What's in your drinking water? Nonprofit argues 'legal doesn't mean safe' when it comes to pollution

Maddy Lauria
The News Journal

The Delaware beaches aren’t the only places where the water gets tested and monitored by state officials.

State regulators also are tasked with keeping an eye on systems run by private companies and governments that must treat and provide water to thousands of residents and businesses throughout the state.

At the beaches, scientists largely keep an eye out for potentially harmful bacteria. But in drinking water, bacteria are just a small slice of what health officials need to monitor.

There’s also chloroform. Radium. Nitrate. Hexavalent chromium. PFAS.

PFAS NEWS:Chemours exec in charge of controversial chemicals resigns after congressional grilling

Workers with Aerial Crane prepare to unload a carbon filtration system at the Blades water department in this file photo. Carbon filtration systems have been proven to remove PFAS, so-called forever chemicals, from water.

Those scary-sounding chemicals are among dozens of pollutants, naturally occurring and not, that can show up in water quality tests. Some contaminants, like nitrate or E. coli, are regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act to protect human health. Others, like the forever chemicals known as PFAS, are not.

So how do you know what is safe and what’s not? The answer depends on whether you rely on toxicologists and recent scientific studies or on legally enforceable contamination limits set by the government.

“Legal doesn’t necessarily mean safe,” said toxicologist Alexis Temkin, who works with the nonprofit, nonpartisan Environmental Working Group. The EWG on Wednesday published its most recent update to its drinking water monitoring database for thousands of public drinking water providers across the country.

Take a look at the Delaware data:

The group pulled water quality data from state and federal agencies to show what has been detected in public water systems, even if it’s a trace amount or not violating any legally enforceable limits.

Updating legal limits for contaminants can be a slow process, ripe with loop holes and barriers to setting new standards, Temkin said. That’s why the EWG has looked to public health goals set by California officials, as well as the latest published research on how these chemicals impact human health to develop what they consider to be the safest limits of pollution.

PRIVATE WATER SYSTEMS:'It's like living in a cesspool,' Sussex County wonders how far dirty water has spread

Under current law, public water systems with certain contaminants can “get a passing grade by EPA, but it’s not necessarily based on the most up-to-date science,” she said.

Residents worried about certain contaminants can consider adding filtration systems like activated carbon, reverse osmosis or ion exchange. EWG’s new Tap Water Database includes advice on which type of system works best with different contaminants.

Delaware's largest water providers

Below is a Delaware-focused list of the state's largest water providers and the chemicals found in samples taken between 2012 to 2017, based on EWG's recent update.

A few of these large systems were found in violation of legally enforceable drinking water standards or monitoring and reporting rules from 2016 to spring 2019, according to EWG and EPA data.

The Environmental Working Group looked at state and federal data on drinking water and found that while some contaminants exist at "legal" levels, that may not necessarily mean "safe."

The following list only includes Delaware water systems that serve more than 10,000 people and chemicals found above EWG's health guidelines. None of the chemicals listed violated federal or Delaware law.

Scroll down for a description of contaminants found above EWG's guidelines.

Some residents in the areas listed below may be served by different water providers and service areas are based on ZIP codes. Check out our Delaware database above to see if your water operator or department was included in EWG's review.

Bear, Hockessin areas (Artesian Water Co.)

Population served: 301,000

EPA-documented violations (April 2016-March 2019): None according to EWG database; EPA shows low pH level in two samples taken in spring 2018

Contaminants found above EWG’s “health guidelines”:

  • Bromodichloromethane
  • Chloroform
  • Chromium (hexavalent)
  • Dibromochloromethane
  • Dichloroacetic acid
  • Nitrate & nitrite
  • Perfluoroheptanoic acid (PFHPA)
  • Perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHXS)
  • Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS)
  • Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)
  • Radium, combined (-226 & -228)
  • Total trihalomethanes (TTHMs)
  • Trichloroacetic acid

