Despite Risk of Cancer, Texas Suggests Water is Safe to Drink
Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas – Drinking water systems serving 51,000 people in 34 Texas communities have violated the Safe Drinking Water standard for arsenic, a potent carcinogen, for more than a decade, but state health advisories continue to suggest that the water is safe to drink, according to a new report by the Environmental Integrity Project.
Year after year, Texas public notices reporting the contamination have advised: “This is not an emergency…You do not need to use an alternative water supply.”
“The drinking water tragedy in Flint, Michigan, reminds us how important it is for government to communicate clearly with residents who are drinking contaminated water,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) and former director of civil enforcement at EPA. “Whatever their intent, the Texas health advisories suggest to these residents that it is safe to drink water with so much arsenic it flunks Safe Drinking Water Act standards. EPA needs to step in and require Texas to issue clearer warnings and do more to fix the problem.”
The federal Safe Drinking Water Act has required public water supplies to limit arsenic concentrations in drinking water to no more than 10 parts per billion (ppb) since 2006, in order to reduce long-term exposure to the deadly toxin linked to lung and bladder cancers, neurological problems, and other illnesses.
But data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) shows that the average arsenic concentrations in 34 communities serving 51,000 people have exceeded that health-based standard for at least the last decade, many at levels several times higher than the arsenic limit, according to the new EIP report, “Don’t Drink the Water.” These communities were among 65 community water systems serving 82,000 people that have violated the standard for at least two years, state data show.
For example, in Jim Hogg County in South Texas, more than 5,000 people have had drinking water with arsenic concentrations more than five times the limit in the Safe Drinking Water Act for at least five years, state records show. In the City of Seagraves, in West Texas, 2,396 residents have been exposed to water with arsenic more than triple the health standards for more than a decade.
Some of these communities are starting to take steps to address the problem, but they still have a lot of work to do and residents continue to receive toxic water. When local water utilities find violations, federal and state regulations require communities to tell consumers that lifetime exposure to arsenic concentrations above the 10 ppb limit may increase cancer risk. But Texas also requires the advisories to state: “This is not an emergency…You do not need to use an alternative water supply.”
“Telling consumers they don’t need to replace water contaminated by arsenic implies the water is still safe to drink,” said Ilan Levin, director of EIP’s Texas office. “It seems unlikely that that state regulators who advise the public about health risk would let their own families keep drinking water that violates Safe Drinking Water Act limits for arsenic, year after year.”
The advice from other states and public health experts is more straightforward, at least for private well owners. These states, including Wisconsin, Michigan, and Washington, tell people not to drink water with more than 10 ppb arsenic. For example, Wisconsin advises private well owners: “If your arsenic level is more than 10 ppb, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services recommends that you stop using your water for drinking or food preparation.” Florida advises its consumers to avoid water in which arsenic contamination persists. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control makes similar recommendations.
The Environmental Integrity Project report recommends that:
- Texas stop requiring language in its public health advisories that implies that water that keeps failing Safe Drinking Water Act standards is safe to drink.
- EPA revise its regulations to require that states advise people to stop drinking or cooking with water that fails to meet arsenic standards over several years.
- Public notices inform consumers of options for treating contaminated water, e.g., through filter systems that have proven to be effective. Conversely, the public should be told what doesn’t work. For example, while Texas advisories warn that boiling water won’t reduce nitrate concentrations, it includes no such warning for arsenic, which also cannot be boiled away.
- The federal and state governments provide enough money to these 65 Texas communities to help pay for water filtration systems or take other steps to eliminate the contamination. Some work has begun to build water filtration systems and to access cleaner water supplies, but more funds and work are needed.
Schaeffer concluded: “Informing consumers is an important strategy to protect public health. But the Flint disaster shows how information that confuses or misleads can leave communities in the dark, be toxic to the public trust, and delay actions needed to make drinking water safe.”
The Environmental Integrity Project is a 14-year-old, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, based in Washington D.C. and Austin, Texas, that works to hold polluters and governments accountable to protect public health.
Media contact: Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project, (443) 510-2574 or firstname.lastname@example.org