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How Bad Is Water Pollution in America?

Environmental issues are a major interest of Kelley's, especially pollution, climate change, deforestation, and endangered species.

Storm water pollution

Storm water pollution

Tap Water in Many Parts of the US May Be Hazardous

Many Americans have been concerned about the quality of their drinking water since the 1970s, when the “Ecology Now” movement became popular. Some of their concerns may have been eased by passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 and the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974. The establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970, and the aforementioned legislative acts are supposed to guarantee that the quality of water for all Americans will be protected, but current events seem to show this goal has not been realized.

This article tries to prove that the quality of America’s drinking water is not good and that it seems to be getting worse every day. In addition to America’s need for improved roads, bridges and dams, a great deal needs to be done to repair aging water treatment facilities and to eliminate sources of water pollution. America’s drinking water is being poisoned by industrial chemicals, sewage, chemical fertilizers, and animal waste. It is also being negatively impacted by natural elements such as arsenic and lead. In addition to improving the quality of water, pollution assessment methods need to be improved so that actual levels of pollution can be accurately ascertained. People also need to know for certain what levels of pollution are considered to be toxic.

A coal-fired power plant in Illinois and its ash pits (foreground)

A coal-fired power plant in Illinois and its ash pits (foreground)

The polluted Tijuana River

The polluted Tijuana River

The Great Lakes from space

The Great Lakes from space

Algal blooms in Lake Erie

Algal blooms in Lake Erie

Half of America’s Water May Be Polluted

In a March 2022 article in the “Changing America” feature on the website The, a report by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP, an organization founded by former EPA attorneys) states that 50 per cent of the water in the US is too polluted for swimming, fishing or drinking. The report found that the results of water quality tests in all 50 states revealed an alarming amount of pollution in over 700,000 miles of rivers, streams, lakes and estuaries.

Some states have worse water pollution than others. Indiana, Oregon and South Carolina have some of the dirtiest water in the country, while Florida ranks #1 for having the most acres of polluted water in lakes; and California ranks #1 for miles of polluted rivers and streams.

Perplexingly, all states have different standards for monitoring the water quality in their respective states, perhaps because no guidelines have been provided by the EPA. And 50 years after passage of the Clean Water Act (CWA), standards for improving water quality have not been updated, even though the technology for doing so has dramatically improved over the decades. But a mandate within the CWA states that every five years the EPA must review standards for improving pollution controls.

The EIP also thinks the EPA needs to establish standards regarding the disposal of agricultural waste, such as nitrogen and phosphorous, which can cause toxic algal blooms in waterways; and the safe disposal of waste from pig, cattle, turkey and chicken processing plants, should be regulated as that of other large industries has been.

Are the Great Lakes Dying?

The December 2020 issue of National Geographic includes an in-depth article entitled “Saving the Great Lakes,” which analyzes the health of America’s greatest natural resource. The Great Lakes hold 5,500 cubic miles of water and one-fifth of the fresh surface water in the world. Unfortunately, pollution in the Great Lakes has never been worse. There many causes: agricultural runoff from the massive use of chemical fertilizers, human waste from overflowing sewers, toxic chemicals leaking from industrial sites and the incursion of invasive species such as zebra mussels, sea lampreys and Asian carp that has upset the ecological balance of the lakes.

Of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie is the most polluted, particularly since the early 2000s. The shallowest of the lakes, it is often covered with algal blooms brought about by the excessive use of chemical fertilizers used to produce bumper crops of corn and other vegetables. This causes an overload of nitrogen and phosphorus in the lake’s water, which promotes the growth of algae, greatly reducing life-giving oxygen in the water. Appropriately, these are called dead zones, and they plague all of the lakes except Lake Superior, the largest, deepest and cleanest of the five lakes.

Climate change has also raised the water temperature of the lakes, which stresses aquatic life. Much stronger storms in recent times have also increased precipitation, though helpful in some ways, has increased runoff into the lakes from a land filled with contaminants.

So what can be done to save the Great Lakes? First, make the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 as strong as ever—if not stronger—and use organic matter instead of chemical fertilizers. That would be a start, anyway.

Heavy Water Pollution from Tijuana, Mexico Pollutes the United States

As included in an article on the website for CBS News entitled “Raw Sewage Flowing into the Tijuana River Brings Toxic Sludge to California,” dated 5/31/20, as reported by Leslie Stahl on the TV program Sixty Minutes, tens of millions of galloons of raw sewage and industrial chemicals flows every day into the Tijuana River, which then crosses into the US, and neither Mexico nor the US seems willing to stop this toxic discharge.

Speaking to Amber Craig, a Border Patrol agent, Stahl said, “Let me read you a list that we found of stuff that is in this water: fecal coliforms, drug-resistant bacteria, benzene, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium medical waste, and DDT, which has been banned for years in the United States.”

