Public Health Goals: California Drinking Water Risk Assessment

California is known for its exclusive health and safety standards. California Health and Safety Code includes many laws that help to protect the citizens of the state from environmental and industrial risks. Based on the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1996, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) has developed Public Health Goals (PHGs) for about 90 chemicals that may be found in drinking water.

California’s Safe Drinking Water Act of 1996

So-called Calderon-Sher California Safe Drinking Water Act of 1996 is the state law amended in 1996 that requires OEHHA to develop and notify about them on its website. The Act also explains the purposes of PHGs and how they are used.

What are Public Health Goals?

Public Health Goals are the safe levels of chemicals in drinking water that do not cause a significant risk to the health of individuals. PHGs are advisory and not regulatory, but they can become a base for initiating changes in the regulatory standards.

SWRCB takes PHGs into account when developing the regulatory standards, but they are not the only factor that impacts the final decision on setting the standards. In plain language, PHGs are goals water systems have to strive for.

Why Are OEHHA’s Public Health Goals Needed?

Developing PHGs serves to reduce health risks that may occur as a result of long-term exposure to chemical contaminants, especially in specific groups of the population, such as children and infants, pregnant women, older people, and people with hypersensitivity.

Another purpose of creating PHGs is to provide assistance to communities and water systems in maintaining the safe levels of drinking water and help authorities in improving water safety standards.

PHGs versus Federal Safety Standards

Public Health Goals are different from Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) set by the EPA. Complying with MCLs is mandatory for water systems, whereas PHGs are just indicative. Public Health Goals are similar to federal maximum contaminant level goals (MCLGs) that are also not regulatory.

PHGs can be lower or higher compared to the MCLs and MCLGs as they are based on independent risk assessment by the OEHHA’s experts of the California State.

How Is Risk Assessment Initiated?

Initially, chemicals that are subject to the risk assessment were determined by the California Safe Drinking Water Act of 1996. Totally, about 90 chemicals, which are regulated by MCLs, were listed for the development of PHGs. The act required OEHHA to develop and implement goals in 3 years from the date of its inception.

The risk assessment has to be updated at least every five years. New chemicals can be added by the request of authorities or initiated within OEHHA. Initiation of new PHGs or updating the existing ones is introduced by OEHHA based on currently available data, scientific reports, environmental exposures, and methodology updates.

When initiating or updating PHGs, OEHHA posts a public announcement on its website, which is open for public comments within 45 days. During this period, it is possible to submit information related to the chemicals listed in the announcement. After commenting is closed, it takes 30 more days to finalize the PHGs.

The list of PHGs

As of October 2019, OEHHA has published PHGs for 91 chemicals. You can find the list of PHGs on the website of the Office.

Public Health Goal Reports

According to the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1996, in California, public water systems that distribute water to more than 10,000 users have to report at least once in 3 years, in compliance with the levels of water contamination with PHGs.

The report should contain information on:

  1. Exceedance of the PHG levels
  2. How much it can cost to get rid of this exceeding and by what means it can be fixed
  3. Health risks for each chemical that exceed PHG levels.

In February 2019, OEHHA prepared and published Health Risk Information for Public Health Goal Exceedance Reports that explains the possible risks and categories of risk.

California Water Agencies Water Quality Committee has developed guidance for water services on how to report on PHGs. The exceedance reports provided by communities are used for in-depth analyzes on which health and/ or management actions are required.

Budget Issues Related to PHGs

Although PHGs aim to decrease health risks, reducing the levels of some contaminants to those recommended by PHGs is not always cost-efficient and can be heavy financial burden for some water systems. SWRCB considers financial information from the public health goal reports when developing new standards or updating the existing ones.

PHGs as a Tool of Public Health

Not being regulatory standards, Public Health Goals help reduce the levels of contaminants in drinking water. The measures to improve control and get rid of excessive contamination are taken whenever it is reasonable, which leads to step-by-step improvements and increasing responsibility of communities in maintaining health risks.

At the same time, OEHHA promotes arising of awareness of the citizens of California about the human right to water. In October 2019, OEHHA holds activities related to achieving the human right to water.

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