Thirsting for Solutions to America's Water Crisis

Aging infrastructure, legacy pollution, and emerging contaminants bring an urgent focus to the quality of the water we drink

Florencia holding her water containers
Concerned about contaminants, California resident Florencia Ramos has purchased drinking water for herself and her family for more than a decade.
Photo: Gary Kazanjian for Ensia

This article was co-published with Ensia, a solutions-focused nonprofit media outlet reporting on our changing planet.

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Over the years, she watched as people in her community fell ill. One woman died of cancer; another succumbed to kidney disease. Ramos can’t be sure dirty water was to blame, but she is suspicious and continues to buy bottled water for drinking and cooking.

And it is not cheap. Buying water at the market costs her some $30 per month on top of her approximately $130-per-month tap water bill—not to mention the time lost in making the weekly trips. The financial challenge became even greater last November, when she was laid off from her agricultural work. Her employer told her that she would be back to work by March or April, but when the time came, she was told not to return because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Across the U.S., drinking-water systems serving millions of people fail to meet state and federal safety standards. Millions more Americans may be drinking unsafe water without anyone knowing because limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency are too high, the contaminants the water contains are unregulated, or their drinking-water source is too small to fit under EPA regulations. (An estimated 20 percent of private wells, which fall outside EPA regulation, have contaminants that exceed EPA standards.)

The nitrate and disinfection byproducts that worry Ramos represent a fraction of the many chemical and biological pollutants that find their way into drinking-water systems through agricultural runoff, discharges from industry, aging pipes, and all the stuff that comes from our toilets, sinks, showers, and washing machines. From coast to coast, people are starting to recognize the pervasiveness of potential problems and rally around efforts to make drinking water safe for all.

“By and large, water quality in the U.S. is some of the best in the world,” says Maura Allaire, a water economist at the University of California, Irvine. Modern management and treatment technologies provide clean water for most Americans. Yet in a given year, between 7 and 8 percent of community water utilities report at least one health-based violation of federal standards, according to her research.

“How can we help those falling through cracks?” Allaire asks.

Long List of Threats

In 2015, Flint, Mich., made headlines when a change in its water supply exposed thousands of children to high levels of lead, a neurotoxic metal. The tragedy led other communities around the country to take a closer look at their own drinking-water quality. Many places, such as Newark, N.J., have since discovered dangerously high lead levels, too.

Meanwhile, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS—difficult-to-destroy chemicals widely used in nonstick pans, stain-resistant carpets, and firefighting foam—have infiltrated major water supplies and grabbed headlines across the country as potential carcinogens and endocrine disruptors.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued a statement warning that exposure to high levels of PFAS might also suppress the immune system and raise the risk of infection with COVID-19. The CDC further referenced evidence from human and animal studies suggesting that PFAS could reduce response to vaccines—on top of posing a number of other health threats.

Plastics, pesticides, and pathogens also fall on the long list of threats to safe drinking water.

Between 10 and 15 percent of Americans are on private wells or tiny water systems that serve fewer than 15 residences. The rest of the country relies on community water systems—upwards of an astounding 50,000 in total.

Infernos, Infections, and Chemical Cocktails

The first water pipes under America’s streets were not necessarily laid for the purpose of drinking, eating, or bathing.

Beginning in Boston in the mid-1600s, cities constructed water systems primarily for fire protection. “Urban infernos were a real concern,” says Greg Kail, director of communications for the American Water Works Association (AWWA), the largest trade group for water supply professionals.

Most systems were ultimately adapted to supply water to commercial and residential properties. And in the early 20th century, the practice of filtering and disinfecting water began. Untreated water supplies had been sickening people with pathogens such as typhoid and cholera.

“One of the miracles of the 20th century is that drinking-water treatment decreased mortality, including from a host of afflictions people didn’t even realize were related to water,” says David Sedlak, an environmental engineer at the University of California, Berkeley.

But disinfection had a downside, too. In the 1970s, researchers discovered that a commonly used disinfectant, chlorine, could produce harmful byproducts under some circumstances. Chronic exposures to these byproducts have been linked in animal and epidemiological studies with liver, kidney, and nervous system problems, as well as a potential increased risk of cancer. “But it’s important that we don’t stop using disinfectants because of fears of disinfection byproducts,” says John Fawell, an independent drinking-water consultant based in Slough, England. “The pathogens that can be in the water are still very able to cause significant problems.”