The river and its drainage, which runs under a section of President Trump’s border wall that cost $50 million for a six-mile stretch, is a place where migrants try to sneak into the US, and the Border Patrol must wade into this very toxic water and chase them, an action that caused one border patrol agent to contract flesh-eating bacteria, and he nearly lost an arm.

This fetid brownish water enters a system of pools designed to treat the sewage but the system hasn’t worked for years, allowing untreated sewage and contaminates to flow into a stretch of the Pacific Ocean where Navy Seals practice their training and drills, at times swimming in the heavily polluted water, which has sickened many of them. Unbelievably, the Navy Seals are spending billions of dollars to expand this training base, which will put it even closer to this toxic fecal brew that nobody seems willing and able to clean up!

Bottled Water May Not Be Safe to Drink

As included in an article on entitled “A Study Says There Are High Levels of Arsenic in Bottled Water Sold at Whole Foods, Target and Walmart,” dated 6/20/19, bottled water may not be near as safe as it’s supposed to be, even though it’s considerably more expensive than tap water and often touted as being safe to drink.

The study, conducted by the California Center for Environmental Health, the bottled water sold under the brand names of Penãfiel (owned by Keurig Dr. Pepper) and Starkey (owned by Whole Foods), contains levels of arsenic that are higher than found in tap water and more than state guidelines recommend. The study also found that fruit juices for children contain heavy metals.

Pursuant to California state law, products that contain higher than recommended levels of contaminants such as arsenic must carry a warning label.

Tap Water in California May Increase Your Cancer Risk

As stated in the article “Drinking California Tap Water Could Lead to Higher Cancer Risk” on the website iHeartRadio, dated 4/30/19, a study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) says California’s drinking water could cause more than 15,000 excess cancer deaths - a risk of more than one additional case in 1,000 people over a lifetime. California’s tap water contains arsenic, uranium (and other radioactive elements), hexavalent chromium and disinfectant byproducts, all of which were found by the EWG in more than 2,700 community water sources tested from 2011 to 2015.

The greatest danger in this contaminated tap water is from ingesting arsenic, a naturally occurring element (and poison) often found in ground water, agricultural and industrial sources. There is no safe level of exposure to arsenic, per the authority of the website for the Centers for Disease Control. The authors of the EWG study point out that 47 per cent of cancer cases are caused by arsenic contamination.

Brita or other certified filters could be used for water purification, but experts stress that filtering one’s entire water source at your home and/or business is the best way to prevent carcinogens and pathogens from entering your drinking water.

By the way, according to the American Cancer Society, about 40 per cent of all Americans will get cancer in their lifetimes.

One-Fourth of America’s Drinking Water May Be Polluted

According to the article “A Wake-Up Call on Water Quality” in the March 2019 issue of National Geographic, America’s tap water may not be clean and safe, violating the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. Often lead and arsenic reach dangerous levels in America’s urban and rural areas, not just in places like Flint, Michigan, where the water is still unsafe. A major part of the problem is that the country’s water systems are old and in need of repair, if not modernizing.

The EPA regulates more than 90 contaminants, but at least a hundred more should be regulated and basic laws regarding water purity are being ignored across the country - and its territories. Much of Puerto Rico’s water was polluted before Hurricane Maria in 2017; now its so bad people are advised to boil it before drinking it.

The author of the article also points out that 98 per cent of the people in the US have perfluroalkyl substances (PFAS) in their bodies. PFAS are dumped into water supplies as manufacturers produce products such as nonstick pans, raincoats and firefighting foam. Unfortunately, PFAS may cause cancer in humans, as well as liver disease, birth defects and infertility in women.

It seems everywhere people look for water pollution they find it, whether it’s coliform bacteria near dairy farms in Wisconsin, nitrates from fertilizers in Iowa’s waterways or lead, mercury or uranium from fracking in Ohio or Oklahoma.

If America’s water infrastructure were modernized and if water testing were increased to a great extent, many jobs would be created and, of course, the health of Americans could be improved dramatically.

Coal-fired Power Plants in Illinois Have Polluted Water Sources for Decades

Per an article on the website for the Chicago Tribune, dated November 28, 2018 and entitled “Toxic Waste from 22 Coal Plants in Illinois Puts Drinking Water at Risk,” reports how federal and state officials have failed to protect the drinking water of the area’s population. Unlined pits containing toxic coal waste have leaked arsenic and heavy metals into Illinois’ drinking water, lakes and rivers for decades.

Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Environmental Integrity Project have been asking the Governor of Illinois to force the power plants to stop polluting the area’s water and allocate funds to clean their ash pits of toxic coal waste. Advocates are also suing the federal government to take action against the coal plants. Unfortunately, the feds, including the EPA, have been reluctant to act.

