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Drinking water in 95 California public systems has illegal levels of arsenic

Arsenic occurs naturally in the soil and groundwater in some parts of California and other states, and many larger and wealthier communities can afford filtration systems to remove it.
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This is a press release from The Environmental Integrity Project.

Washington, D.C. -- More than three years after the federal government found California in noncompliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act, 95 public water systems serving more than 55,000 people across the state are still providing water with illegal levels of arsenic, according to a new report by the Environmental Integrity Project.

The highest arsenic levels in drinking water in California from 2011 through 2015 were in a group home for troubled teenage boys, the Valley Teen Ranch in Madera County, according to state records.

About 50 boys assigned by the courts to the facility have been living in a home with water that has arsenic at concentrations averaging more than 12 times the federal limit (10 parts per billion, or ppb) over these five years.

Fifty-eight residential communities across the state exceeded the legal limit for arsenic during this time period, as did 13 school districts, 12 mobile home parks, a military base, three wineries, two food preparation businesses and two campgrounds. 

California’s public water systems notify customers when the water fails to meet health limits for arsenic, a well-known carcinogen, but the state implies that same water is safe to drink, with utilities writing in mailed notices: “You do not need to use an alternative water supply (e.g., bottled water).”

In contrast, the state gives a much more blunt warning to private well owners (who aren’t covered by federal law) not to drink arsenic-contaminated water: “If you suspect that your well may have arsenic, you should not use the water until it is tested, and you take appropriate measures to protect yourself and your family from potential chronic health effects if arsenic is present.”   

“Whatever the intention, California’s confusing warning language is likely to encourage people – often minorities -- to drink contaminated water,” said Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP). 

“The drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, was a reminder of how important it is for state governments to issue clear warnings to people with unhealthy tap water.”

The new report, “Arsenic in California Drinking Water,” recommends that the state should warn people to avoid drinking water that fails arsenic health limits, and that both California lawmakers and Congress should invest more money to upgrade crumbling drinking water infrastructure.

Arsenic occurs naturally in the soil and groundwater in some parts of California and other states, and many larger and wealthier communities can afford filtration systems to remove it.

But smaller, isolated water systems -- many serving lower-income Latino and/or African American populations – do not have the money for water purification plants and so provide contaminated tap water.

Arsenic increases the risk of lung, kidney and bladder cancer and cardiovascular disease, and may also impair the developing brains of children.

State records indicate that, during 2014 and 2015, 55,985 people in 95 communities across the state received tap water with arsenic that averaged above the federal limit (10 parts per billion, or ppb) during these two years. 

More than 80 percent of these residents (46,772 residents in 70 communities) had excessive levels of the carcinogen in their tap water for at least five years, according to state data cited in the EIP report.  

Some examples include:  

•       In Kettleman City, in King’s County, 1,450 residents have had tap water with excessive levels of arsenic for decades, with an average concentration 20 percent above the legal limit from 2011 to 2015, according to state data. "I have a daughter, a little one, who’s still brushing her teeth with contaminated water, taking a bath in contaminated water," said Maricela Mares-Alatorre, a city resident, during a recent hearing of the state water control board.  The local utility has promised to build a $9 million water treatment plant, but the project has been repeatedly delayed.

•       About 1,000 people on the Callier Water System in San Bernardino County received tap water that averaged almost five times the legal limit of arsenic from 2011 through 2015, state records indicate. 

•       The Boron Community Service District in Kern County provided 2,400 residents with water that had almost four times healthy levels of arsenic during this period.  

•       In the Keyes Community Services District in Stanislaus County, 4,891 people have been receiving tap water with levels of arsenic that averaged almost 30 percent above the federal limit from 2011 to 2015. (For a complete list of communities, see Appendix B in the report.)

“Although California has made progress addressing its drinking water problems, both the state and federal governments still need to invest more funding in improvements to water filtration systems so that everyone has an equal access to clean drinking water,” said Schaeffer, former Director of Civil enforcement at EPA. “Safe drinking water should be a right for all people, no matter where they live or what their income.”

The most recent science suggests that, if anything, the current arsenic standard of 10 ppb – established by EPA in 2001 -- is not protective enough and that the IQ of children could be damaged at much lower exposures. 

In 2013, EPA sent a notice of noncompliance to California over its failure to invest enough money in its drinking water systems to remove arsenic and other pollutants.

In response to this, over the last three years, the state has more than doubled its amount of funding to build water treatment plants, pipelines, and new wells. The state and counties have filed compliance orders with local utilities to push them to upgrade their systems and are directing small, underfunded water systems to merge with larger utilities.

Because of these measures, EPA announced in May 2016 that California was back in compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

But in fact, the work is far from done – as witnessed by the 55,985 people who still have illegal levels of the carcinogen in their tap water. In the meantime, the state’s drinking water warning notices are confusing and fail to tell people to stop drinking water with illegal levels of arsenic. 

California’s written guidelines for warning notices that local water utilities mail to residents with more than the legal limit of arsenic in their tap water state: “Some people who drink water containing arsenic in excess of the (maximum contaminant level) over many years may experience skin damage or circulatory system problems, and may have an increased risk to getting cancer.” 

But the notices also state:  “You do not need to use an alternative water supply (e.g., bottled water).”  

Many other states are more direct in warning people not to drink water with excessive amounts of arsenic, at least for private well owners. 

Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine, and Washington, for example, simply tell residents not to consume water with more than 10 ppb arsenic.

Carolina Balazs, a researcher at University of California, Davis, who has published scientific journal articles on arsenic in the state’s drinking water, said that the lack of clear communication about contaminated water creates an environmental justice issue. Her research has found that in the Central Valley, smaller water systems serving lower income residents were more likely to serve arsenic contaminated water.

Many of these communities are also predominantly Latino, where Spanish may be the only language spoken.  

 “In such communities, residents may not receive contamination notices if they are renters, or live in apartment complexes,” Balazs said.

“Or, they may be unable to comprehend the fairly technical information contained in notices if these not translated. This creates an environmental injustice—lacking adequate information on appropriate strategies, socially vulnerable residents have little ability to protect their health, and their ‘right-to-know’ does not translate into the ‘right to act.’

The Environmental Integrity Project is a 14-year-old nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, based in Washington D.C., dedicated to enforcing environmental laws and holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health.