Is Our Drinking Water Safe?

October 13, 1993

The answer to the above question is: yes, by and large. But a new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a private environmental watchdog organization in Washington, warns that public water systems nationwide contain enough contaminants to cause more than 900,000 illnesses annually. More alarming, 900 people may die from waterborne diseases each year, the NRDC says.

Concerns about public water two decades ago led Congress to pass the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. The legislation called for the nation's 200,000 local water systems to be regulated by the federal and state governments. It also charged the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with setting safe levels for dozens of contaminants and ensuring that the states adhered to those guidelines.

From the start, though, the EPA took a casual approach to the goals of the water act. The agency focused on other forms of pollution, and when Ronald Reagan became president and made regulation a dirty word, the EPA grew more lax about enforcing water-safety standards. This negligent attitude filtered down to water regulators in many states. A further obstacle has been the reluctance or inability of state and local governments to spend the large sums of money needed for proper regulation enforcement and the upgrading of water systems.

Water industry officials and Maryland regulators have disputed the NRDC's findings, claiming they exaggerate the problems of various systems, including Maryland's. The NRDC counters that any mistakes can be laid to EPA-provided statistics; thus, any discrepancies only underscore the fact that federal and state governments can't agree about the truth of the situation.

Last spring's episode in Milwaukee, in which 370,000 people became ill and 47 died after drinking contaminated water, sent a wake-up call to the nation. The NRDC report seeks to amplify the call by asserting that smaller-scale versions of the Milwaukee disaster are happening elsewhere.

What's apparently needed is better enforcement of the water act's standards by federal and state officials. Toward that end, the Clinton administration has proposed a huge loan fund for facility improvements. "We can't compromise public health," says EPA Administrator Carol Browner in urging stricter obedience to the 1974 legislation.

Even the author of the NRDC report says this is no time to panic over the condition of our drinking water. Yet, as the report and the Milwaukee case caution, it's neither the time to be complacent about threats to one of the most crucial elements of daily living.

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