Checkered kitchen sink with waterHow clean is your tap water? Access database via EWG Tap Water Database

In April 2015, Deborah Graham, a resident of the tiny town of Salisbury, North Carolina, received a letter from the North Carolina Division of Public Health, who wanted to let her know that the water coming out of her tap–the same water she used to fill her kids’ water bottles and cook dinner–was chock-full of vanadium, a coal-ash-derived chemical that causes nausea and, later in life, neurological decline. The public health authority also sent notices to 424 other households in the state.

Duke Energy, which supplies electricity for the state, had been depositing the ash created by burning coal into 32 pits throughout the state for decades. Coal ash contains radioactive materials and heavy metals; when it’s deposited into the pits, which are often unlined ponds, contaminants seep into the groundwater, through the local water system pipes, and from there make their way into people’s taps, water glasses, and bodies.

In the film From the Ashes, a Bloomberg Philanthropies-produced documentary that premiered last month, we see Graham hauling 24-packs of bottled water into her home to drink and cook with, while waging an advocacy battle against Duke Energy, demanding that the utility shell out the tens of millions it will take to clean up the water supply.

“It’s the only available database that is this comprehensive and tells Americans what they’re drinking.” [Photo: caristo/iStock]

Graham’s situation is far from unique. The Environmental Working Group’s updated Tap Water Database aggregated data from 2010 to 2015 from 50,000 utilities across all 50 states, and found traces of over 250 contaminants. Over 160 of those contaminants are unregulated, which means that despite their known adverse health effects, there’s no law limiting their presence in water supplies.The database was first launched in 2004, Nneka Leiba, EWG’s director of healthy living science, tells Fast Company; since then, updates were released in 2009 and now in 2017. “One of the reasons it takes us a while to update the database is also one of the reasons why it’s so important,” she says. “It’s the only available database that is this comprehensive and tells Americans what they’re drinking.”

Anyone can access the database, enter their zip code, and see a list of utilities that serve their area, as well as the contaminants found in their water. While the Environmental Protection Agency sets legal limits, measured in parts per billion (ppb) on a handful of chemicals, like chloroform and trichloroacetic acid (both known carcinogens); under those regulations, water utilities must comply with a certain level of contamination or face a fine. But legal limits, Leiba says, are not necessarily health-protective limits. “They’re a compromise between health, cost, and feasibility,” she says. What the EWG has done with this update of the Tap Water Database is to develop and establish what they’re calling “EWG standards,” which reflect truly health-protective limits. “So for nitrates, we’re not looking at 10 ppb, which is the legal limit; we’re looking at how many people are affected by levels over 5 ppb, which could be cancerous,” Leiba says.

Continue reading in Fast Company

Originally written by Eillie Anzilotti in Fast Company