The City of Tallahassee advertises that the water it provides to its 188,000 customers was voted “Best Tasting Drinking Water” in Florida and that it meets or exceeds the guidelines set forth in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Safe Drinking Water Act. But some local citizens and health advocates are sounding the alarm about the presence of 37 contaminants found in Tallahassee water.
Ronald Saff, a physician and the former health and environment columnist for the Tallahassee Democrat, has been leading the charge, drafting letters to the editor and bringing the issue to the attention of the City Commission at their regular meetings.
Recent water testing reports analyzed by the D.C.-based watchdog Environmental Working Group found a total of 37 contaminants, 18 of which exceed health guidelines established by state and federal health agencies. The list of contaminants includes arsenic, lead, and perc, a chemical agent used in dry cleaners with links to Parkinson’s disease.
City utility general manager Mike Tadros says those standards “are set at very stringent levels.”
“What he’s neglecting to tell us is that these ‘stringent levels’ are not enough to protect human health,” says Saff, responding to Tadros’ claims. “Tallahassee tap water is horribly polluted.” Saff quotes Pankaj Parekh, the director of water quality for Los Angeles: “People don’t understand that just because water is technically legal, it can still present health risks.”
The nonprofit EWG’s four-year study on national drinking standards tested water utilities that serve 250,000 people or more, basing their score on three factors: the total number of chemicals detected since 2004; the percentage of chemicals found of those tested; and the highest average level for an individual pollutant, relative to legal limits or national average amounts, including for the most common pollutants — disinfection by-products, nitrate, and arsenic.
From this data, a list of 100 cities was produced, ranking them according to their pollutant levels. While the Emerald Coast Water Utility in Pensacola was the biggest violator, other notable Florida municipalities to make the bottom end of the list include Jacksonville (JEA), Orlando Utilities Commission, Tampa Water Department, Hillsborough County Water Resource Services, and Pinellas County Utilities.
Of the more than 300 pollutants cataloged by the EWG in water systems nationwide, more than half are unregulated and therefore legal in any amount, and no law exists to address the cumulative effects of multiple pollutants in tap water.
“What are the combined effects of these chemicals? The EPA doesn’t look at that,” says Linda Young, director of the Clean Water Network of Florida. Her organization has been fighting for more rigorous regulations over the last 15 years, conducting studies and proposing standards to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection that have been systematically ignored.
According to Young, in addition to lax drinking water standards, Florida only regulates about 36 of the 90 or so carcinogens found in fish. Last year, the CWN filed a petition with the EPA demanding they take action on the issue since the state has so far refused to do so. The EPA has not responded. The only recourse for Young’s organization is to sue in order to have a court mandate that either the DEP or EPA begin providing meaningful leadership on the matter.
In April, the president’s Cancer Panel produced a report entitled “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk,” which recommends filtering home tap or well water as an effective method of decreasing exposure to numerous known or suspected carcinogens and endocrine-disrupting chemicals. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson recently told The New York Times that “since chemicals are ubiquitous in our economy, our environment, our water resources, and our bodies, we need better authority so we can assure the public that any unacceptable health risks have been eliminated. But, under existing law, we cannot give that assurance.”
Since many of today’s pollutants have no odor or taste, the distinction of having the state’s best-tasting water doesn’t mean much. The city’s own “acceptable risk level” leaves much to be desired by those closely monitoring the situation. “People assume if water is coming out of the sink, it’s safe,” says Young. “There is no safe level of dioxins.”
Tallahassee Mayor John Marks claimed to be “taken aback” after the brief presentation offered by Saff and a colleague at a City Commission meeting in early May. “It raises a whole host of issues,” he said. “I believe we should take a look at it as suggested.”
Several messages left with the mayor’s office seeking comment for this article were not returned.