Nor Any Drop to Drink

July 10, 1995

With nearly 1,000 deaths and 400,000 cases of illness directly attributed to contaminated drinking water each year, the United States can no longer rely on the purity of its water systems.

More than one in five Americans drinks tap water that is contaminated with harmful bacteria, lead, parasites or chemicals, according to Environmental Protection Agency statistics for 1993-94.

The number of persons drinking water that violated safety standards has been rising over the past three years, according to legally required reports by water systems on contamination violations.

Some 277,000 Marylanders drank water from a system with at least one health violation in the 1993-94 period. Lonaconing in Western Maryland and Hebron on the Eastern Shore had the most reported violations among Maryland water systems. Havre de Grace in Harford and Fort Meade in Anne Arundel had the most violations among systems serving more than 10,000 persons, according to the reports. Water systems in the state listed problems with radioactivity and carcinogens, in addition to lead and fecal bacteria.

While specific reported violations may have been corrected already, the problems remain for the nation's drinking water supplies as a whole. The 100 deaths and 400,000 cases of intestinal illness traced to a parasite in the Milwaukee public drinking water two years ago reminds us of the potential widespread consequences. Six other outbreaks linked to the parasite (which chlorine cannot kill) have been reported in other states.

Only last month, the federal Centers for Disease Control warned Americans with weak immune systems to boil their water as an every day precaution against this cryptosporidium parvum bug. That's 5 million people potentially at risk today.

Improved inspection, monitoring and enforcement of safety and treatment standards are needed to assure the quality of this essence of human life. Better certification programs for treatment plants and enhanced public notification of contamination episodes are equally crucial. These are fundamental health efforts that must withstand the blind fervor for deregulation in Congress.

Upgraded water treatment systems are also important if the crypto parasite and other invisible pollutants are to be eliminated from our drinking water. The extra cost of such measures is minimal, probably no more than $25 per household a year, certainly less than a month's supply of bottled water from the supermarket.

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