Cancer water? Unsafe drinking water puts 15,000 Californians at risk, study says

Federal regulations won’t necessarily protect you from cancer-causing water in California.

In a new Environmental Working Group study published on Tuesday, researchers determined that toxic drinking water could lead to more than 15,000 lifetime cancer cases throughout the state.

The report included first-time research on how the presence of multiple carcinogens in drinking water increases cancer risks. Regulators currently assess individual hazards instead of evaluating combinations of multiple pollutants found in drinking water.

The study’s authors evaluated state and federal data that revealed arsenic, byproducts of disinfectants and chromium-6 — the chemical that inspired Erin Brockovich’s environmental activism — in more than 2,700 state water systems from 2011 to 2015.

There are close to 40 million residents living in California and an estimated 1 million living without access to safe drinking water. Nearly every Californian is exposed to unsafe drinking water, according to the researchers, Tasha Stoiber and Olga Naidenko.

Nearly 5,000 people out of 3.1 million Californians in small- to medium-sized communities could develop cancer because they’re drinking water from close to 500 contaminated systems.

Another 28.5 million Californians are drinking from more than 1,100 contaminated systems, leading to a potential 10,427 lifetime cancer cases.

The report’s release coincides with a push by Gov. Gavin Newsom and some state lawmakers to create a new drinking water fee that would pay for improvements in communities with unsafe tap water.

Critics have derided the proposal as a “water tax.” Newsom and other advocates counter that the state requires dedicated funding to make essential changes.

“We’ve identified around 300 communities that are impacted from the Oregon border to the Mexican border,” said state Sen. Bill Monning, a Democrat from Carmel who is sponsoring safe drinking water legislation. “There’s very few counties that can’t point to a disadvantaged community that’s facing this challenge right now. It is an environmental justice issue as recognized in the report.”

Stoiber and Naidenko noted that 90 percent of California’s water systems met federal standards in the last seven years. But that doesn’t mean the water is safe to drink, they said, writing that federal laws and drinking water regulations are not strong enough.

“Legal limits are based on economic and political considerations that usually don’t reflect the lower levels that scientists have found pose health risks,” they wrote. “Indeed, over 85 percent of the cancer risk calculated in the EWG study is due to contaminants that were below legal limits.”

The researchers urged lawmakers to “fix the badly broken system.”

“I think it’s been clear from the beginning that this is absolutely an issue that impacts health in communities that lack access to safe drinking water,” said Michael Claiborne, senior attorney with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, an environmental and social justice nonprofit based in Fresno. “But there’s been a real lack of data to point to, to back that up. Especially of multiple contaminants below standards.”

Senate Bill 200, Monning’s proposal, would establish a “long-term sustainable funding source” to maintain and supply clean water to certain communities. Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia’s Assembly Bill 217 would impose agricultural fees to build the that funding source, to be combined with general fund dollars.

Last year, similar proposals died in the Legislature.

Monning and Claiborne think the legislation will fare better this time.

“This is an effort that’s really lasted too long,” Claiborne said. “It feels like everything is coming together, it’s right here. We just have to get it over the finish line.”

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Hannah Wiley joined The Bee as a legislative reporter in 2019. She produces the morning newsletter for Capitol Alert and previously reported on immigration, education and criminal justice. She’s a Chicago-area native and a graduate of Saint Louis University and Northwestern.