Story continues below graphic

Bethany Beach area (Bethany Beach Water Department)

People served: 12,000

EPA-documented violations (April 2016-March 2019): None

Contaminants found above EWG’s “health guidelines:”

  • Bromodichloromethane
  • Chloroform
  • Dibromochloromethane
  • Dichloroacetic acid
  • Total trihalomethanes (TTHMs)
  • Trichloroacetic acid

Bethany Beach area (South Bethany)

People served: 15,771

EPA-documented violations (April 2016-March 2019): None

Contaminants found above EWG’s “health guidelines:”

  • 1,2,3-Trichloropropane
  • Arsenic
  • Bromodichloromethane
  • Chloroform
  • Chromium (hexavalent)
  • Dibromochloromethane
  • Dichloroacetic acid
  • Radium, combined (-226 & -228)
  • Total trihalomethanes (TTHMs)
  • Trichloroacetic acid

Bethany Beach area (Sussex Shores Water Company)

People served: 12,450

EPA-documented violations (April 2016-March 2019): None

Contaminants found above EWG’s “health guidelines:”

  • Bromodichloromethane
  • Bromoform
  • Dibromochloromethane
  • Nitrate
  • Nitrate & nitrite
  • Total trihalomethanes (TTHMs)

Camden-Wyoming (Camden District)

People served: 15,174

EPA-documented violations (April 2016-March 2019): None

Contaminants found above EWG’s “health guidelines:”

  • Bromodichloromethane
  • Chloroform
  • Chromium (hexavalent)
  • Dibromochloromethane
  • Dichloroacetic acid
  • Radium, combined (-226 & -228)
  • Total trihalomethanes (TTHMs)
  • Trichloroacetic acid

Dewey Beach (Dewey Beach Water Department)

People served: 22,400

EPA-documented violations (April 2016-March 2019): None

Contaminants found above EWG’s “health guidelines:”

  • Bromodichloromethane
  • Bromoform
  • Chloroform
  • Dibromochloromethane
  • Nitrate
  • Nitrate & nitrite
  • Radium, combined (-226 & -228)
  • Total trihalomethanes (TTHMs)

Dover (Dover Water Department)

People served: 38,000

EPA-documented violations (April 2016-March 2019): None according to EWG database; EPA shows elevated pH level in one sample taken in spring 2018

Contaminants found above EWG’s “health guidelines:”

  • Arsenic
  • Bromodichloromethane
  • Chloroform
  • Chromium (hexavalent)
  • Dibromochloromethane
  • Dichloroacetic acid
  • Nitrate
  • Nitrate & nitrite
  • Radium, combined (-226 & -228)
  • Total trihalomethanes (TTHMs)
  • Trichloroacetic acid

Middletown (Middletown Water Department)

People served: 16,000

EPA-documented violations (April 2016-March 2019): None

Contaminants found above EWG’s “health guidelines:”

  • Bromodichloromethane
  • Chloroform
  • Chromium (hexavalent)
  • Dibromochloromethane
  • Dichloroacetic acid
  • Radium, combined (-226 & -228)
  • Total trihalomethanes (TTHMs)
  • Trichloroacetic acid

Millsboro area (Long Neck Water Company)

People served: 11,180

EPA-documented violations (April 2016-March 2019): None

Contaminants found above EWG’s “health guidelines:”

  • Bromodichloromethane
  • Chloroform
  • Dibromochloromethane
  • Nitrate
  • Nitrate & nitrite
  • Total trihalomethanes (TTHMs)

Millsboro area (Meadow District)

People served: 10,500

EPA-documented violations (April 2016-March 2019): None

Contaminants found above EWG’s “health guidelines:”

  • Bromodichloromethane
  • Dibromochloromethane
  • Nitrate
  • Nitrate & nitrite
  • Radium, combined (-226 & -228)
  • Total trihalomethanes (TTHMs)

