Public health advocates today reached an important agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ending years of delays in setting new safeguards against germs, parasites and toxic chemicals in drinking water across the country. As a result of the agreement, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., EPA will adopt three new rules for municipal water systems by next year ensuring cleaner drinking water for all communities.
“Today’s settlement requires EPA to strengthen health protections for the tap water that tens of millions of Americans drink and shower in every day,” said Erik Olson, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “EPA will have to stop its foot-dragging and issue new, stricter safeguards for our tap water to protect us from dangerous parasites and toxic chemicals that can cause cancer, miscarriages and birth defects.”
Represented by Earthjustice, NRDC and San Francisco Bay Area Physicians for Social Responsibility negotiated the agreement with EPA to avoid a protracted legal battle. It provides an enforceable schedule for the agency to develop rules reducing levels of Giardia, Cryptosporidium and certain toxic chemicals in public drinking water. (For a copy of the filed agreement, go to http://www.nrdc.org/media/docs/051117.pdf.)
The agreement filed today requires EPA to adopt three new rules.
First, the agency must adopt, by December 15, a new rule requiring treatment and monitoring for suppliers drawing from surface waters. This is to prevent Cryptosporidium and other parasites from contaminating tap water. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Cryptosporidium is one of the most common causes of waterborne disease in the United States. In 1993, high Cryptosporidium levels in Milwaukee’s drinking water supply sickened more than 400,000 residents. More recently, several smaller outbreaks have sickened hundreds of people.
Second, EPA agreed to adopt a rule limiting the acceptable level of toxins created by the drinking water disinfection process itself. Disinfection is necessary to remove bacteria and pathogens from water supplies, but without proper precautions it leaves behind byproducts that can cause cancer, and, potentially, miscarriages and birth defects.
Finally, EPA agreed to publish a rule no later than August 2006 requiring systems using groundwater to disinfect it when necessary.
“Americans will finally have the health protections that Congress told EPA to provide years ago,” said Earthjustice attorney Jennifer Chavez. “This agreement will guarantee that the agency sets the necessary standards for drinking water that will reduce illnesses and protect public health.”
After several serious outbreaks of waterborne diseases in U.S. cities, Congress amended the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1996 to, as EPA has stated, “provide strengthened protections to ensure that American families have clean, safe tap water.” The amendments required EPA to adopt regulations to reduce microbial pathogens within a specific time frame, but the deadline for a number of the final regulations has come and gone. For example, the final rule for treating surface water sources was supposed to have been completed by 2000.
EPA estimates its surface water treatment rule alone would prevent more than a million illnesses and as many as 141 deaths annually. The agency estimates its rule for toxic disinfection byproducts would prevent hundreds from dying from bladder cancer, would reduce the incidence of other cancers, and could cut the number of miscarriages from 4,700 to 1,100 a year.
“Every year that EPA delayed on these rules, Americans’ health was at risk from exposure to these parasites and toxic chemicals,” said Dr. Bob Gould, a physician and president of SF Bay Area Physicians for Social Responsibility. “We are very pleased to hear that the agency will finally begin adopting rules that will protect our drinking water supplies, and we hope the agency will make good on its promise this time.”