The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Where is the Outrage Over Water Quality?

Where is the Outrage Over Water Quality?

Food Safety Update

September 27, 2009

What good is the nation’s Clean Water Act if polluters have violated it more than half a million times in the last five years alone, if they continue to go unpunished, and if citizens suffer needless harm to themselves and their property?

Concerns over toxins are great enough that Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency regulate more than 100 pollutants through the Clean Water Act and strictly limit 91 chemicals or contaminants in tap water through the Safe Drinking Water Act, reported The New York Times, which recently reviewed water pollution records and came up with a damning report that should be raising alarms from coast to coast. (

According to the paper’s exhaustive research, “an estimated one in 10 Americans has been exposed to drinking water that contains dangerous chemicals or fails to meet a federal health benchmark in other ways.” The danger is insidious because “most of today’s water pollution has no scent or taste, [and] many people who consume dangerous chemicals do not realize it, even after they become sick, the Times said, citing researchers. “An estimated 19.5 million Americans fall ill each year from drinking water contaminated with parasites, bacteria or viruses,” according to a study that appeared in Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Technology in 2008.

The scale of the problem is enormous: more than 23 million people received drinking water from municipal systems that violated a health-based standard. Fewer than three percent of Clean Water Act violations resulted in fines or other significant punishments by state officials. To kick the federal agency and states free of this long-standing complacency, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson told the Times that enforcement will be strengthened.

But how quickly and powerfully will government will rise up to enforce laws that protect the public, given the strained resources and political influence in the picture. Is there a will today to penalize polluters when companies might turn around and fire workers in order to cover the fines? 

Who can argue that water quality shouldn’t be a priority, at least as great as global warming and energy independence? The EPA and municipalities throughout the United States should take on a new sense of urgency with respect to water quality. Since many of the pollutants today are invisible to the eye, there are few riveting pictures to galvanize public attention. The dangers are no less, however, and the need for rigorous law enforcement is immediate, or we’ll be sacrificing the health of multiple generations.

This discussion should be unnecessary – the issue is largely a matter of polluters’ greed at the expense of public health. There’s no gray here, only black and white. People need to be able to drink, bathe, cook and brush their teeth with confidence. Even the bottled water industry (with its own environmental issues) can’t come close to replacing our inherent need for safe, clean water if we won’t enforce existing laws and save ourselves.