Millville (Bethany Bay Ocean View/Bethany Bay Pump District)

People served: 34,500

EPA-documented violations (April 2016-March 2019): None

Contaminants found above EWG’s “health guidelines:"

  • Arsenic
  • Bromodichloromethane
  • Chloroform
  • Dibromochloromethane
  • Dichloroacetic acid
  • Nitrate
  • Nitrate & nitrite
  • Radium, combined (-226 & -228)
  • Total trihalomethanes (TTHMs)
  • Trichloroacetic acid

Newark (Newark Water Department)

People served: 36,450

EPA-documented violations (April 2016-March 2019): None according to EWG database; EPA shows low pH level in one sample taken in spring 2018

Contaminants found above EWG’s “health guidelines:”

  • Bromodichloromethane
  • Chloroform
  • Chromium (hexavalent)
  • Dibromochloromethane
  • Dichloroacetic acid
  • Nitrate
  • Nitrate & nitrite
  • Radium, combined (-226 & -228)
  • Total trihalomethanes (TTHMs)
  • Trichloroacetic acid

New Castle, Wilmington (SUEZ Water Delaware, formerly United Water Delaware)

People served: 97,310

EPA-documented violations (April 2016-March 2019): None

Contaminants found above EWG’s “health guidelines:”

  • Bromodichloromethane
  • Chloroform
  • Chromium (hexavalent)
  • Dibromochloromethane
  • Dichloroacetic acid
  • Nitrate
  • Nitrate & nitrite
  • Perfluoroheptanoic acid (PFHPA)
  • Perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA)
  • Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)
  • Radium, combined (-226 & -228)
  • Total trihalomethanes (TTHMs)
  • Trichloroacetic acid

Rehoboth Beach (Rehoboth Beach Water Department)

People served: 30,000

EPA-documented violations (April 2016-March 2019): None

Contaminants found above EWG’s “health guidelines:”

  • Bromodichloromethane
  • Bromoform
  • Dibromochloromethane
  • Nitrate
  • Nitrate & nitrite
  • Radium, combined (-226 & -228)
  • Total trihalomethanes (TTHMs)

Rehoboth Beach area (Rehoboth District)

People served: 32,700

EPA-documented violations (April 2016-March 2019): None according to EWG database; EPA shows elevated pH level in one sample taken in fall 2017

Contaminants found above EWG’s “health guidelines:”

  • Bromodichloromethane
  • Chromium (hexavalent)
  • Dibromochloromethane
  • Nitrate
  • Nitrate & nitrite
  • Radium, combined (-226 & -228)
  • Thallium
  • Total trihalomethanes (TTHMs)

Smyrna (Smyrna Water Department)

People served: 11,584

EPA-documented violations (April 2016-March 2019): Violation noted in 2016 for noncompliance with monitoring an reporting under the Lead and Copper Rule in 2015

Contaminants found above EWG’s “health guidelines:”

  • Bromodichloromethane
  • Bromoform
  • Chlordane
  • Chloroform
  • Chromium (hexavalent)
  • Dibromochloromethane
  • Nitrate
  • Nitrate & nitrite
  • Radium, combined (-226 & -228)
  • Total trihalomethanes (TTHMs)

Wilmington (Wilmington Water Department)

People served: 107,976

EPA-documented violations (April 2016-March 2019): None according to EWG database; EPA shows one violation related to treatment technique in fall 2017

Contaminants found above EWG’s “health guidelines:”:

  • Bromodichloromethane
  • Chloroform
  • Chromium (hexavalent)
  • Dibromochloromethane
  • Dichloroacetic acid
  • Nitrate
  • Nitrate & nitrite
  • Radium, combined (-226 & -228)
  • Total trihalomethanes (TTHMs)
  • Trichloroacetic acid

Have a question or story about the water in Delaware? Contact reporter Maddy Lauria at (302) 345-0608, mlauria@delawareonline.com or on Twitter @MaddyinMilford.