Global Water

Millions Drink Dirty Water

Millions of Americans have been drinking tap water contaminated with chemical byproducts from chlorine that are far more than what studies suggest may be safe for pregnant women, two environmental groups say.

Chlorine is commonly used to disinfect drinking water. When it is added to water that contains organic matter such as runoff from farms or lawns, however, it can form compounds such as chloroform that can cause illness.

The study released Tuesday by the Environmental Working Group and Public Interest Research Groups identified areas that may have increased health risks including miscarriage, neural tube defects and reduced fetal growth from women drinking chlorination byproducts.

By failing to clean up rivers and reservoirs that provide drinking water for hundreds of millions of Americans, EPA and the Congress have forced water utilities to chlorinate water that is contaminated with animal waste, sewage, fertilizer, algae and sediment,” the report says.

Jane Houlihan, EWG’s research director, said the report also shows how that cleanup failure has a direct impact on human health.” Pregnant women need to drink plenty of water, she said, but they can reduce their exposure to potential risks through simple measures such as home filters and purchasing
bottled water.

However, C.T. Howlett Jr., executive director of the Chlorine Chemistry Council, said government agencies found no compelling link between reproductive hazards and chlorinated water.

He said chlorine has been added to drinking water for more than a century, and the environmental groups study may unnecessarily alarm the public and, in particular, pregnant women, about risks that are not supported by scientific
evidence.”

Catherine C. Milbourn, a spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency, said, “EPA has standards in place for these byproducts and has set even stricter standards in 2002 that local water providers are beginning to implement.”

Milbourn added that the EPA “has an ongoing health research program to provide additional scientific insight into the potential risks posed by disinfection byproducts.”

Still, if the pregnancy studies are proved, millions could be at risk, said Dr. Robert Morris, an environmental epidemiologist at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston.

That body of literature isn’t necessarily conclusive but people ought to be aware of it, Morris said. It’s pretty clear that some of these compounds can be pretty bad actors. The fact that these levels are as high as they are is certainly something to be concerned about.

The environmental groups combed water quality records in 29 states and the District of Columbia and matched them with various research into birth defects and miscarriages conducted by state and federal agencies and universities.

The groups said the places statistically most at risk due to chlorination byproducts were those that are populous, lacked buffers from urban sprawl and were downstream from agricultural sites. But women in small towns generally face twice the risk from drinking high levels of the byproducts, Houlihan said.

Matching high rates doesn’t prove the environmental risk caused the health problems, however. Also, the results are limited because, among other reasons, such health records do not exist in some states.

On the Net:
Environmental Working Group: http://www.ewg.org
Environmental Protection Agency: http://www.epa.gov

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