Millions of Americans drink contaminated water, often because local officials don’t publicize environmental violations, according to a new report released Monday.
Environmental Protection Agency chief Carol Browner stressed that U.S. drinking water is among the safest in the world, but she said she was determined to improve it further.
“We are proposing a package of reforms that will toughen enforcement, provide new funds to communities and ensure the safety of the water supply and public health,” she said in a statement, referring to a plan unveiled three weeks ago.
The Natural Resources Defense Council released a report Monday which found that in 1991 and 1992, more than 120 million people were affected by more than 250,000 violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the federal law on drinking water.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 940,000 people get sick from waterborne disease each year and that as many as 900 die from such contamination.
The NRDC report said more than 350,000 Americans drink water that contains more than the allowed level of arsenic, known to cause cancer in humans.
And 35 million drink water with lower levels of arsenic, which a recent California study found pose a cancer risk for 1 in 1,000 people.
“With the information now available, our trust in the safety of our drinking water supply will and should be shaken. We must think before we drink,” the report concluded.
Erik Olson, author of the report, noted that most drinking water systems were complying with federal laws, but many utilities had let water quality slide, sometimes at the expense of health.
He said 63% of drinking water violations were never reported to consumers.
“What we need are stronger rules and a tough cop on the beat,” he said, urging Congress to set up a revolving fund to help poor water systems comply with the law, increase enforcement and focus more on pollution prevention.
Browner said those recommendations were reflected in the package of reforms she proposed to Congress on Sept. 8.