Tap water contaminated with CBPs, or chlorination byproducts, might be putting more than 100,000 pregnant women at risk for having miscarriages or children born with birth defects, according to a study released in January by two environmental groups.
The report, issued by the Environmental Working Group and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, identified 1,258 communities, including the Washington, D.C., suburbs, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh suburbs and San Francisco, that provided CBP-contaminated water to more than 16 million people for at least a 12-month period between 1996 to 2001. The highest levels of CBPs—five to 10 times the levels allowed by regulations that went into effect Jan. 1—were reported by small rural water utilities.
Areas statistically most at risk to CBP contamination are populous, lack buffers from urban sprawl or are downstream from agricultural sites.
"By failing to clean up rivers and reservoirs that provide drinking water for hundreds of millions of Americans," the report said, "EPA and Congress have forced water utilities to chlorinate water that is contaminated with animal waste, sewage, fertilizer, algae and sediment."
Chlorine is added to tap water to kill microbes to make water potable. But that same chlorine also interacts with organic matter caused by agricultural and urban runoff to create toxic CBPs.
There are some precautions pregnant women can take. Although these women are advised to drink plenty of water, EWG Research Director Jane Houlihan cautions them to drink water that has been filtered with a carbon filter, especially during the summer when CBP levels tend to spike. Pregnant women can also drink nonchlorinated bottled water. They should also take shorter showers because CBPs can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled as steam.
Despite CBPs' link to health problems, the United States has no consistent procedure to track exposure to these chemicals. Only nine states have well-funded surveillance systems to track birth defects; none has a well-funded system to track miscarriages, according to the EWG and PIRG.
In addition to miscarriages, neural tube defects and reduced fetal growth linked to CBPs, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that chlorine-related contaminants cause 9,300 cases of bladder cancer each year. The new standards should reduce the number to 7,000. Other studies link the contaminants to brain, breast and other internal cancers. (For abstracts of studies, go to www.ewg.org/reports/considerthesource.)
The federal government should provide funds to clean up sources of contaminated water and provide buffer areas to filter potential contaminants from farmland and urban areas, both environmental groups said. EWG and PIRG recommend also that a national system to track exposure to pollutants be coordinated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"One of the main reasons health standards are so weak is that neither state nor federal health authorities adequately track miscarriages, birth defects and a host of other diseases where pollution is a suspected cause," said Jeremiah Bauman, environmental health advocate for PIRG, in a press release statement. "Citizens, policymakers and health care providers are blindfolded when it comes to protecting our health from toxic hazards like chlorination byproducts."
Some scientists, however, question the link between CBPs and health risks because of the limited health records available to analyze. They say the risks, as reported, especially for pregnancy, are not conclusive.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 3/p. 24