Arsenic levels in drinking water exceed federal safety levels in more than 60 rural Texas communities, and federal officials need to step in because the state isn't doing enough to notify residents of the dangers, according to a report released Monday by a national environmental group.
The Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project analyzed more than a decade of Texas data that showed about 51,000 people in 34 of those communities have been exposed to contaminated drinking water for at least a decade, many at levels several times higher than the arsenic limit. The group said Texas needs to do more to warn residents about the risks of exposure to arsenic, a naturally occurring carcinogen.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which collected the data, confirmed that 65 communities' water exceeded the limit for arsenic, most of them in West Texas and near the Gulf Coast. But the agency said all but two were "under enforcement" by the state or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, meaning the operators of those communities' water systems have been ordered to implement better filters and faced fines.
TCEQ spokesman Terry Clawson said arsenic levels typically found in Texas "do not pose an immediate health threat," and that "the potential danger of arsenic intake is very specifically detailed" in advisories the agency sends to communities. He said the agency doesn't provide funding for cleanup, but gives communities information about potential funding sources.
That isn't enough, according to the Environmental Integrity Project and other experts who called on the EPA to intervene.
They noted that the TCEQ advisory sent to affected communities warns that people who drink water containing more than the federal safety standard of arsenic -- 10 parts per billion -- could develop cancer or circulatory issues, yet states: "This is not an emergency. You do not need to use an alternative water supply."
Joseph Graziano, an environmental sciences professor at Columbia University who focuses on human exposure to metals, said the advisory is "completely inadequate." He said the notice should inform residents of home filtration systems, expand on the adverse health effects of exposure, and identify the most vulnerable populations, including pregnant women and children.
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Graziano noted that children aren't commonly tested for arsenic nationwide. The report said Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine and Washington tell people not to drink water with more arsenic than 10 parts per billion.
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Excessive arsenic in groundwater isn't rare in the Southwest and New England, and largely comes from minerals dissolved from weathered rocks and soil, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The USGS estimates that about 35 million Americans are exposed to arsenic levels above the federal standard, including about 13 million people who draw water from private wells and aren't subject to the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Arsenic is also found in industrial products, including pesticides, paint and wood preservatives. It can build up inside iron pipes and storage tanks, and then be released in dangerous amounts when there is a change in flow rates or water chemistry.
Like other state environmental agencies, the TCEQ is legally obligated to notify communities whose water systems are tainted with levels of arsenic exceeding a maximum contaminant level of 10 parts per billion, the federal limit established by EPA in 2001. States had five years to comply. In instances where a public water supply fails to meet the federal standard, TCEQ mails its public advisory.
The residents of Kenedy, a city in South Texas near the Eagle Ford Shale — a massive oil and gas field — have been receiving TCEQ notices for years. Arsenic levels there have averaged 16 parts per billion since 2002, state records show.
The city's public works department has imposed strict water restrictions while it raises money to build a new well and purchase an additional arsenic absorber for its reverse osmosis water treatment plant, according to Sandra Lindquist, the city secretary.
"We're just doing everything we can to try to solve the problem," she told The Associated Press on Monday.
The environmental group's report said it was vital for government to notify the public when water is contaminated, noting the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Government officials for months said the city's water supply was safe to drink despite residents' complaints about its color and smell. Researchers later found high lead levels in the blood of local children and traced it to Flint's water supply, which had been switched before the complaints started.