Broken System: Findings From Across the U.S.
This map shows where water systems accrue the most violation points, on average.
Operators accrue violation points for failing to reduce levels of dangerous substances in the water. They also get a smaller number of violation points for improperly monitoring and reporting issues. Different parts of the country are affected by different types of contamination.
Let’s look at two concrete examples, below.

Example 1: Systems Reporting Disinfection Byproducts
Many systems struggle with harmful disinfection byproducts in their water. Operators use chlorine or other chemicals to kill germs in the water, but these chemicals react with organic matter to form substances that can themselves pose a health threat. Contamination with disinfection byproducts is a common problem in rural and low-income areas.

Example 2: Systems Reporting Nitrate Contamination
Nitrates are another class of contaminants that often originate from excess fertilizer leaching into the groundwater in agricultural areas. Exposure to nitrates is linked to nausea and headaches in adults and “blue baby syndrome” in infants, a potentially fatal condition in which the blood system can’t carry enough oxygen around the body. Nitrate contamination is common in agricultural areas in the Southwest, posing a disproportionate health threat to Latino communities.

Source: The Guardian. Design by Niko Kommenda.

A Broken Reporting System

Repeated reviews under the Obama administration found that states are not telling the EPA about violations. For violations from lead and copper pipes, for example, 92 percent are not reported by states to the federal government, according to the most recent EPA audit, last conducted in 2008. The EPA has since discontinued annual audits of state files as the result of budget cuts.

The current reporting system is a “mess,” according to water researcher Upmanu Lall, chair of the department of earth and environmental engineering at Columbia University and director of the Columbia Water Center.

Lall’s research cites an up to 38 percent underreporting of drinking water violations, on average, according to government data. Lall says most water systems test only at the plant, not at the point of use—meaning they can miss major problems like contamination from lead pipes.

Lall doesn’t blame the people running the water systems, who largely live in the communities they serve. The systems are cash-strapped, and banks are charging more and more for loans to update infrastructure. So they cut corners, trim staff, or stop monitoring and treating altogether, he says.

A pond filled with runoff from a mountaintop coal mine shows evidence of pollution on July 3, 2018, in Rum Creek Holler, Logan County, W.Va.
A pond filled with runoff from a mountaintop coal mine shows evidence of pollution in Logan County, W.Va.
Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

In addition to lacking tracking and enforcement, water standards aren’t strong enough to begin with, according to former EPA officials. The U.S. government requires monitoring for 94 contaminants, not including potential health hazards like PFAS, a group of chemicals known as “forever chemicals”, which have been linked to cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and thyroid disease. PFAS chemicals—used in nonstick cookware, firefighting foam, and other products—are being discovered in water supplies around the country.

In a statement responding to this story, an EPA spokesperson said the agency would work with states to analyze and address “compliance challenges in struggling drinking water systems” and target assistance to underserved communities. It said it had a number of programs to assist disadvantaged communities and provided “technical assistance to help address lead and other regulated contaminants” and understood the “urgent need” to evaluate and address PFAS in drinking water.

The most recent substance to be regulated by the agency was arsenic, in 2003.

In addition, of the roughly 10,000 known chemicals that can be in consumer products, most have not been closely studied for health impacts, so there’s no information about what happens if they enter the water supply.

The U.S. water regulation system has failed to protect the most vulnerable Americans for decades, under both Republican and Democratic presidents. The Trump administration weakened rules that could fight water contamination at the source, where agriculture giants and industrial corporations are polluting groundwater. President Joe Biden will seek to reverse those changes and to fight environmental injustice, but setting or tightening a standard for how much of a dangerous substance can be in drinking water is an arduous process.

Clean-water advocates are calling for both a significant injection of federal resources, and a revamp of regulations to make it easier to protect the public and harder for industry to resist tighter standards.

“Relying on the federal government is not going to get you very far,” says David Andrews, a senior scientist with the EWG. “Federal standards fall far behind what we know is necessary for human health.”

How the Guardian Did its Data Analysis of
U.S. Public Water Systems

The Guardian analyzed five years of drinking water violation reports from more than 140,000 public systems, as recorded in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Echo database for Safe Drinking Water Act compliance.

To assess the population served by a water system, we used county-level demographic information from the U.S. Census Bureau. The government does not provide demographic information for individual water systems, and there are often multiple water systems in each county.

We set the bar for a heavily Latino county at 25 percent or more Latino residents. We used census classifications to determine which counties were low-income, rural, or metropolitan.

The EPA assigns violation points when water systems exceed maximum contaminant levels or do not properly report to the agency. Violations are worth one, five or 10 points, depending on their severity. In calculating the total number of Americans exposed to dirty water—25.3 million—we included systems that accrued 15 or more violation points over five years.

—Emily Holden

Editor’s Note: This article is supported in part through philanthropic funding from theguardian.org, the Water Foundation, and Guardian readers who supported its Toxic America series.