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Water Contaminant Database Sparks Concerns

Recently, there has been an uptick in media interest in drinking water contaminants, thanks in part to the release of the Tap Water Database (Database), by the Environmental Working Group (EWG).  According to its website, the EWG obtained water testing data for the period of 2010 to 2015 from all 50 States.

The information in the Database can be confusing because EWG made its assessments based on non-enforceable health guidelines published by health and environmental agencies, including the State of California; EWG’s own research; as well as Federal legal limits.  When residents and journalists search the EWG Database, they may find that the local drinking water systems exceed contaminant limits listed by the EWG. 

“Water systems need to be in compliance with the regulations established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and any drinking water regulations imposed by the primary agency in their respective State.  It is unfortunate that this report makes it appear that many drinking water systems across the country have dangerous levels of contaminants, when in many cases they are operating well within Federal and State requirements and guidelines,” says Nate Weisenburger, AE2S Drinking Water Practice Leader.   

When the local media looked up the City of St. Cloud, Minnesota on the Tap Water Database, they found EWG detected six contaminants above levels defined by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment as a risk to public health.  Patrick Shea, St. Cloud’s Director of Public Services, seized the opportunity to correct misinformation and educate the public about St. Cloud’s award-winning water.

“The City of St. Cloud’s drinking water is compliant with all Federal drinking water standards.  Many health guideline levels listed on the Environmental Working Group’s database are 100 times more stringent than the Environmental Protection Agency requires, and many commercial laboratories cannot test to those levels," says Shea. 

In August, the Minnesota Department of Health gave St. Cloud the Source Water Protection Award because of the City’s ongoing commitment to protecting the community’s water supply.  In addition, the American Water Works Association (AWWA) named St. Cloud’s water the 2016 Best in Glass, the award for the State’s best tasting tap water.    

“Residents of St. Cloud are dedicated to clean and safe drinking water as shown by the continued investment in water quality initiatives and projects. St. Cloud GREATER is not just a slogan; it is what we do. Effectively communicating how investments are benefiting water quality is critical to making sure the ratepayer/tax payer is getting the value they deserve,” says Shea. 

The AWWA’s Communications Department echoes Shea’s comments about the importance of providing information to the public.

AWWA Recommendations & Messaging for Responding to Questions about EWG’s Tap Water Database:

  1. Demonstrate empathy and caring for customers. Provide facts that demonstrate the truth about your water quality.

    Messaging: “We want people to know as much as possible about our water quality. In our experience, the more informed people are about their tap water quality, the more confidence they have in it.”

  2. Emphasize your organization’s commitment to high quality water rather than focusing on the advocacy group.

    Messaging: “We are committed to providing superior quality water that exceeds the high standards for safety under the Safe Drinking Water Act.”

  3. Do not comment or speculate about the updated data to the media without reviewing it first.

    Messaging: “The report in question is incorrect in places [point out errors of fact for your data]. It is also misleading in places [point out areas that are misleading].”

  4. Be broadly familiar with your Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR) and compliance data, and be prepared to speak to it, particularly as it relates to maximum contaminant levels, health advisories, state criteria, etc.

    Messaging: “We encourage those interested in learning more about our community’s water to [call/visit our website/see our Consumer Confidence Report].”

Click here to search for your utility on the EWG’s Tap Water Database. Utilities that find errors the database should contact the EWG directly at