A study spanning more than three decades suggests millions of Americans are using public water from systems violating health standards.
That’s as much as 8 percent of public water systems in the US.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first to assess nationwide trends in drinking water quality violations across several decades by looking at violations in 17,900 community water systems – or 87 percent of the population – between 1982 and 2015.
In any given year, between 9 and 45 million people are affected, roughly 4 to 28 percent of the US population.
In 2015 alone, nearly 21 million people were using water systems in violation.
More than 600,000 observations over a 34-year period indicate that those violations are more likely to happen in low-income rural areas in public-owned systems.
Bad news for those of you in Oklahoma and Texas: Y’all have the most violations.
The good news: Not all are health-based violations.
Under the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency regulates drinking water quality. If a water system doesn’t meet standards then a violation is issued, but occurrence and reporting differ from state to state.
The EPA uses the number of "total coliforms" (bacteria not harmful to humans) as an indication of the health of water systems. It’s the most common type of violation and most of the time it doesn’t pose a health risk. However, it can indicate whether E. coli, parasites, and other harmful viruses might be present.
However, the majority of violations come right from your kitchen. Cleaning products, like chlorine and bromine, react with organic materials in the water and can cause cancer or problems in the nervous system.
The study’s authors concluded that aging infrastructure and lack of finances can play a huge role in water quality, as was the case of the Flint water crisis in 2014, which exposed 98,000 people to elevated levels of lead, disinfection by-products, and E. coli and Legionella bacteria-contaminated water sources.
Then there are accidents, like in 2014 when a chemical tanker spilled almost 10,000 gallons of crude 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol into West Virginia’s Elk River and left 300,000 people without water.
In 2014, water runoff and climate change created a toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie that sparked a water ban in Toledo, Ohio – nearly half a million people were warned not to use water for drinking, cooking, or bathing.
And, of course, there's hope: Researchers say knowing where and why public waters are impacted can help redirect funding, policies, and regulations.