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Stories focused on energy & environment topics throughout the state of Kansas.

Environmental Group Says Almost All Kansas Tap Water Is Too Contaminated

Nomin Ujiyediin
Kansas News Service file photo

WICHITA, Kansas — The water coming out of your tap might meet legal standards, but that doesn’t mean that it’s safe to drink — at least according to the Environmental Working Group, an environmental advocacy nonprofit.

EWG found that nearly all of the 870 water utilities in Kansas tested for at least one contaminate above what it considers safe, though most water utilities in the state meet federal standards, which are different than EWG’s. 

The nonprofit’s latest update to their tap water database comes from testing data submitted to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. 

Generally, the number of contaminants that EWG considers safe is much lower than EPA standards. EWG bases its limits on independent scientific research and public health goals set by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

EWG senior scientist Tasha Stoiber said more than half of the contaminants detected in U.S. tap water aren’t regulated by the federal government, things like PFAS (a so-called forever chemical that can accumulate in the body and lead to cancer) and cyanotoxins found in harmful algae blooms. Plus, she said, contaminants that are tracked haven’t been updated in 20 years.

The science that details health impacts of contaminants in drinking water has moved forward during the past two decades, but experts say the political environment has made it difficult to get some policies passed, especially at the EPA.

“One contaminant after the other rises up, but it doesn’t mean we have a strategic, proactive approach for dealing with it,” according to Christine Kirchoff, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Connecticut.

'Each one has its own story' 

Generally speaking, most water utilities in the state of Kansas meet federal safety standards. Most of the worst offenders — those with contaminant levels higher than the legal limits — are smaller rural water providers.

“Each one has its own story, each one has its own situation that we bring all those tools to bear to try to bring them back into compliance,” said Tom Stiles, who is KDHE’s director of the Bureau of Water. 

KDHE is responsible for enforcing the federal Safe Water Drinking Act. Stiles said when the state discovers a higher-than-legal limit for a contaminant, it offers technical assistance, helps find a new place to put a water well and, when able, provides money to update infrastructure.

Safe water violators

In Kansas, 22 utilities have tested above the legal limit for total trihalomethanes — cancer-causing contaminants that are a byproduct of the disinfection process. EWG noted that the small town of Elmdale, Kansas, near Cottonwood Falls, had the fifth-highest levelsof the contaminant in the U.S.

Dealing with the issue is a balancing act: If the source water is of poor quality to begin with, more disinfectant is used in the water treatment process. The more disinfectant that’s used, the more likely a utility is to exceed the legal and safe levels of trihalomethanes.

“The best way, in an ideal world, to improve water quality would be to prevent contaminants from entering source water and needing treatment in the first place,” Stoiber said.

Studies have shown that trihalomethanes increase the risk of developing bladder cancer. It’s also associated with an increased risk for problems during pregnancy.

In Kansas, 791 utilities reported tests with total trihalomethane levels above EWG’s health guidelines (.15 parts per billion, or ppb),which represents a one in 1 million lifetime cancer risk level. The federal guidelines of 80 ppb were established in 1998.

Another major issue in Kansas’ drinking water is nitrate, a chemical fertilizer that’s often a problem in water sources where there’s lots of agricultural production. 

Six utilities in Kansas exceed the legal limit for nitrate. 

Pretty Prairie, Kansas, which serves about 681 people, has one of the highest average concentration of nitrates in the U.S. at 21.1 parts per million (ppm). The federal legal limit is 10 ppm, and EWG recommends the limit should be .14 ppm.

The small towns of Ford in western Kansas, Norwich in south central Kansas, and Elmdale all exceed federal limits too.

One way to reduce the amount of nitrates in a system is to install an expensive reverse osmosis filtration system. But most small towns just struggling to survive can’t afford that.

Ford City Clerk Penny Mcallister said they’ve been working with KDHE to try and solve the issue in other ways that don’t involve spending half a million dollars on reverse osmosis.

But until then, she said, “I’ve learned that it doesn’t pay to worry. Especially on something that I can’t control.”

Brian Grimmett reports on the environment, energy and natural resources for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett or email him at grimmett (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Brian Grimmett is a two-time Regional Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist covering energy and environment stories across the state of Kansas.