Beyond Flint

Allaire lived in Lansing, Mich., when the water crisis broke in Flint, about an hour northeast. Flint had just switched its water source from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the Flint River. The river water was slightly more acidic—and therefore more corrosive—than Detroit’s water. Local water officials didn’t use common corrosion control methods. As a result, lead and other pollutants began to leach from the pipes that distribute water to the city’s residents.

“We weren’t far away, and we were in a similar situation: a former industrialized city that had a massive exodus of its population,” she says. The tragedy led her to wonder just how far water quality issues extended beyond Flint. “Were there mini-Flints around the country, or was this a one-off event?” Allaire asks.

The answer, according to her 2018 study, is clearly the former. In 2015, the same year that the nation learned of Flint’s lead contamination, she found that about 21 million other people in the U.S. were receiving water from utilities that violated the Safe Drinking Water Act. People who lived in rural, low-income areas seemed to be most at risk of exposure to contaminants linked to a range of health problems—from a bout of diarrhea to cognitive impairment or cancer.

“As we saw in Flint, and have seen repeatedly across the country, 9 out of 10 violations don’t face any formal enforcement action by the state or federal government,” says Erik Olson, senior strategic director for health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “What we have is comparable to everyone on the interstate speeding and virtually no one being pulled over or getting tickets with any penalty.”

Pallets of bottled water waiting to be distributed.
The city of Flint, Mich., distributed bottled water to residents after testing revealed dangerous levels of lead in the municipal water system. n

Photo: Lance Cheung/USDA Photo: Lance Cheung/USDA

Outdated Standards

Even when the law is enforced, advocates lament that the standards used are often outdated. The current federal drinking-water standard for nitrate, for example, went into effect in 1992 at 10 parts per million. Yet research has found (PDF) that levels less than one-tenth of that legal limit may raise the risk of cancer and other health issues. In early 2019, the EPA suspended plans to reevaluate the nitrate standard.

The EPA did propose an update in October 2019 to its rules on lead and copper, which had not been touched since 1991. Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives approved new legislation this past July that authorizes $22.5 billion to replace a portion of the country’s estimated 6 million to 10 million lead service lines that remain, connecting water mains to homes in Flint, Newark, and elsewhere.

Kail says that the AWWA supports the revision. “As long as there is lead in contact with the water, some level of risk remains,” he says. “So the best cure is to get the lead out.”

Advocates argue the rules still won’t go far enough or come fast enough. And they suggest the same generally holds for the EPA’s actions or inactions on drinking-water quality. Of most concern, they say, are the potentially hazardous contaminants that still lack a standard. “The law really is broken and needs to be fixed if it is going to protect the public,” Olson says.

The EPA’s current process for developing new standards, defined in the 1996 amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act, needs to be sped up and strengthened, Olson and other advocates say. The EPA’s Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR) allows the agency to select up to 30 unregulated pathogens and pollutants to be monitored every five years. Public drinking-water systems serving at least 10,000 people, along with a representative sample of smaller systems, must periodically test for these contaminants. The agency uses the data in considering future drinking-water standards.

So far, the only new chemical that the agency has come close to regulating through the process is perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel, munitions, and fireworks. Studies suggest that exposure may derail brain development of fetuses and infants. The EPA determined in 2011 that the contaminant required regulation.

But this June, the agency reversed course and announced that, taking into consideration "the best available science and the proactive steps that EPA, states and public water systems have taken to reduce perchlorate levels," it would not regulate perchlorate. That decision is now in litigation. “The EPA just hasn’t had the spine to issue any regulations off the contaminant candidate list,” Olson says.

Six perfluorinated chemicals were monitored via the UCMR between 2013 and 2015. This past February, the EPA announced preliminary regulatory determinations and opened up comments for two of those chemicals, PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, and PFOS, or perfluorooctanesulfonic acid.

Meanwhile, several states, including New Jersey and New Hampshire, have moved ahead with their own regulations, some of which go beyond PFOA and PFOS—the legacy PFAS compounds that are already being phased out—to include more of the potentially thousands of extremely persistent synthetic chemicals that belong to the same class.

Philippe Grandjean, a professor and environmental medicine research unit head at the University of Southern Denmark and adjunct professor of environmental health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, warns of a potential regrettable replacement problem.

“We see other PFAS popping up,” he says. “Which do you prefer, a devil you know or a devil you don’t know? It looks like we’re currently regulating so that we’ll get more devils that we don’t know. And it could well happen that some of those devils may act together to be even more hazardous than those we banned.”

