NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Making Water Less Safe

January 15, 1996

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed new regulations last year that may make disinfecting public water supplies less effective and even cost prohibitive, according to many local public health officials. And a provision of a Senate bill would exempt the EPA from the requirement that the regulations be justified by a cost-benefit analysis.

Every day, 25,000 people in developing countries die from such water-borne diseases as cholera and typhoid fever because public water supplies are not disinfected. Chlorine compounds have been used to disinfect water in the U.S. and other countries for nearly 100 years, resulting in the elimination of many diseases.

However, when chlorine combines with other organic compounds in water treatment facilities, such as decomposing leaves, "disinfection by-products" such as chloroform are formed. The health effects of these by-products in minute quantities are largely unknown, but the EPA wants to eliminate them because of a hypothetical risk of cancer.

  • The regulations would add an additional $4 billion a year to the cost of chlorination, according to the American Water Works Association.
  • Experts are concerned that small water systems might abandon chlorination, adopting alternative treatment methods that produce other by-products and health risks.
  • A study by the Congressional Budget Office points out that the EPA is unsure of the cancer risk, with estimates of the average cost per cancer avoided ranging from $867,000 to as much as $19 billion.

Requiring federal regulatory agencies to justify proposed rules by conducting cost-benefit analyses is one way of reducing the cost of federal regulations. However, the Senate version of a bill reauthorizing the Safe Drinking Water Act would exempt the EPA's proposed rule from meeting such a standard.

Sources: "Controversial Disinfectants/Disinfection By-Products Rule Clouds Future of SDWA in House," EPA Watch, Vol. 5, No.1, January 15, 1996; and "The Safe Drinking Water Act: A Case Study of an Unfunded Federal Mandate," Congressional Budget Office, September 1995, Washington, DC.


Browse more articles on Environment Issues