More than 25m drink from the worst US water systems, with Latinos most exposed

Millions of people in the US are drinking water that fails to meet federal health standards, including by violating limits for dangerous contaminants.

Latinos are disproportionately exposed, according to the Guardian’s review of more than 140,000 public water systems across the US and county-level demographic data.

Water systems in counties that are 25% or more Latino are violating drinking water contamination rules at twice the rate of those in the rest of the country.

America’s worst public water systems – those that have accrued more than 15 “violation points” for breaking standards over five years – serve more than 25m Americans, the research shows. An estimated 5.8m of these are Latino.

Texas, where millions of residents lost access to water and power during the recent storm, has the most high-violation systems, followed by California and Oklahoma. The average number of violations is highest in Oklahoma, West Virginia and New Mexico.

The six-month investigation of five years of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other data also shows how:

Scientists and former government officials describe a water regulation system that is broken. “Most policymakers believe compliance with environmental rules is high,” said Cynthia Giles, the former head of enforcement at the EPA under Barack Obama, but that belief was “wrong”.

Experts are most concerned about systems serving smaller communities. They say Latinos are particularly at risk because they often live near industrial farms in California and the west that have polluted local water with nitrates in runoff from fertilizers and manure. They are also more likely to live in the south-west, where arsenic violations are common.

Research has found that Latinos are more likely to distrust tap water.

Paloma Beamer, a public health researcher at the University of Arizona, found that most Latino residents in Nogales, Arizona, thought that drinking tap water was as unsafe as drinking alcohol and driving, and more detrimental to their health than smoking. Many turn to bottled water, but it is not subjected to the same testing requirements and regulations and may be as risky as, or worse than, tap water, Beamer said.

“There needs to be more transparency explaining how the water is tested, and what standards it’s held to and how they can rely on it to be a safe drinking water source. It is important for people to understand in their community what the primary violations are for and what their alternative water sources are,” Beamer said.

The consequences of even tiny levels of contaminants in water can be high. The EPA sets a limit of 10mg of nitrate per liter of water, but it is frequently exceeded. The standard is meant to protect against “blue baby syndrome”, which happens when a fetus hasn’t received enough oxygen, and thyroid disease, which can cause fatigue, weight gain and hair loss.

Nitrates are a big issue in communities in California’s Central Valley such as East Orosi, an unincorporated community of about 700 where children grow up learning not to open their eyes or mouths while they shower. Maria Orozco, a 30-year-old resident, doesn’t remember a time when she felt safe drinking water from the faucet. Recently, her daughters’ hair has started falling out in the shower, more than usual. Her hair has begun falling out too. “It’s like a knot in your stomach,” she said, of this constant worry over the water and her family’s health.

Advocates in East Orosi say they face multiple challenges just securing safe water. “The Central Valley produces a variety of food from grapes, almonds, apricots, blueberries and we also create a variety of blended, toxic water,” said Susana de Anda, executive director of the Community Water Center. “Our groundwater is a toxic blend of nitrates, arsenic, 123TCP, chromium.”

Since 2015, the town’s water system has exceeded the federal legal limit for nitrates 15 times.

Public health campaigners are increasingly concerned about nitrates in drinking water.

“We’re just seeing so many new studies that show lower and lower levels of nitrate can be dangerous. They can increase the risk of cancer if you have low-level exposure over many years,” said Anne Schechinger, a senior economic analyst with the Environmental Working Group (EWG) who authored a recent report on nitrates. “It really makes you wonder if the EPA is keeping us safe with a lot of their maximum contaminant limits they’ve established.”

Asked to comment, an EPA spokesperson said: “Ensuring that all Americans have access to safe drinking water – including in communities of color and low-income communities – is a priority.” The agency said: “While over 92% of Americans receive drinking water that meets all health-based standards all of the time, EPA is continuing to work with its partners to close remaining gaps.”

In California alone, 5.25 million people in majority-Latino communities are drinking water that exceeds federal nitrate limits, according to Schechinger’s report for the EWG. Even more could be at risk from contaminated water in private wells, which are not regulated.

The Biden administration has promised to make tackling environmental justice a priority after four years of regulation cutting under Donald Trump.

The Guardian data investigation captures some of the scale of the challenge.

While Americans largely don’t have to worry about the type of biological contaminants that plague developing nations, they are likely to be exposed to much quieter threats – heavy metals, radiation and chemicals that can lead to significant health problems over time. Small systems – which can serve individual mobile home parks, highway fast food restaurants, churches and schools, often have the worst problems – and fewest resources to fix them.

“The horror stories start when you look at utilities serving fewer than 10,000 people,” said Betsy Southerland, former director of the office of science and technology for the office of water at the EPA.

Water contamination in the US is wide-reaching.

The dangerous pollutants that water systems have difficulty filtering out vary across the country, from the nitrates from farm runoff in states where agriculture is prominent, including California, to radioactive mining substances in states such as West Virginia.

