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PCAST Releases Full Report on S&T to Ensure the Safety of the Nation’s Drinking Water

PCAST report makes near and long-term recommendations to improve the safety of the Nation’s drinking-water system.

Drinking water in the United States is safe and of high quality most of the time in most places, but public confidence regarding drinking-water quality has been shaken recently by a series of high-visibility crises.  These events highlight the long-term, national challenges to maintaining high-quality drinking water, resulting particularly from continuing and legacy pollution of source waters and an aging infrastructure that is in need of significant repair and modernization.

As part of the Administration’s response to concerns about the safety of the Nation’s drinking water, underscored by the revelations about lead in tap water in Flint, Michigan, in March 2016, President Obama asked his President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) to investigate how science and technology (S&T) could more effectively help ensure the safety of the Nation’s drinking water. 

On November 30th, PCAST released the recommendations and executive summary of its study, which we co-chaired, at the same time as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its Drinking Water Action Plan. The complete PCAST report to the President, Science and Technology to Ensure the Safety of the Nation’s Drinking Water, is being released today.

PCAST is making the following near- and long-term recommendations, which we believe will help to further improve the safety of the Nation’s drinking-water system.  The near-term recommendations focus on activities that the Administration can undertake in the areas of:

  • monitoring for chemical and microbial contaminants including a focus on monitoring exposure in particularly vulnerable populations such as babies and children;
  • developing strategies for improved data sharing and accessibility;
  • expanding citizen-science projects on drinking water; and
  • growing and training the water-system workforce. 

PCAST has categorized these recommendations as “near-term” because either personnel, funding, or programs currently exist that can help jump start the implementation of these recommendations within the current Administration.

PCAST is also making long-term recommendations to support a Federal strategy that coordinates research and the application of S&T to help ensure that the Nation’s drinking water will always be safe. These long-term recommendations include:

  • improving quantitative assessments of comparative risk across contaminants;
  • developing and deploying innovative, next-generation water technologies; and
  • launching demonstration pilots in U.S. cities to assess how innovative technologies perform in realistic conditions. 

PCAST considers these “long-term” strategic recommendations visionary, requiring dedicated resources. 

The release of this report could not come at a more important time.  This month Congress passed the Water Infrastructure Improvement for the Nation Act, authorizing funding for Flint and other communities to respond to lead problems.  The legislation provides access to $100 million in funding to help fix Flint's drinking-water infrastructure, $200 million in low-interest loans to upgrade water infrastructure in communities in Michigan and across the Nation, $50 million to address the health-care needs of children who have been exposed to lead, and authorizes the State of Michigan to forgive $20 million in past drinking-water loans to Flint.

Together, Federal, State, and local governments; universities; the private sector; and individual citizens can help ensure the ongoing safety of the drinking-water system.

Rosina Bierbaum, PhD and Christine Cassel, MD are PCAST members and the co-chairs of the PCAST working group on S&T for safe drinking water.