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Toxins in Drinking Water Linked to Serious Illnesses and Birth Defects

Oct 1, 2009

Toxins in Drinking Water Linked to Serious Illnesses and Birth Defects

The Clean Water Act of 1972 requires polluters to disclose the toxins they dump into waterways and gives regulators the power to fine or jail offenders. Most states have passed similar anti-pollution statutes of their own. According to an ongoing New York Times study, however, violations of the Clean Water Act and state anti-pollution statutes have risen steadily across the nation in recent years.

These violations have contributed to an increase in the levels of harmful chemicals in drinking water, many of which have been linked to cancer, birth defects, and other serious illnesses.  Several recent studies have also shown an increase in harmful chemicals found in drinking water, despite attempts to regulate and reduce their levels.

The New York Times study, which used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain hundreds of thousands of water pollution records from every state as well as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), reports that chemical factories, manufacturing plants and other companies have violated water pollution laws more than half a million times in the last five years alone. The violations range from failing to report emissions, to dumping toxins at concentrations suspected of causing adverse health effects. 

After interviewing more than 250 state and federal regulators, water-system managers, environmental advocates and scientists, the researchers found that an estimated 10% of Americans have been exposed to drinking water containing dangerous chemicals or otherwise falling below federal health benchmarks.

Possible illnesses sustained as a result of exposure include, but are not limited to:

  • Leukemia
  • Lung Cancer
  • Brain Cancer
  • Neurological Disorders
  • Birth Defects
  • Respiratory Disorders
  • Auto-Immune Disorders

In addition to the Clean Water Act, there are numerous federal and state regulations governing the usage, handling, and disposal of toxins.  There are several government agencies, such as the EPA or OSHA, responsible for enforcing rules and regulations regarding toxins.

Regulators themselves acknowledge shortcomings in regulating the safety of public drinking water. The new EPA administrator, Lisa P. Jackson, said in an interview that despite many successes since the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, presently the nation’s water does not meet public health goals, and enforcement of water pollution laws is unacceptably low.

Experts are also concerned with the fact that as the level of harmful toxins in public drinking water continues to rise, their effect on future generations is becoming more problematic.

On July 14, 2005, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) published its “benchmark investigation of industrial chemicals, pollutants and pesticides in umbilical cord blood.”  Researchers found an average of 200 industrial chemicals and pollutants in umbilical cord blood samples taken from 10 babies born in August and September of 2004 in U.S. hospitals. Tests revealed a total of 287 chemicals were found in the group, including pesticides, harmful consumer product ingredients, and waste by-products from burning coal and gasoline.

Of the 287 chemicals detected in umbilical cord blood, 180 are known carcinogens, 217 are toxic to the brain and nervous system, and 208 cause birth defects or abnormal development in animal tests.

You can view the complete report by clicking here.

According to research presented by Rod Dietert, professor of immunotoxicology at Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine at the 14th Immunotoxicology Summer School Conference in Lyon, France, exposure of fetuses and infants to low levels of environmental toxins including lead, mercury, dioxin, nicotine, and ethanol may be the cause of recent increases in asthma, allergies, lupus and other autoimmune disorders seen in newborn children.

Below are three of the more dangerous toxins discovered in large quantities in drinking water supplies that have been linked with serious health conditions found in the surrounding local populations:

MTBE - Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether

Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether (MTBE) is a gasoline additive that gas companies began using in the 1980s. It was originally used in low levels to help gasoline burn more smoothly and efficiently after lead was phased out as an additive. Starting in 1992, oil companies added MTBE to gasoline in higher quantities to meet the oxygenate requirements set forth by the Clean Air Act, which would improve combustion efficiency and decrease harmful carbon monoxide emissions from motor vehicles.

MTBE is a known water contaminant in over 1,800 communities in the US, in at least 29 states.  In July 2005, the EPA released a statement citing MTBE as a likely carcinogen, linking it to leukemia and lymphoma. Twenty-one states have banned MTBE, and the oil industry has paid out $485 million to settle eight lawsuits since 1998 for clean-up costs in contaminated communities.

PCE – Perchloroethylene, Tetrachloroethylene

Perchloroethylene (PCE), also called Tetrachloroethlene, is a solvent used in dry cleaning.  Approximately 28,000 US dry cleaners use PCE, which is an EPA regulated air toxin. EPA's Science Advisory Board has identified PCE as a possible to probable human carcinogen. It has been linked to the development of liver tumors in mice.  Exposure to PCE is also known to have chronic, non-cancer health effects, including liver and kidney damage, and neurological effects.

PCE also increases the risk of congenital anomalies (defects or damage incurred by a developing fetus) in offspring if an expectant mother has been exposed to contaminated water during pregnancy.  In September 2009, a study from Boston University revealed that exposure was associated with an increased risk of neural tube defects and oral clefts. The neural tube is the embryo's early central nervous system, which comprises the brain and spinal cord.

The study was conducted on children who were born to mothers living in areas of Cape Cod, Mass., between 1969 and 1983. During that period, public drinking water supplies were contaminated with PCE from the inner vinyl lining of water pipes.

Government officials discovered the problem in 1980. Rather that replacing the pipes, they flushed the pipes so that the water contained what was considered, at that time, to be a safe level for consumption -- 40 mcg/L (micrograms per liter). Today, the EPA's maximum acceptable contaminant level for PCE is 5 mcg/L.

Modest increases in risk of gastrointestinal and genitourinary malformations were also found in children with prenatal exposure.

While PCE is an EPA regulated toxin, it remains a commonly used solvent and frequent contaminant of ground and drinking water supplies.


Perchlorate, the explosive ingredient in solid rocket fuel, has contaminated drinking water and soil in at least 35 states, with most of the known contamination coming from military bases and defense contractors. Tests by the EWG, academic scientists in Texas and Arizona, state officials in California, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have found perchlorate in milk, produce and many other foods and animal feed crops from coast to coast.

Perchlorate affects the thyroid gland, which regulates metabolism by releasing hormones, and is integral to the human growth process.  Tests have shown that even small amounts can disrupt normal growth and development in fetuses, infants and children.

In September 2009, the EPA announced it was moving forward in deliberations on whether to impose national limits on contamination levels of perchlorate.  Both Massachusetts and California have moved forward with their own safety standards. The proposed standards — 1 part per billion in Massachusetts and 6 ppb in California — are far below EPA's adopted risk limit of 24.5 ppb, which is a level used as a guidance for cleaning up perchlorate- contaminated sites. 

The EPA is evaluating the safety of Perchlorate, with a "special emphasis" on determining chemical's impact on children's development. 

What You Need to Know

Due to rapid industrialization in the United States over the last century, many chemicals and industrial by-products have been indiscriminately released into the environment, contaminating large supplies of drinking water.  While the EPA is charged with regulating known potential contaminants, there is still a large amount of pollution occurring, sometimes even unknowingly from third-party sources.  Furthermore, powerful industries use lobbyists in an attempt to influence public safety standards, in order to avoid accountability for clean-up costs or to delay the installation of expensive pollution-control devices or procedures .

It is important to have your drinking water supply tested regularly.  You can check known polluters near you by clicking here.

If your or a loved one has experienced adverse health conditions associated with a toxic substance for which a third-party is or may be responsible, please visit for a free case review by the attorneys at Parker Waichman LLP.
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