Health effects are wide-ranging. Arsenic, chlorine and radionuclides are tied with higher incidences of cancer; nitrate fertilizers can hinder the delivery of oxygen to red blood cells; the weed killer atrazine is linked to hormone disruption in women, premature births and lower IQ levels in children.

Among the communities with major drinking water challenges, the Guardian analysis showed:

Coal Mountain, West Virginia, which serves about 118 people, tops the list in our analysis, with its water system having the most violation points in the country: 595 points over five years. It has detected high levels of radionuclides, disinfection byproducts, arsenic, lead and copper, nitrates and coliform. The county’s median household income is $35,460, which is about half of the US median household income. The community has seen a rise in mountaintop removal coal mining. The Appalachian Regional Commission – a federal-state partnership – said it was spending millions to upgrade the system.

The Klondike independent school district in Dawson county and Martin county, in West Texas, had 390 violation points over five years. Its roughly 270 students in grades pre-K through 12 could have been exposed to arsenic, nitrates, coliform bacteria, disinfectants and disinfection byproducts, copper, inorganic chemicals and radionuclides. The district spans 600 sq miles of oilfields and cotton and peanut farms. About half of the students are Latino, Superintendent Steve McLaren estimated. Klondike spent about $1m on upgrades to meet tightened standards, including some funds from a philanthropic foundation. “We want to do the right thing, but sometimes it’s difficult to do the right thing because of finances,” McLaren said.

Lubbock county, Texas, is home to 24 of the top 1,000 water systems with the most violation points, including those for mobile home parks, a children’s sports camp and an assisted living facility for seniors.

The smaller a water system is, the more likely it is to experience problems. That’s often because there are fewer customers to charge for needed upgrades.

The American Water Works Association—whose members supply most of the nation’s drinking water—acknowledged that small systems have fewer resources to fix problems. But it said many of their violations are for inadequate monitoring, not for contaminants.

Of the more than 140,000 public water systems in the US, more than 97% serve fewer than 10,000 people. Small systems can struggle to afford testing and treating the water, or even issuing the public violation notices that the federal government requires when contaminant levels are too high. There is no government agency dedicated to responding to chronic diseases from water contamination. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only responds to acute outbreaks, such as coliform bacteria.

“If no one is immediately dying, there’s no rush to do analysis on substances of concern,” said Carl Reeverts, a former program director at the EPA who was with the agency for 38 years. “Enforcement is incredibly low, and we don’t have a strong program for bringing people in line.”

Repeated reviews under the Obama administration found that states are not telling the EPA about violations. For violations from lead and copper pipes, for example, 92% are not reported by states to the federal government, according to the most according recent EPA audit, conducted in 2008. The EPA has since discontinued annual audits of state files as the result of budget cuts.

The current reporting system is a “mess”, according to the water researcher Dr Upmanu Lall, chair of the department of Earth and environmental engineering at Columbia University and director of the Columbia Water Center.

Lall’s research cites an up to 38% under-reporting of drinking water violations on average, according to government data. Lall said most water systems test only at the plant, not at the point of use – meaning they can miss major problems such as contamination from lead pipes.

Lall doesn’t blame the people running the water systems, who largely live in the communities they serve. The systems are cash strapped, and banks are charging more and more for loans to update infrastructure. So they cut corners, trim staff, or stop monitoring and treating altogether, he said.

In addition to lacking tracking and enforcement, water standards aren’t strong enough to begin with, according to former EPA officials. The US government requires monitoring for 94 contaminants, not including known health hazards like PFAS, the “forever chemicals” that have been implicated in cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility and thyroid disease. PFAS include nonstick substances used in cookware and firefighting foam and are being discovered in water supplies around the country.

In a statement responding to this story, an EPA spokesperson said the agency would work with states to analyze and address “compliance challenges in struggling drinking water systems” and target assistance to underserved communities. It said it had a number of programs to assist disadvantaged communities and provided “technical assistance to help address lead and other regulated contaminants” and understood the “urgent need” to evaluate and address PFAS in drinking water.

The most recent to be regulated by the agency was arsenic, in 2003.

Of the roughly 10,000 known chemicals that can be in consumer products, most have not been closely studied for health impacts, so there is no information about what happens if they enter the water supply.

The US water regulation system has failed to protect the most vulnerable Americans for decades, under both Republican and Democratic presidents. Donald Trump weakened rules that could fight water contamination at the source, where agriculture giants and industrial corporations are polluting groundwater. Joe Biden will seek to reverse those changes, but setting or tightening a standard for how much of a dangerous substance can be in drinking water is an arduous process.

Clean water advocates are calling for a significant injection of federal resources and a revamp of regulations to make it easier to protect the public, and harder for industry to resist tighter standards.

“Relying on the federal government is not going to get you very far,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist with the EWG. “Federal standards fall far behind what we know is necessary for human health.”