As California continues to grapple with drought, almost 56,000 Californians are exposed to drinking water that exceeds the federal safety standards for arsenic, according to a recent study.
“More than three years after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found California in noncompliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, 95 community water systems in the state, serving more than 55,000 people, are still providing water with illegal levels of arsenic,” states the report from the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), which states 55,985 people are affected.
Arsenic naturally occurs in California’s groundwater, and the powerful carcinogen can cause damage in children’s developing brains and cause hypertension, diabetes and other ailments. A well-known poison at higher doses, arsenic can cause cancers of the lung, kidney, bladder, skin and other organs at lower doses with prolonged exposure.
One of the main issues with state’s handling of the exposure is the lack of proper warning for people in poorer communities, who have been exposed to excessive arsenic levels for at least five years, according to the report.
“California public water systems notify customers through letters sent to homes whenever water fails to meet health limits for arsenic, but those same notices suggest the water is safe to drink,” EIP executive director Eric Schaeffer told TakePart.
According to Schaeffer, the notices state “this is not an emergency; you do to need to use an alternative water supply, e.g., bottled water.”
“I think most people reading that would assume you can continue to drink water with arsenic that violates standards,” he added.
Despite the tricky wording in the notices, residents are still cautious when it comes to the water.
Maricela Mares-Alatorre told the Fresno Bee that her 8-year-old daughter makes sure not to ingest any of the tap water when she brushes her teeth.
“She’s really scared of it,” said Mares-Alatorre.
“Public health experts say that drinking water with arsenic is a lot like smoking,” EIP director of communications Tom Pelton told CBS San Franciso Bay Area. “When you smoke a cigarette you’re not going to drop dead immediately from one cigarette but the longer you smoke the bigger your cancer risk. It’s just not right in the richest country in the world that we should have people drinking contaminated water.”
State Water Resources Control Board spokesman Andrew Diluccia told TakePart that municipal system customers are not advised to avoid affected water because “arsenic is categorized as a chronic contaminant that poses possible health risks after long-term exposure — 70-plus years of drinking two liters of arsenic-contaminated water a day above the maximum contaminant level. There are no known acute/immediate health effects that would cause consumers to immediately stop drinking the water.”
A May 2016 examination of California’s online records revealed that the water had arsenic levels that exceeded the federal standard of 10 ppb in 2014 and 2015, according to the report.
However, in the last three years, the state has made progress in reducing arsenic and other contaminants found in the drinking water.
“The State Water Board Division of Drinking Water is working with each of these communities to return them to compliance,” Deputy Director of the Division of Drinking Water at the Water Resources Board Cindy Forbes said in the study. “District Office staff are working with these communities to evaluate alternative solutions, including new treatment options, new wells or modification of existing wells, and in some instances consolidation with larger water systems that can provide drinking water that meets all standards.
“The State Water Board is also helping communities that are struggling financially to reach compliance by offering financial assistance to solutions through low-interest loans and grants.”