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Caution: Harmful If Swallowed Much Of U.S. Drinking Water Contaminated, Studies Show

With Congress moving toward a major rewrite of the laws governing the purity of America’s drinking-water supplies, two environmental groups on Thursday released studies showing that almost half of the nation’s drinking-water systems have exposed consumers to sickening contaminants such as lead, pesticides and the parasite cryptosporidium, placing at risk the health of more than 53 million Americans.

“Contaminated water has become commonplace in America,” said Richard Wiles, president of the Environmental Working Group and co-author of a study titled, “In the Drink.” Congress’s efforts to relax regulations, he added, “might seem a good idea, but not if it allows polluters to relieve themselves into our drinking water.”

In two separate reports, the Environmental Working Group and the Natural Resources Defense Council concluded that the water supply of 45 million Americans has been tainted over the past two years with cryptosporidium - the microorganism that made 400,000 ill and killed more than 100 in Milwaukee in 1993 - and that 53 million Americans during the same period have received tapwater laced with levels of lead, pesticides and chlorine by-products that exceed the federal standards.

Both groups have lobbied aggres sively to tighten existing laws and regulations governing the use of pesticides, and have warned frequently of the public health dangers of industrial contaminants. In many cases, they have sought considerably more regulation than that sought by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The studies mark the environmental community’s opening salvo in an effort to slow Republican lawmakers’ drive to roll back federal regulations. Last year, such activist groups were hopeful they could strengthen water purity laws. But with a new Republican majority ruling the House and Senate, they are finding they can do little more than hold the line against changes sought by lawmakers hostile to federal regulation.

The House in mid-May voted to reauthorize the Clean Water Act with major changes that would relax requirements for industries, farms and cities to treat their wastewater before releasing it into the nation’s lakes, rivers and oceans. And lawmakers later this month are expected to begin redrafting the Safe Drinking Water Act, which establishes standards for tap water, in a bid to ease rules on water treatment agencies across the nation.

Many of the water treatment organizations whose failure to comply with federal purity standards chronicled by the two environmental groups have lobbied hard for changes in the Safe Drinking Water Act. They have argued that the law’s purification, monitoring and enforcement provisions are costly to apply and frequently are not justified by the proven health effects of such contaminants. But the authors of the study contend that tainted water may be the cause of many illnesses, such as stomach distress or long-term loss of mental capacity, which are frequently not linked to water consumption.

While declaring that their conclusions did not warrant public panic, the authors of the two reports urged Americans to press lawmakers to oppose any loosening of existing laws. In the meantime, they urged Americans with compromised immune systems - the elderly, those undergoing chemotherapy, and those living with AIDS to take special care to avoid the contaminants, choosing perhaps to boil their water before consuming it.

Nationally, 1,172 water systems, serving a total of 11.6 million, reported contamination with fecal coliform, which causes gastro-intestinal illnesses. Lead, which causes permanent loss in mental capacity in children, appeared to be the second most common water contaminant nationally. Violations of federal standards for lead were reported in 2,551 systems nationwide, serving 10.3 million people.

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