Water contaminants in the U.S. provide opportunities

April 1, 2015

How supplies were impacted by recent accidental contamination events.

As U.S. citizens, we assume our tap water continues to be safe to drink and bathe in. Reports have confirmed its quality over the last few years, but several reports in the last six months have raised concern and the need for action.

The Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972 provided a multitude of protections to consumers for ambient source waters entering drinking water plants, and the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) of 1974 also has source water protection elements as well as treatment requirements, regulated maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) and monitoring and reporting requirements. As a result, tap water in the U.S. has greatly improved. Source water quality has improved since the CWA and compliance with drinking water standards and monitoring is almost universal. With that said, some compromises have been made to the quality of drinking and bathing water, and consumers have a right to know.

With the help of states, tribes and other partners, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) expects to make progress toward protecting human health and improving water quality by 2018. Each of the major subobjectives is supported by additional “strategic targets” that further define anticipated improvements in human health, watersheds and ecosystems by 2018. In addition, the goal encompasses specific expectations of progress to be made by 2018 including at the U.S.-Mexico border area and the Great Lakes.

Examining U.S. water supply safety

Millions of consumers receive their water from various waterways in the U.S., and a recently published report from the EPA’s National Watershed Assessment, Tracking & Environmental Results System (WATERS) summarizes the state of water quality in over 60 percent of the country’s waterways.1 According to the report, 67.5 percent (around 18 million acres) of assessed lakes, reservoirs and ponds are impaired or threatened by pollution. These results represent less than 50 percent of all water bodies, so the actual percentages may vary. Millions of people have to rely on tap water for drinking and bathing, and some contamination may result in illness.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) states in a National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program report about 115 million people — more than one-third of the nation’s population — rely on groundwater for drinking water, and 43 million people rely on groundwater from private wells.2 As the nation’s population grows, the need for high-quality drinking water becomes even more urgent. Excerpts from the NAWQA’s findings show:

  • Contaminants from geologic or manmade sources were potential health concerns in one of every five wells sampled in the parts of aquifers used for drinking water. Most of these contaminants were from geologic sources — for example, arsenic, manganese, radon and uranium. Nitrate was the only constituent from manmade sources that exceeded its human health benchmark in more than one percent of wells.
  • Differences in geology, hydrology, geochemistry and chemical use explain how and why aquifer vulnerability and concentrations of contaminants vary across the nation. In-depth regional assessments, based on comprehensive sampling of 6,600 wells and ancillary data, provided this understanding for the major contaminants in each principal aquifer and, in some cases, have allowed us to predict concentrations across wide areas.
  • Changes to groundwater flow have also altered groundwater quality. The use of water through irrigation, pumping, artificial recharge and drainage has changed how water moves through some aquifers. In some parts of the Western U.S., the amount of water that flows through aquifers has doubled, tripled or more. Such large changes have affected contaminants from both manmade and geologic sources. Irrigation and pumping have made the deep parts of some aquifers, which are used for drinking water, more vulnerable to contamination by nitrate, pesticides and other manmade chemicals.
  • Our actions today are determining groundwater quality for decades to come. Groundwater quality changes slowly. However, indicators of human influence on groundwater quality are increasing across the nation. Concentrations of dissolved solids, chloride and/or nitrate in groundwater increased in two-thirds of groundwater well networks sampled at 10-year intervals between the early 1990s and 2010. Human influence on groundwater quality also is apparent in the concentrations of nitrate, pesticides and other manmade chemicals found in shallow groundwater beneath agricultural and urban land.

In an article featured on Ecowatch.com, Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter reports, "President Obama’s proposed 2016 budget contains several provisions that would weaken long-standing public health programs that protect consumers from unsafe food, while also undermining community water systems.

“President Obama has also chosen to facilitate the corporate takeover of community water systems with two key proposals. The National Infrastructure Bank would facilitate privatization through public-private partnerships. The President has allocated $7.703 billion to the bank over the next decade. Likewise, his Build America Investment Initiative would promote public-private partnerships in water and other infrastructure by offering new tax breaks on bonds to privatized projects."3

Water quality in the news

A recent article, "Water in America: Is It Safe to Drink?" in the National Geographic’s "News" section reported that after a chemical spill, 300,000 residents of Charleston, West Virginia, were left without tap water this past January.4 Here is an expert from that article:

"While the U.S. has one of the safest water supplies in the world, experts say the Charleston contamination with a coalwashing chemical shows how quickly the trust that most Americans place in their drinking water can be shattered. ‘We often don’t think about where our water comes from,’ said Steve Fleischli, director and senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Water Program in Los Angeles. ‘… But, if your water source is not protected, people face a real risk.’

