It’s time to modernize drinking water standards | Column
Since 2000, no new contaminants have been covered by the federal Safe Water Drinking Act.

In many ways the Tampa Bay area is prepared for the challenges and opportunities of the coming decades. Our leaders and citizens have taken advantage of unprecedented population and economic growth, restored the health of the bay, and confronted the challenges of climate change head on. But, while the region was looking to the future, drinking water got left in the past—regulated by decades-old federal rules that don’t always reflect modern science or new challenges.

Carey Schafer
Carey Schafer [ Courtesy of Carey Schafer ]

Drinking water is regulated by a host of federal regulations dating back to the Clean Water Act of 1972, which monitors the discharge of pollutants into U.S. waterways. In 1974, the Environmental Protection Agency established the Safe Water Drinking Act, which now regulates more than 90 contaminants in drinking water across the nation.

At face value, this seems great – 90 contaminants regulated nationwide! But this is far from exceptional. With nationwide legislation also comes the bureaucracy of the federal government. Since 2000, no new contaminants have been covered by the Safe Water Drinking Act, despite the development of tens of thousands of new chemicals and research highlighting the threat of many even at low concentrations. There are no legal limits on more than 160 contaminants and for others, the maximum contaminant levels haven’t been updated in over 50 years.

Luis Lizcano-Sandoval
Luis Lizcano-Sandoval [ Courtesy of Luis Lizcano-Sandoval ]

Many of these outdated government regulations have been challenged by the Environmental Working Group, an environmental activist group. They argue that legality does not equal safety. To combat this problem, the group has created a tap water database that integrates the latest research to establish updated safety standards for drinking water. The Tampa Bay region exceeds the levels set by the EWG for five contaminants: arsenic, chromium, nitrate, radium and trihalomethanes. All five of these contaminants are carcinogens.

For example, the EPA sets the national limit for trihalomethanes at 80 parts per billion (ppb). Tap water from the Clearwater Water System has 49.6 ppb of trihalomethanes. This is perfectly legal within our current regulations, but cancer risk may increase above just 0.15 ppb. Recently, Tampa Bay Water filed a lawsuit against DuPont and 3M for the release of “forever chemicals,” also known as per- and polyfluorinated substances. According to the EPA guidelines of 70 parts per trillion (ppt), dangerous levels of these chemicals have not been released; however, the EWG guideline sets limits at more than 1 ppt.

We are at a crossroads. Our population will continue to grow, and climate change will only strain our already burdened utilities. Those in charge of Tampa Bay’s drinking water should implement more stringent standards than the EPA currently requires, taking into account the most up-to-date science on contaminants.

Luis Lizcano-Sandoval is a doctoral student at the USF College of Marine Science. He does research on biological oceanography, marine ecology and remote sensing. Carey Schafer is a recent graduate from the USF College of Marine Science where she studied carbon cycling in the mangrove forests of Florida.