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Don't Drink Tap Water, Pregnant Women Warned 

Donald Sutherland / ENS 28apr98

ST. LOUIS, Missouri - Pregnant women in an increasing number of regions of the United States are being warned by health officials to avoid drinking tap water to reduce the risk of miscarriage. Although chemical warnings for tap water have never been issued nationwide by federal agencies, toxins are increasingly being reported both in municipally monitored supplies and unregulated private wells.

"As a senior public health official I think the government hasn't been forthcoming on this issue. Even though we don't have all the data, it is fair to say all unmonitored ground water is at risk of contamination from toxins coming from waste sites," says Dr. Barry Johnson, Assistant Administrator of ASTDR and co-author of the 1997 report, "The Toxicologic Hazard of Superfund Hazardous Waste Sites."

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the number of Americans relying on unregulated ground water wells is over 19 million and growing.

The warning statements indicate that the nation's water supplies are increasingly being polluted by hazardous chemicals. The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) reports the growth of uncontrolled waste sites is putting the nation's groundwater used for drinking at risk of contamination. ATSDR officials warn that each waste site near a residential neighborhood has the potential to pollute groundwater and adversely effect health.

Especially vulnerable to toxic chemicals are pregnant women who rely on unregulated ground water wells for drinking. With suburban sprawl, the number of pregnant women in areas without municipally treated water supplies is on the rise.

In California, state health reports released in February note excessively chlorinated municipal water with the by-product Trihalomethane is being associated with high incidents of miscarriage. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) alerted the public to monitor groundwater for nitrates after a series of women had miscarriages in Indiana.

Arizona health clinics are warning pregnant woman to avoid consumption of drinking water contaminated by the industrial solvent Trichlorethylene (TCE) seeping from landfills and dumps.

While government officials claim more studies are needed to analyze the health effects of municipally applied chemical water treatments, spokesmen for ATSDR and CDCP say even greater risks to the public are the pollutants entering drinking water supplies from waste sites.

"The health risks from the leaching of hazardous waste sites into groundwater (exposure pathways) becomes complicated when municipal treatment of water is reviewed, but for solely groundwater well users it isn't a stretch to make that connection," says Dr. Johnson.

This ATSDR report notes over 41 million Americans live within four miles of Superfund sites on the National Priority List (NPL). The report cites Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) estimates of potentially 436,000 hazardous waste sites nationwide.

"Not every site is a risk, but our report shows the percentage of areas with completed exposure pathways has increased over the last number of years," says Johnson, "and since we only analyzed the 1,300 Superfund sites listed by the EPA, we summarized the problem is currently at a level where nationwide the public drinking groundwater is at risk."

Although the ATSDR report does not have the data on the thousands of state and federal hazardous waste sites not monitored by the EPA, the Superfund studies alone show eighty percent of the sites on the National Priority List have evidence of leaching hazardous chemicals, many of them human carcinogens.

Officials at the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention (a sister agency to ATSDR under the U.S. Health and Human Services Department) agree drinking groundwater supplies are at risk of contamination, but do not want to create a public panic with a nationwide warning.

"Most places groundwater isn't sampled adequately and there are a host of chemicals which aren't analyzed with detailed specifications", says Dr. Mark McClanahan, a scientist at the Environmental Contaminants of Water Supply division of CDCP, "but it would be like yelling fire by CDCP to issue a blanket drinking water warning."

McClanahan states CDCP has never issued a warning to pregnant woman drinking groundwater, but he notes there has been public concern over ground water contamination and Superfund sites. "CDCP doesn't review those issues because we don't get the data to make such a proclamation," he says.

On February 20, 1998, President Bill Clinton responded to the hazards threatening national drinking water supplies with a "Clean Water Action Plan" calling for the appropriation of $2.3 billion over five years for water quality improvement projects.

But, even if Congress approves the Clean Water Action Plan, environmental and health officals are concerned the proposed funding will not restrain the growth of hazardous waste damage to water resources. Currently, over 40 percent of the nation's waterways are unfit for swimming and fishing, and of the 55,000 community water systems in the U.S., 4,769 report violations of maximum contaminant levels or treatment standards according to EPA reports.

U.S. federal government agencies are major contributors to the pollution of water. ASTDR cites a Federal Facilities Policy Group report that correlates federal departments with contaminated sites. The Department of Energy (DOE) has 10,000 sites, the Department of Defense (DOD) has 21,425 sites, the Department of Interior (DOI) has 26,000 sites, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has 3,000 sites, and the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) has 730 contaminated sites.

The unfunded environmental cleanup costs for DOE alone are $270 billion according to their FY97 annual report. DOD, DOI, and USDA have not released estimates for their total environmental cleanup bills.

While these federal hazardous waste areas await funding for clean up, the leaching of toxins into groundwater, rivers, and streams has resulted in government ordered relocation of community residents, provisions of alternate drinking water, and issuance of fish consumption advisories, according to ATSDR.

Compounding the water health threat from chemical wastes is the dwindling of the $142 billion environmental industry that provides products and services to monitor, reduce, and clean up pollutants.

A Standard & Poor's February 5, 1998 industry survey, "Environmental &Waste Management," found that the cleanup industry is suffering from federal government reduction in remediation funding and stalling of new government regulations under the Republican controlled Congress.

It is less costly for potentially responsible parties on Superfund sites to postpone cleanup through litigation than to start remediation, resulting in further weakening of the environmental industry.

The National Research Council (NRC) October 1997 report, "Innovations in Ground Water and Soil Cleanup: From Concept to Commercialization," states delayed remediation of contaminated sites is partly caused by litigation postponement by potentially responsible parties.

The extended time between when a site is proposed for listing on the Superfund National Priorities List and actual cleanup averages 12 years for the first sites on the List. These delays have hurt the profitability of investing in innovative technologies for groundwater and soil remediation.

Overall, the end result of the quagmire in hazardous waste cleanup is an incresed threat to public health and drinking water supplies.

"No federal agency is going to issue a warning without data about the problem," says Richard Nickle, scientist at the Emergency Response Section of the Division of Toxicology at ASTDR. Nickle notes that since 1798 there have only been thirty federally issued health advisory threats, and all were issued by the Health Department after the passage of the 1980 Superfund legislation.

"You're not going to see a general proclamation for unregulated ground water wells because it would be a violation of the Federal Privacy Act which prevents the federal government from telling the public of identified contaminated private wells. However, if my wife was pregnant, and we were given the choice of drinking municipally monitored water or from a private unregulated well, I would choose municipal."

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