A new report by the Environmental Integrity Project says that an alarming number of Texans are drinking poison and that state officials are underestimating or flat-out ignoring the problem.
For the past two years, arsenic concentrations in 65 Texas community water systems (which serve more than 82,000 people) have exceeded the federal limit, according to Don’t Drink the Water, a March 14 report published by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. The 21-page document, which analyzed and scrutinized Texas Commission on Environmental Quality data, states that approximately 51,000 people in 34 communities have been subjected to contaminated tap water for years.
For example, in Jim Hogg County in South Texas, more than 5,000 people have been exposed to arsenic concentrations more than four times the limit in the Safe Drinking Water Act for at least five years, state records show. In the City of Seagraves, in West Texas, 2,396 residents have been exposed to water with arsenic more than triple the health standard for more than a decade.
Despite the health risks, Texas fails to tell consumers to stop drinking the water and instead implies that it is safe. When local water utilities find violations, federal law requires local water utilities to tell consumers that lifetime exposure to arsenic concentrations above 10 [parts per billion] may increase cancer risk. But Texas also requires the advisories to state: “This is not an emergency…You do not need to use an alternative water supply.”
According to the report, the Bordeaux Gardens subdivision in Tomball is polluted with vile arsenic water. Rural communities that depend on groundwater in Chambers, Jackson and Polk counties have also been affected. Health experts have linked the lethal carcinogen to lung and kidney cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory problems and other serious health ailments.
In 2006, the federal Safe Drinking Act placed stricter mandates on what constitutes safe arsenic levels in the water (from 50 parts per billion to 10 parts per billion). Michael Honeycutt, director of the toxicology division at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, told the Texas Tribune that the Environmental Integrity Project findings don’t signify a “stop drinking your water” issue and that some of the drinking water simply “might not taste very good.”
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Unlike in Flint, lawmakers trying to save a buck didn’t manufacture the toxic-water problem. Arsenic exists naturally in Texas’s soil, and state law requires arsenic groundwater tests every three years.
“But in both Michigan and Texas, the state governments compounded the water contamination problems – and allowed people’s exposure to damaging toxins to continue — by not communicating clearly with consumers,” says the Environmental Integrity Project report.
The drinking water disaster in Flint, Michigan, reminds us how important it is for government to let the public know when to avoid drinking contaminated water. Federal law requires system operators to notify customers on a quarterly and annual basis when their drinking water violates standards for arsenic or other pollutants. But Texas is far from clear with its residents.
Whatever is intended, the Texas notices seem likely to lead some people to continue drinking contaminated water. Telling consumers they don’t need to replace water contaminated by arsenic suggests the water somehow remains safe to drink. While the law requires drinking water utilities to meet federal arsenic limits, it does not prohibit Texans or anyone else from drinking or cooking with water loaded with arsenic or other pollutants. But should the state suggest to its citizens that it is safe to do so?