(This piece was originally published on July 26, 2017 in The Indianapolis Star.)

More than a handful of potentially harmful contaminants some that are linked to cancer, brain and nervous system damage or developmental defects have been detected in Indianapolis’ drinking water, according to a new database released Wednesday by the Environmental Working Group.

None of the contaminants exceeded the legal limits set by the Safe Water Drinking Act the standard that the federal government uses to determine whether water is safe to drink. The new report also suggests that the quality of drinking water in the city has improved since the last report in 2009.

That said, the testing raises some concern because nine of the contaminants, including arsenic, chloroform and radiological chemicals, were still found in amounts exceeding what many scientists and health experts say are safe, the advocacy group reports.

“Drinking water is one of the most consistent exposures throughout the population, so it needs to be one of our biggest priorities,” said Environmental Health Director Dr. Indra Frank of the Hoosier Environmental Council. “We are all dependent on having adequate water every day.”

The Environmental Working Group, or EWG, has collected and analyzed data from nearly 50,000 public water utilities across all 50 states and the District of Columbia to produce the most complete source on the quality of drinking water.

In Indianapolis, Citizens Energy Group, which provides the city’s water, tested for over 100 different contaminants and detected 24, including the nine that exceeded the recommended health guidelines. Among those posing a health risk: Atrazine, which can cause cancer or harm the reproductive system; chlorate, which can impair thyroid function; and hexavalent chromium, which also can lead to cancer.

Many of these contaminants can be traced to agricultural and industrial runoff. Others are byproducts from the disinfection process.

Still, Citizens Energy said residents shouldn’t be concerned with the report results.

Dan Moran, director of water quality and systems control at Citizens, said that those results aren’t necessarily surprising as the group’s water plants frequently test and monitor the water supply. The numbers presented in the database are from the utility provided through the state’s Department of Environmental Management.

“I wish we were a pristine mountain stream watershed, but we are not, and we are aware of that and have our systems set up to account for that,” Moran told IndyStar. “We definitely recognize that this is a consumable product and we have families and children and everyone consuming this water.”

The utility sets strict standards for itself and has a more rigorous monitoring process than many utilities, Moran said. It takes a four-pronged approach to cleaning up the water: removing solids such as dirt, disinfecting for bacteria and microorganisms, removing organics such as leaf decay as well as herbicides, and removing inorganics such as metals.

But during the disinfection process for herbicides such as Atrazine one of the detected chemicals byproducts such as chlorate and chloroform are often produced.

Citizens Lab Services Manager Mark Gray said it’s a balancing act to ensure the water is clean and removed of bacteria and chemicals while at the same time keeping resulting harmful contaminants in check. Gray added that he had no qualms about making his baby formula with water straight from the tap.

Moran and Gray said that at the end of the day, what matters is that the results are under legal limits.

“Ultimately, the regulatory levels have been deemed safe for consumption,” Moran said, “so we feel confident that if we are meeting the regulatory limits, then the water is safe to drink.”

That is part of the rub, said EWG senior scientist David Andrews, also a lead researcher on the Tap Water Database.

Many of the limits set by the Safe Water Drinking Act, he said, are out of date or were set with political and cost considerations in mind. Many other contaminants, including a handful of those detected in Indianapolis, don’t have any regulatory limits because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not added a new chemical to the list of regulated contaminants in 20 years.

That is in large part why the Environmental Working Group chose to look at the latest science and research on what levels pose health risks. The majority of those guidelines were defined by EPA goals or by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, which Andrews said has conducted some of the most robust drinking water quality research.

The group published its last national drinking water report in 2009. In that report, Indianapolis ranked among the worst big cities in the U.S. with 25 different pollutants found 11 of which exceeded health guidelines and two above legal limits. The latest report includes data from testing performed in 2010-15.

The group chose to forgo rankings this time, saying it was not a fair comparison or representation of cities’ water quality. Still, the results in this report suggest some improvement.

The city’s Department of Public Works said that Citizens Energy Group is not required to report to them but must adhere to state and federal guidelines. The department declined to comment further.

Frank, Moran and Andrews all said the key to continue to improve drinking water quality is starting with the source.

It is critical to stop the pollution before it reaches the water supply, Frank with the Environmental Council said. That includes minimizing agricultural and industrial runoff.

In the meantime, consumers are not completely powerless.

Andrews recommends implementing a water filtration system, advising that anything from the low-cost option of carbon filters in a water pitcher to the more involved process of a reverse osmosis system will help.

EWG hopes that consumers will use their database you can search by putting in a zip code or utility name will arm the public with information about the water they are drinking and motivate them to call for more rigorous standards and accountability.

“Water is a little out of sight and out of mind, and it’s definitely more difficult to set health-protective limits for many of these contaminants that can’t be seen and can’t be tested and the effects don’t show themselves for decades,” Andrews said. “But the long-term health benefits of having a health system that is robust in providing clean and safe drinking water cannot be overstated.”

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