WASHINGTON — Tap water may not be as safe in major U.S. cities as we’ve been led to believe, according to a troubling new study just released by the Environmental Working Group. Researchers say that chemical pollutants like arsenic and uranium found in tap water across the country could result in more than 100,000 cancer cases in the future.
The peer-reviewed study is the first ever to perform a cumulative assessment of 22 carcinogenic contaminants found in tap water nationwide. Researchers used a novel analytical framework to calculate the combined health impact of carcinogens found in 48,363 community water systems in the United States. For what it’s worth, this study did not include water quality data on the 13.5 million American homes that utilize private wells for their tap water.
“Drinking water contains complex mixtures of contaminants, yet government agencies currently assess the health hazards of tap water pollutants one by one,” explains lead author Sydney Evans, a science analyst at EWG, in a media release. “In the real world, people are exposed to combinations of chemicals, so it is important that we start to assess health impacts by looking at the combined effects of multiple pollutants.”
The cumulative approach that researchers took for this study is frequently used to assess the health consequences of exposure to polluted air, but this is the first time it has been used on a nationally representative dataset on drinking water contaminants. Researchers did, however, build off of a previous study conducted on California’s water supply that relied on a cumulative cancer risk assessment. The cancer risk calculated by researchers applies to a “statistical lifetime,” as defined by the U.S. government, of approximately 70 years.
According to the study, the majority of cancer risk is due to contaminants like arsenic, disinfectant byproducts, and even radioactive elements like uranium and radium making their way into U.S. water supplies. Researchers noted that water systems with the most risk typically serve smaller communities and rely on ground water. It is likely that these communities have not updated their water infrastructure and resources in quite some time.
That being said, larger water sources are also significantly contributing to the problem; these systems consistently contain disinfection byproducts and usually serve larger populations.
“The vast majority of community water systems meet legal standards,” says Dr. Olga Naidenko, EWG’s vice president for science investigations. “Yet the latest research shows that contaminants present in the water at those concentrations – perfectly legal – can still harm human health.”
If you are concerned about chemicals in your tap water, the team at EWG recommend purchasing a filter. If possible, have your tap water analyzed, and then purchase a filter that specifically targets the contaminants found in your water.
“We need to prioritize source water protection, to make sure that these contaminants don’t get into the drinking water supplies to begin with,” Naidenko concludes.
The study is published in the scientific journal Heliyon.