Pathogens and Pesticides

Pathogens remain a serious issue, too. E. coli in drinking water has caused deadly outbreaks (PDF). Norovirus, giardia, and cryptosporidium have also contaminated drinking-water supplies in recent years. But the pathogens perhaps highest on the minds of experts today are those that grow in pipes.

Legionella, the bacterium that causes Legionnaires’ disease, a type of pneumonia, offers a critical case in point. It poses a microbiological threat with widespread consequences.

In Flint, the same issue that caused the release of lead into the drinking water also resulted in deadly cases of Legionnaires’ disease in the surrounding community. Repeated outbreaks at a Quincy, Ill., veterans home have killed more than a dozen people since 2015. And in May 2019, a custodian died from Legionnaires’ disease, among other causes, after being infected at Kettering Fairmont High School in Kettering, Ohio. The school’s water tested positive for Legionella bacteria this July, and a current custodian has tested positive for the disease. Spokespeople with the Illinois veterans home and the Ohio high school say that measures have been taken to reduce the risk of further infections.

When buildings go unused for long periods of time, stagnant water can become a breeding ground for the bacteria. “The big problems are when you have water that sits a long time without chlorine. Legionella love that, and reproduce and bloom,” Olson says. “With schools and all sorts of other commercial and other buildings where water has been sitting for a long time with little use, it could be a massive problem. That’s a real worry post-COVID.”

Algal bloom in Lake Erie, Kelley's Island
Harmful algal blooms, like this one at Kelleys Island on Lake Erie, produce toxins that can contaminate drinking water supplies.

Photo: T. Joyce for NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory Photo: T. Joyce for NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory

Seeking Solutions

When Duane Munsterteiger’s 1-year-old son got sick with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in 1993, the idea that his family’s drinking water could be to blame didn’t cross his mind. “It was the most beautiful-tasting water you’d ever want,” says Munsterteiger, of Ogilvie, Minn.

But subsequent tests of the water from his well found high levels of nitrate, which research suggests may be associated with respiratory infections such as RSV.

In addition to drilling a new, deeper well to supply his home, Munsterteiger also has adopted a number of environmental conservation practices in his farming. He uses cover crops and rotates his cows to graze different sections of his land, improving the health of the soil and minimizing runoff, and thereby reducing the nitrate that seeps into the groundwater. He knows that groundwater could become the water that his family members, and his cows, drink. “Good, clean water is important for our animals, too,” Munsterteiger says.

Duane Munsterteiger and his son standing in field with cows in the background.
Duane Munsterteiger (right) changed his farming practices after his son Tony (left) developed a lung infection possibly linked to contaminated water.

Photo: Tonya Burk for Ensia Photo: Tonya Burk for Ensia

America’s Water Crisis

Consumer Reports has a long history of investigating America’s water. In 1974, we published a landmark three-part series (PDF) revealing that water purification systems in many communities had not kept pace with increasing levels of pollution and that many community water supplies might be contaminated. Our work helped lead to Congress enacting the Safe Drinking Water Act in December 1974.

More than 45 years later, America is still struggling with a dangerous divide between those who have access to safe and affordable drinking water and those who don’t. Communities of color often are affected disproportionately by this inequity. Consumer Reports remains committed to exposing the weaknesses in our country’s water system, including raising questions about Americans’ reliance on bottled water as an alternative—and the safety and sustainability implications of this dependence.

In addition to our ongoing investigations into bottled water, we are proud to be partnering with our readers and those of the Guardian US, another institution dedicated to journalism in the public interest, to test for dangerous contaminants in tap water samples from more than 100 communities around the country. The Guardian and CR will also be publishing related content from Ensia, a nonprofit newsroom focused on environmental issues and solutions.

America’s Water Crisis is the name we are jointly giving to this project and the series of articles we co-publish on the major challenges many in the U.S. face getting access to safe, clean, and affordable water. We will share the results of our upcoming test findings with you. In the meantime, you can join our social media conversation around water under the hashtag #waterincrisis.

Gwendolyn Bounds
Chief Content Officer, Consumer Reports

Headshot of CRO health freelancer Lynne Peeples

Lynne Peeples

Lynne Peeples is a freelance journalist based in Seattle who specializes in the environment, health, and medicine. Her writing has appeared in outlets such as The Huffington Post, Scientific American, Nature, and Ensia, where she's reporting for the "Troubled Waters" series. Before journalism, Lynne crunched numbers as a biostatistician for HIV clinical trials and environmental health studies.