The tap water you drink may not be as safe as you think. In a new study, researchers have discovered that between 3 and 10 percent of the country’s water systems have been in violation of federal Safe Drinking Water Act health standards each year. The problem was found to be particularly severe in low-income rural areas.
Between 1982 and 2015, it is estimated that 9 million to 45 million people annually were affected by water quality issues. In 2015 alone, as many as 21 million Americans may have been exposed to unsafe drinking water. The results of the study were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Lead author of the study Maura Allaire, an assistant professor of urban planning at the University of California, Irvine, and her co-authors looked at health-based violations at 17,900 local water systems around the United States between 1982 and 2015. The study found repeated violations of the water safety rules issued by the Environmental Protection Agency in certain areas over the time period. Several places, including Oklahoma and West Texas, have repeatedly fallen short in complying with the rules.
The federal government has been steadily tightening the health standards for the nation’s water supplies for decades. The rules are meant to ensure that tap water in the United States is safe to drink. Concerns about the safety of America’s tap water gained national prominence after the 2015 lead crisis in Flint, Mich. Since then, numerous reports have been made concerning a large number of local water systems containing unsafe levels of contaminants like lead, nitrates, arsenic or pathogens.
Researchers discovered that water systems that serve minority and low-income communities were more likely to violate federal standards around safe measures of contaminates in drinking water. Privately owned utilities were found to have fewer violations than publicly owned utilities, and larger water systems tended to have fewer violations than smaller systems.
The study found that health violations for drinking water surged in rural areas in the 2000s. This was around the time that the E.P.A. enacted regulations focused on limiting disinfectants, like chlorine, in the water supply. The new rules posed considerable difficulties for rural water utilities with smaller customer bases and fewer financial resources. Dr. Allaire said, “They’re struggling to maintain their aging infrastructure, and they’re struggling to keep up with the latest water treatment techniques.”