Curious if your tap water is safe to drink? For Treasure Valley residents, it’s a tricky question to answer.
Nonprofit Environmental Working Group can help fill in some of the blanks thanks to the group’s tap water database, which records pollutant data in drinking water throughout the U.S.
For zip code 83702, which encompasses much of downtown Boise, the North End and the Boise Foothills, there are several contaminants well above recommended levels. Focusing specifically on water provider Suez, which services approximately 228,790 people in the 83702 zip code, 12 contaminants that exceed EWG health guidelines have been detected.
Primarily, a type of haloacetic acid, HAA5, has been detected in Suez water 220 times above what’s recommended in EWG health guidelines, while another — HAA9 — 498 times. Haloacetic acids are byproducts formed when disinfectants like chlorine are added to tap water and interact with other chemicals or organic matter.
HAA5 is found at 22 parts per billion in Suez water, with EWG’s guideline recommending just 0.1 ppb. HAA9, which includes the five acids in HAA5 plus four others, is found at 29.9 ppb in Suez Water, with EWG’s guideline recommending 0.06 ppb.
“Even at very low concentrations over long periods of time, consuming water with disinfection byproducts can lead to health risks,” EWG science analyst Sydney Evans told the Idaho Statesman on Wednesday.
Long-term exposure to haloacetic acids can increase the risk of bladder cancer, Evans said, as well as pregnancy risks such as low birth weight or preterm birth.
But it’s not just a simple matter of getting rid of haloacetic acids in the water. Evans said water where pathogens may be present, and cause harm, must be disinfected.
“But it’s this balance between adding those disinfectants and destroying the pathogens, and also decreasing the amount of these byproducts that form as a result,” Evans said.
Another issue EWG faces is that the nonprofit recommends a limit that’s much lower than what’s legally required. The legal limit for HAA5 is 60 ppb, while HAA9 doesn’t even have a legal limit. Additionally, many of the limits haven’t been updated in a long time, Evans said, and since the last update, a lot has been learned about the damage these haloacetic acids cause.
Suez water for the downtown Boise area also contains 192 times the EWG recommendation of trihalomethanes, another byproduct of disinfection, and 720 times the recommendation of arsenic, a naturally occurring mineral in water that can cause cancer.
Evans said it is hard to talk about the risks of contaminants like haloacetic acids because the health effects occur over such a long period, and it is difficult to pin a health issue on drinking water.
“Because disinfection is a necessary and widespread practice for most community water sources, just about everybody has disinfection byproducts in their drinking water,” Evans said. “So when we’re talking about even a small increase in risk, … when you’re talking about that many people, that’s a huge number of potential illnesses or cancer cases that are preventable by reducing exposure.”
You can view the contaminants in your water by searching your zip code and clicking on your water provider on EWG’s tap water database.
What can you do to help?
In the 1940s, contaminants called PFAs, or forever chemicals, began being produced worldwide as part of nonstick cookware and other kitchen appliances. Through decades of use, PFAs have come to contaminate water, soil, and even human blood because the compound never broke down.
Pressure from the public in the early 2000s has led to several states banning PFAs in food containers and other appliances over the past two decades. Evans hopes similar public pressure can result in a change in drinking water.
“While sometimes it can feel like such a big issue to tackle with drinking water, and it doesn’t feel like one person can do a lot, if everybody just sits back and says, ‘Oh, I’m one person, one phone call to my local representative isn’t going to make a difference,’ we’re never gonna get anywhere,” Evans said.
“It definitely does make a difference,” she continued. “Sometimes some issues take longer, they take more voices, but we all have to put in our part and let local officials know, our state officials, that this does matter because that’s how we get change to happen.”
EWG also provides a list of different water filters at the bottom of the detected contaminants page that can help filter out harmful chemicals and compounds.
The three primary filters that EWG recommends are activated carbon filters, reverse osmosis filters and ion exchange filters. Faucet filters and filter pitchers are cheap examples of carbon filters, but Evans also acknowledges that many filter options are expensive and out of peoples’ price range.
“It shouldn’t be on an individual to make sure that their drinking water is safe,” Evans said. “These are community issues that are going to take community voices.”
Shaun Goodwin is a service journalism reporter at the Idaho Statesman. If you like stories like this, please consider supporting our work with a subscription to our newspaper.
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