While the Obama administration did much to protect the environment, a federal appeals court ruled that the EPA needs to adopt new rules to remove ash pits from operating coal-fired power plants, as well as the shuttered ones. Whether this action will take place on the federal level remains to be seen since the Trump administration has been rolling back environmental regulations across the country.

Fortunately, the Crawford coal plant in Illinois, now closed, has removed its buildup of coal ash, so progress in this regard seems possible.

Polluted Flint River

Polluted Flint River

The Water in Flint, Michigan, Gives People Lead Poisoning

According to an article entitled “Flint Water Crisis Facts,” from, Flint, Michigan, a city of 100,000 people, about half of which live below the poverty line and are African-American, has been in a financial free-fall since General Motors began downsizing in the area in the 1980s. Because of these financial woes, in 2014 city officials switched Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River, which is a body of water whose water purity has been in question since the 1970s. Unfortunately, this river water wasn’t treated with an anti-corrosive agent, which caused lead in aging pipes to flow into the tap water of Flint’s residents.

Consequently, thousands of Flint's residents have been exposed to dangerous levels of lead, leading to numerous deleterious health effects such as impaired cognition, behavioral disorders, reduced fetal growth, kidney damage, and many other health problems. In addition, once lead gets into one’s system, it cannot be flushed out, and the level of danger for even small amounts of lead can be dangerous. As one can imagine, this disaster has led to numerous lawsuits.

For now, the people of Flint, Michigan must drink bottled or filtered water until all the lead pipes in the city have been replaced, and the pipe replacement won't be complete until 2020. Even when the level of lead is reduced or eliminated, Flint’s drinking water may still contain other contaminants such as various industrial chemicals, fecal matter, and the bacteria that causes Legionnaire’s disease.

Washington, D.C. Has Grave Water Quality Issues

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, the water quality in the Potomac River has decreased dramatically. According to an article in the Washington Post called“Potomac River Threatened by Pollution and Congress,” the Potomac River is now one of the ten most-endangered rivers in the U.S. The Potomac has been flushed with urban runoff, chemical fertilizers, manure from animal farms, fecal matter from overflowing sewers, and pharmaceuticals that have been flushed down toilets. These sources of pollution have destroyed the aquatic life in the river and have even caused some of the fish to change their sexes. It is an unfortunate likelihood that the fish in the Potomac river are inedible because they may contain dangerous levels of PCBs, mercury, and pesticides. Water in the nation’s capitol also contains dangerous levels of lead, which dramatically increases the fetal death rate and causes other health issues.

This situation could become even worse if Congress weakens or eliminates provisions in the Clean Water Act. Reducing the effectiveness of the EPA will not help the nation’s rivers either.

PCBs Contaminate Stormwater in Northern California

According to the article “Major Victory for California Cities vs. Monsanto over PCB Contamination,” which was featured on the website for Nation of Change, various northern California cities have filed lawsuits alleging that Monsanto has allowed PCBs (which were banned by the EPA in 1979) to enter stormwater systems. Because of the recent drought in California, cities such as San Jose and Oakland want to use stormwater for municipal purposes; unfortunately, much of this water has been contaminated by PCBs, and these California cities want Monsanto to pay for cleanup costs. The cities won the lawsuit, but litigation against Monsanto is ongoing. The state of California has spent millions of dollars cleaning up PCBs in various bodies of water throughout the state.

Monsanto has been sued by numerous people, governments, and companies for decades. In addition to producing PCBs, Monsanto has produced Agent Orange, DDT, and Bovine somatotropin, which is a highly controversial synthetic hormone that's used to increase milk production in cows. Monsanto has also produced genetically modified crops. It seems safe to suggest that Monsanto may have been sued more times than any other corporation in the U.S.

Dirty Brown Tap Water in Maywood, California

In an article from the LA Times, entitled “Maywood Gets Straight Talk about its Water Quality,” explains how state officials told residents of Maywood that their drinking water wasn’t toxic. Nevertheless, people in the town of 27,000 have seen rusty-looking water flowing from their taps for many years. This brownish color shows a high level of manganese, which can be toxic. Tests on the water have also shown the presence of an industrial solvent called trichloroethylene or TCE.

In recent times, local water treatment facilities in the area have promised to provide cleaner drinking water or water that is not dangerous to drink. As a result, the water purification business in Maywood is booming.

