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Why are Dangerous Chemicals Still Allowed in America's Drinking Water?

Environmental law professor James Salzman contributes perspective about the history of the Safe Drinking Water Act

Sep 24 2020 via Consumer Reports

Woman holding glass of water

Why are dangerous chemicals still allowed in America's drinking water? James Salzman, professor of environmental law at Bren and UCLA Law School, joins other environmental law and policy experts, scientists, and contributors to this article


Part of the problem, researchers say, is that Congress has also made it hard for the EPA to act.

It wasn’t always so. When Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974, it granted the EPA authority to regulate drinking water. Soon after, the agency adopted standards for about two dozen contaminants, according to research by James Salzman, an environmental law professor at UCLA.

But over the next two decades, water utilities began to push back, citing the high cost of removing contaminants, and in 1996, Congress amended the Safe Drinking Water Act. The amendments “basically gutted the law,” making future regulation unlikely, says Erik Olson, senior strategic director of health and food at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental organization.

The EPA says it has issued several drinking water regulations to “strengthen public health protection” since 1996, including revisions for arsenic, bacteria, and water served on airplanes.

But since then the EPA hasn’t implemented a new standard for a previously unregulated contaminant. “The agency has not been able to muster the energy or the political will to jump through all those hoops and regulate a single new chemical through that process in 24 years,” Olson says.

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