In what some specialists are calling the latest step in a “regulatory evolution,” the Environmental Protection Agency said it may expand its authority over drinking water supplies by singling out the element strontium.
The agency says strontium, which can reduce bone strength among those deficient in calcium, is the latest contaminant to be targeted under the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act. The act requires the EPA every five years to identify new contaminants in drinking water and determine whether they should be limited.
Monday’s announcement does not mark the start of formal regulations.
Instead, the agency says it will accept public comments for the next 60 days. After that, it will decide whether to proceed with binding rules, which would be unveiled next year, the EPA said.
While the agency says strontium is at “levels of concern” in just 7 percent of U.S. public water systems, some analysts believe that targeting the element is the latest example of the federal government’s record of continually expanding the scope of its authority over water supplies.
“It’s part of a trend that we’re increasingly regulating more contaminants as go we along because we understand they are having adverse impacts. It’s just a natural evolution, a regulatory evolution,” said David Constable, director of the American Chemical Society’s Green Chemistry Institute.
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While strontium is a naturally occurring element, a radioactive version is a byproduct of nuclear weapons tests and nuclear power-plant releases, such as the one in Chernobyl in 1986, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
To reduce strontium concentrations in water supplies, Mr. Constable said the agency could require that water supplies add additional chemicals, though the EPA hasn’t indicated what a final rule would look like.
Monday’s announcement only makes clear the agency believes the element is a problem in the nation’s drinking water.
“The agency has initially determined that strontium has adverse health effects. Strontium replaces calcium in bone, affecting skeletal development. Although strontium affects all life stages, infants, children, and adolescents are of particular concern because their bones are developing,” the agency said in a statement. “Strontium has been detected in 99 percent of public water systems and at levels of concern in 7 percent of public water systems in the country.”
The element is similar to calcium, and the human body can “exchange” calcium for strontium, the agency said, leading to a variety of bone problems.
As part of its Safe Drinking Water Act review, the EPA also examined levels of dimethoate; 1,3-dinitrobenzene; terbufos and terbufos sulfone in drinking water supplies.
Those contaminants were either not found or were discovered at “low levels of occurrence,” the agency said.