Bottled water

Bottled water

Tap Water for 200 Million Americans May Contain Carcinogens

Water pollution is not just a local problem. According to an article on, an analysis of federal data by the Environmental Working Group has shown that the water supply for 200 million Americans may contain toxic levels of chromium-6, aka hexavalent chromium, which may cause cancer. This discovery has prompted environmental groups to urge the EPA to set a national standard for the safety of America’s drinking water. Amending the aforementioned Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 could help greatly in this regard. It is also worth noting that the Clean Water Act was last amended in 1987.

The state of California is a leader in conducting and establishing environmental protection studies and policies. California has set a public health goal of limiting human exposure to 0.02 parts per billion of chromium-6 in public drinking water. This amount is equivalent to one drop of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. So, exposure to this amount of chromium-6 over a lifetime would be considered safe.

From 2013 through 2015, the EPA ordered utilities in 31 cities to test drinking water for the presence of chromium-6 and found amounts in excess of California’s safe level of exposure in three-fourths of the samples. Perhaps these test results will soon lead to the establishment of greater water purity standards throughout the country.

Farm Runoff Fouls Wells in Idaho

In Idaho, about 95 percent of drinking water comes from wells. Unfortunately, the New York Times has reported that much of this water is being contaminated by livestock waste and farm runoff. Livestock waste is spread on fields as fertilizers, but much of this fecal matter seeps into ground water and causes nitrate contamination. High levels of nitrate contamination can be harmful to humans. Also, many dairy cows are given hormones and the metabolites of the hormones can leak into drinking water and cause reproductive problems in women.

Should someone call the EPA? Well, no, because the EPA doesn’t regulate ground water. Ground water regulation is managed by individual states. Idaho’s Department of Agriculture monitors water quality in the state, but also promotes dairy farms and other farm enterprises. So is there a conflict of interest here?

Consequently, many people in Idaho have needed to buy distilled water for their household needs, and many folks probably hope the federal government will one day regulate ground water purity, thereby protecting people’s health.

Weed Killer Pollutes Ground Water

According to an article on, the active ingredient in Roundup, an herbicide made by Monsanto, has been found in ground water. Finding this product in ground water wouldn’t be an issue of concern if Monsanto’s claim that Roundup biodegrades quickly and is environmentally harmless were actually true. But after millions of pounds of the potent weed killer have been squirted on people’s weeds and other unwanted plants, glyphosate, the main ingredient, has been found to be a chemical that easily seeps into ground water and biodegrades after several weeks, if not months or years. The speed with which it biodegrades depends on various conditions such as regional climate.

Since the 1980s, tests on glyphosate in many countries have shown that it causes malformations in lab animals and is harmful to many plants that are not generally considered weeds. It may also be toxic to animals and humans, but test results to that effect have been inconclusive and testing is ongoing.

Interestingly, growing genetically modified crops has increased the use of glyphosate, because it doesn’t attack such crops, even when directly applied. Therefore, such “GMO crops” may have glyphosate residue on them and in the food made from them.

Drilling for Oil and Gas May Pollute Well Water

It appears that America’s quest for more sources of petroleum and natural gas has caused environmental concerns, prompting one irate citizen to demonstrate with a placard reading, “Keep the Frack out of My Water.” According to an article on entitled “Four States Confirm Water Pollution from Drilling," Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and Texas all reported hundreds of complaints from people who claim that their private water wells are being polluted by hydraulic fracturing operations. Many chemicals are added to the water used in fracking, including hydrochloric acid, isopropanol, methanol, ethylene glycol, and many other chemical compounds and elements.

Interestingly, the process of fracking, which has been done throughout the world since the 1940s, has many critics. These people claim that fracking produces ground and surface water contamination, in addition to producing air and noise pollution. Fracking may trigger earthquakes as well, particularly in states such as Oklahoma, which has experienced many temblors in recent years.


It’s difficult to tell how polluted America’s drinking water may be, but there seems to be a great deal of evidence showing that America's water is probably not nearly as pure as most people would like it to be. Concerned citizens should pay attention to state and federal legislation involving the nation’s water purity. The 2015 Clean Water Rule would be a good place to start; it expands the authority of the federal government to protect water purity in streams, wetlands and many other watery realms. Unfortunately, many legislators would like to review, rescind, or revise it. Concerned citizens should educate themselves and vote for candidates who emphasize the importance of establishing and maintaining the purity of drinking water in America.

Moreover, companies that pollute America’s water need to be held accountable and forced to clean up their toxic waste dumps, which pollute ground water to an appalling degree. Many won’t do anything about this until they’re sued by the EPA, so people should do whatever they can to support the EPA. Bear in mind that over 40,000 toxic waste sites exist across America.

Until the purity of tap water can be guaranteed, people can stop drinking it and drink filtered or distilled water instead. And if one drinks well water, they should make sure its purity is tested and verified on a regular basis. People should also educate themselves about water quality and purity levels in their states and communities.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2017 Kelley Marks