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By Shawn Raymundo
An ongoing study on the quality of the country’s drinking water conducted by a national environmental group shows that several contaminants found in San Clemente’s tap water exceeded the nonprofit’s recommended safety standards.
In its most recent update to the Tap Water Database, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that primarily between 2015 and 2017 San Clemente’s drinking water contained nine contaminants with the potential to cause cancer.
EWG does note that San Clemente’s water utility remains compliant with federal and state health standards for drinking water. However, the group believes there should be higher standards in place for many of the contaminants it has found.
“Legal does not necessarily equal safe,” EWG states in its database, which includes its own health guidelines for each contaminant. “Getting a passing grade from the federal government does not mean the water meets the latest health guidelines.”
The city, as well as South Coast Water District (SCWD) and Santa Margarita Water District (SMWD), which provide water to select portions of San Clemente, have staunchly rejected the findings, noting that the agencies’ top priority is the safety and quality of their water, which all comes from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MET).
“The city delivers safe drinking water to its customers, and it’s one of its highest priorities,” said San Clemente Utilities Director David Rebensdorf. “We have staff that continuously conducts tests of the water to make sure it exceeds all state and federal standards.”
Nicole Stanfield, SMWD’s public information manager, told San Clemente Times via email that EWG’s “assertion” that contaminants found in the city’s tap water may increase the risk of cancer is “unnecessarily inflammatory and certainly not applicable to the water we provide to our customers.”
SCWD spokesperson Sonja Morgan echoed Stanfield’s comments, stating that South Coast “absolutely” disputes the report’s findings.
“Any indication that our water is not high-quality or up to health standards is absolutely not true,” Morgan said, before pointing to EWG’s note that San Clemente has met all federal and state standards.
Dave Eggerton, executive director for the Association of California Water Agencies, noted that the federal and state standards for water quality are continually monitored and are all science-based.
“It’s very comprehensive and very science based to protect public health,” Eggerton said. “It’s something we care about very much.”
Tasha Stoiber, EWG’s senior scientist who holds a Ph.D in environmental chemistry and technology, said the group’s recommended health guidelines and standards are intended to protect public health and are based on toxicological and epidemiological studies.
According to EWG, its database, which currently covers water systems throughout the country from 2012 to 2017, is based on a collection and compilation of water test records regularly conducted by state drinking water agencies.
“We’ve collected all the information from the states and compiled them here,” Stoiber said. “We’ve just assembled it and put in one place, so this is testing and monitoring that (states have) done and we’ve assembled it. We haven’t done any testing; this is all state data.”
Based on those compiled reports, EWG found a total of 21 contaminants in the city’s drinking water, nine of which, the group said, have the potential to cause cancer. Such contaminants included bromoform, chloroform and chromium, which the database explains are formed when chlorine or other disinfectants are used to treat drinking water.
Stoiber explained that the creation of those contaminants occurs when the disinfectants get mixed with natural organic matter, such as decaying plants or animal waste.
“Those molecules can mix with disinfectants; that’s what forms those contaminants,” she said.
One solution she suggested to treat the problem would be to use granular activated carbon, which is commonly used to absorb natural organic compounds, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Another contaminant found was nitrate, a compound that occurs naturally in surface and groundwater that results from chemical fertilizers, as well as human and animal waste mixing with the water, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC notes that while a natural occurrence of nitrate “does not generally cause health problems,” large amounts of it in drinking water “can be dangerous to health, especially for infants and pregnant women.”
For all the contaminants found, EWG urges the use of water filters such as a reverse osmosis system, an ion exchange and activated carbon.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.