WASHINGTON — Beginning next year, all Americans will be told--as many Californians already are--what is in their tap water and how safe it is to drink.
Regulations proposed Wednesday by the Environmental Protection Agency to implement a key element of the 1996 Safe Drinking Water Act would require water companies to tell consumers at least once a year where their water comes from, the chemicals and bacteria that are in it and the potential health hazards of the contaminants.
The federal program would expand a process that is taking root around the country. Such notices already are provided to consumers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver and some Maryland suburbs, according to the EPA.
Although water agencies in California already must distribute such data, it often arrives in confusing, technical lists and without health warnings that would add context. While local water officials are working to redesign their water quality brochures and inserts, the federal program will require that the information be provided in an easily understood format.
The new program also will allow agencies to list only contaminants that are detectable, which will make the information easier to read and understand, said Jennifer Smith, an environmental specialist with the Metropolitan Water District, which supplies 60% of the water consumed in a large area of Southern California. Water agencies also are being encouraged to use common, recognizable names of contaminants, like Roundup.
The program is one step in a series the Clinton administration has taken to draw attention to the quality of the nation's water and air, particularly the release of toxic chemicals from smokestacks. The EPA's action Wednesday is unrelated to the current focus on the potential risk that chemicals in tap water may pose to pregnant women.
A study by California researchers has suggested a possible link between chlorinated tap water and first-trimester miscarriages. The study found that pregnant women who drank five or more glasses of cold tap water per day containing at least 75 micrograms per liter of trihalomethanes had an increased risk of miscarriage.
While the information required by the federal regulations would not answer questions about the impact that this group of chemicals has on human health, the contaminants would be among those listed by water agencies in their annual documentation.
The administration has proposed requiring an initial reduction of at least 20% in trihalomethanes. California water officials would have about two years to decide whether to adopt the EPA standard for trihalomethanes or require an even greater reduction, Smith said. Known as TTHM, the chemicals are created by the interaction of chlorine, which is added to water to kill bacterial infections, and plant matter.
The regulations would require the nation's 56,000 companies and public agencies that provide drinking water to report on overall water quality, whether it meets the federal agency's safety standards, its likely sources of contaminants, and the health risks stemming from any water systems that violate the safety standards.
The reports also would disclose whether the water comes from local rivers, lakes or underground sources, as well as data covering violations and enforcement of drinking water standards.
Large water companies will be required to mail their reports to consumers; smaller companies serving fewer than 10,000 people will be allowed to print their reports in a local newspaper or post them in a central location.
"Two hundred forty million people will get in their mailboxes information on where their water comes from, the contaminants that are found in their water, whether the contaminants violated our standards, and what the health effects are," Carol Browner, the EPA director, said in an interview.
In addition, in cases where contaminants--either chemicals or such microbes as cryptosporidia, which is potentially fatal to people with severely depressed immune systems--exceed permissible levels, companies will be required to disclose what steps they have taken to correct health-standard violations.
Cryptosporidia in the water supply killed 39 people in Las Vegas in 1994 and caused 100 deaths and about 400,000 cases of diarrhea in Milwaukee in 1993.
The notification regulations were a central element in the debate over the drinking water legislation. They were vigorously opposed by some members of Congress and drinking water suppliers, who argued that the program would confuse consumers with highly technical information. Clinton signed the bill in August 1996.
But administration officials said opponents' real concern was the additional cost of providing cleaner water when consumers became aware of the chemicals and bacteria that are coming out of their taps.
"When you arm the public with this type of information, the result is increased public health and protection," Browner said.