What's In Houston's Water?

Recently, a non profit called The Environmental Working Group released a study of drinking water quality across the nation. Out of the 100 largest cities, Houston ranked 95th on their list. From the KUHF NewsLab, Melissa Galvez reports on what this means for the water coming out of your tap.

Benzene.  Atrazine. Acetone. Dibromochloromethane. 

Those are a few of the 46 chemicals detected in Houston's drinking water from 2004- 2008, according to records submitted to the state by the City of Houston. In comparison, Austin reported only 12 chemicals. Richard Wiles, Senior Vice President at the Environmental Working Group, says his organization compared data from the one hundred largest cities in the country, and the rankings reveal some stark differences.

"It means that the Houston tap water is contaminated with lots of different chemicals when people drink it."

Houston never exceeded the legal limits for contaminants set by the EPA.  But with some chemicals, like arsenic, they went over what's called a "guideline"—the level that EPA says would cause NO damage to public health. For example, drinking arsenic at any level over a long period of time could be associated with bladder, lung, and skin cancer.  Here's Wiles:

"It's not the kind of thing where you're going to get sick immediately, but it's a chronic public health risk, that is real."

"For the most part we were shocked by the ranking we got." 

That's Alvin Wright, with the City of Houston Public Works Department.  He says the city does not deserve to be ranked 95th.

"We meet and exceed all federal and  state standards for drinking water quality, we have no historic public health issues, we treat water above and beyond regulatory requirements according to the American Waterworks Association. And for the most part our water is safe to drink."

Wright calls attention to one crucial detail in the study:  Houston tested their water over 22,000 times in those four years.  Austin and many other cities on the list tested less than 5,000 times.  So Houston's report shows lots of chemicals, but most are at trace levels — just a drop in the huge bucket.

In fact, Irina Cech, a professor of environmental science at the UT School of Public Health, says the levels of chemicals on the report are so low, there is no cause for alarm.

"It's a good intention, and it's very good that they publish that, but it needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The bottom line is we don't have much information about what those little levels do, if anything, and we might not have it for a long time because there's no money to do such fine experiments."

Cech says Houston still needs to watch momentary spikes of chemicals, but that in general the city does a good job.

Richard Wiles at EWG doesn't blame city utilities for pollution in the water, but he does think that something can and should be done about it.

"If this water is legal, which it is, then we have a real problem with the legal system.  We have a real problem with the federal law that says that tap water that has 46 chemical contaminants over a 4 year period is fine."

From the KUHF NewsLab, I'm Melissa Galvez.