"In Charleston on January 9, about 10,000 gallons of a little-known and unregulated chemical called 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) leaked from an aboveground storage tank into the Elk River. The amount of the chemical overwhelmed the carbon filtration system in the West Virginia American Water treatment plant about a mile downstream. Within a week, more than 400 people were treated at hospitals.

"On Feb. 2, up to 82,000 tons of toxic coal ash spilled into the Dan River, near the border of North Carolina and Virginia, from a pond at a closed Duke Energy power plant."

Around six months ago, a "do not drink" notice was issued for 400,000 residents after unsafe levels of microcystins from an algal bloom in Lake Erie appeared in the water system. These blooms could be a result of nutrient pollution from agricultural runoff that sickened a handful of people. The notice was in place for two days.

California’s water quality issue

A recent report by Patrick Porgans, solutionist at Planetary Solutionaries painted a bleak picture of California’s water quality. "Public records attest to the fact that after 40 years of regulatory programs, and more than $50 billion in expenditures, the Golden State’s water bodies have increased in toxicity," he asserts in the report.5

Then, a recent news story released earlier in February by the Associated Press noted, "Regulators in California … have authorized oil companies to inject production fluids and waste into what are now federally protected aquifers more than 2,500 times, risking contamination of underground water supplies that could be used for drinking water or irrigation, state records show.

"While the permits go back decades, an Associated Press analysis found that nearly half of those injection wells — 46 percent — were approved or began injections in the last four years under Gov. Jerry Brown, who has pushed state oil and gas regulators to speed up the permitting process. That happened despite growing warnings from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency since 2011 that state regulators were out of compliance with federal laws meant to protect underground drinking water stores from oilfield contamination."6

With regards to the petrochemical industry, contamination from oil and gas fracking has been in the spotlight for several years. The industry has been implementing new technologies to address possible contamination to groundwater, but new reports cite the contrary. A report by Duke Environment released in January states, "Duke University scientists have discovered high levels of two potentially hazardous contaminants, ammonium and iodide, in wastewater being discharged or spilled into streams and rivers from oil and gas operations in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

"Levels of contamination were just as high in wastewater coming from conventional oil and gas wells as from hydraulically fractured shale gas wells.

"‘This discovery raises new concerns about the environmental and human health impacts of oil and gas wastewater in areas where it is discharged or leaked directly into the environment,’ said Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment."7

With all the improvements made to water quality in the U.S., accidents do happen, and many contaminants still appear in tap water today — mostly from human or naturally occurring sources. In conclusion, opportunities abound in the water treatment industry. The new paradigm for water quality must include consortiums of professionals dedicated to educating consumers as well as selling water treatment products. It is within the water treatment industry where much of this difference could be shaped. The U.S. represents the world today as the leading model for maintaining clean, healthy water as well as continuing to tackle the problems globally.


  1. "National Summary of State Information," Watershed Assessment, Tracking & Environmental Results System (WATERS); EPA. http://ofmpub.epa.gov/waters10/attains_nation_cy.control#total_assessed_waters.
  2. "Groundwater Quality in Principal Aquifers," National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program; U.S. Geological Survey. http://water.usgs.gov/nawqa/pubs/prin_aq/.
  3. "Obama’s Budget Weakens Food and Water Protections," Wenonah Hauter.Ecowatch.com; EcoWatch. http://ecowatch.com/2015/02/02/obamas-budget-weakens-food-water-protections/.
  4. "Water in America: Is It Safe to Drink?" Tim Friend; National Geographic. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/02/140217-drinking-water-safety-west-virginia-chemical-spill-science/.
  5. "California toxic waters rise despite decades of regulations and expenditure of $50 billion," Patrick Porgans; Planetary Solutionaries. https://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2015/01/16/18766974.php.
  6. "California permitted oilfield discharge in protected water," Ellen Knickmeyer; Seattlepi.com; Associated Press. http://www.seattlepi.com/news/us/article/California-permitted-oilfield-discharge-in-6064590.php.
  7. "New Contaminants Found in Oil and Gas Wastewater," Duke Environment. http://nicholas.duke.edu/news/new-contaminants-found-oil-and-gas-wastewater.

Susan White is a freelance writer and marketing consultant for United Filters International, as well as other industry professionals. Her 11 years of experience in the water treatment industry has given her a wealth of knowledge, as well as her passion to help consumers achieve a healthier lifestyle through their exposure to clean water. She advocates through blogs and other sources to consumers on filtering their tap water for drinking and bathing, eliminating bottled water and water conservation.

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