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We're Blaming the Wrong People for Polluted Tap Water

Don't blame increased levels of hexavalent chromium in our water supplies on municipal water utilities. Blame it on pollutant-dumping industries and short-sighted elected officials.
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Recent coverage of hexavalent chromium (also known as chromium 6) in some of our nation's water supplies vilified the wrong institutions: our municipal water utilities. The real culprits are the industries that dump this and other pollutants into our drinking water sources, and the elected officials who are short-sightedly failing to fund our drinking and wastewater systems.

I repeat: tap water and the public agencies that provide it are not the enemy.

A vital resource, tap water is sometimes taken for granted until something goes wrong. Unfortunately, this lax attention often starts at the federal level, where not enough money is allocated to modernizing and maintaining public drinking water systems, and a blind eye is often turned to the ways in which industries are allowed to exploit and pollute them.

While hexavalent chromium can end up in water naturally, industrial pollution can cause it to reach levels that threaten public health. The current problem with hexavalent chromium reflects decades of insufficient government regulation of the chemicals used by major industries in the U.S. Every year, more than 80,000 chemicals, many of them suspected carcinogens, are approved for use by industry, and discharged into waterways that also happen to serve as drinking water sources.

The presence of hexavalent chromium in some municipal water is yet another sign that it's time for the U.S. to renew its commitment to providing consumers with safe, affordable tap water. Unfortunately, this requires money, and water utilities across the country lack the funds to meet Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations for drinking water quality, much less more protective ones to fix problems not addressed by the EPA. Inadequate federal funding for local public water systems only exacerbates these problems even more.

Rather than putting the onus on municipalities and taxpayers to clean up the mess left by major industries, the EPA needs to step up and do a better job of thoroughly testing the safety of chemicals before allowing them to be dumped into our water.

Consumers using this recent scare as an excuse to abandon tap water in favor of the bottled kind should think again -- almost half of all bottled water comes from tap water supplies. Moreover, independent testing by the Environmental Working Group found 38 contaminants present in 10 brands of bottled water.

Despite these recent developments that may suggest otherwise, U.S. tap water is among the safest in the world. And unlike bottled water, your local utility tests it hundreds of times a month for toxic chemicals. Tap water is also the most environmentally sustainable and socially equitable way to provide drinking water to the public. But in order to keep it that way, we must protect our source water by tightening regulation of the chemicals that threaten the integrity of this vital public resource.

This post was updated on January, 27 to correct an inadvertent statement about hexavalent chromium levels.

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