Drinking Water Safety

Is Your Drinking Water Safe?

  • Rene Ebersole
  • Jun 01, 2004
The quality of U.S. tap water rates better than what is found in most countries, but that doesn’t mean you should take it for granted.

IT'S CLEAR, SMELLS FRESH, TASTES GOOD. But is it safe to drink? Most of us have considered this question, whether sipping tap water while traveling or making lemonade at home. Truth is American water supplies are some of the cleanest in the world. Still, it sure doesn’t hurt to be cautious.

Case in point: The nation’s capital, where thousands of residents discovered last winter that their tap water was tainted with dangerous levels of lead, a metal associated with behavioral problems, brain damage and lowered IQ in children, and strokes, cancer and elevated blood pressure in adults.

More than two-thirds of the 6,000 Washington, D.C., households that had their water tested for lead were found to exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) hazard level of 15 parts per billion (ppb)—157 homes had levels above 300 ppb. When the test results hit the news in January, city officials scrambled to root out the source of the contamination and ramped up efforts to replace lead service pipes that transmit water underground to customers’ homes. At the same time, residents stormed department stores, looking for home water filtration systems that would protect their families from the invisible toxin.

The District of Columbia is home to one of the roughly three dozen water systems in the country with lead levels above the federal safety standard, according to data collected by the EPA. (Most of the others are in smaller communities.) But lead isn’t the only contaminant in the nation’s public water supplies.

Some studies estimate that as many as seven million Americans become sick from contaminated tap water each year. Often to blame are aging pipes that break, leach contaminants into water and breed bacteria, as well as old-fashioned treatment facilities that can fail to remove 21st century contaminants. Exacerbating the problem are environmental threats—stormwater runoff, agricultural pesticides and fertilizers, industrial pollution, hazardous waste and oil and chemical spills.

"Most Americans take it for granted that their tap water is pure and their water infrastructure is safe," says Erik Olson, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "They shouldn’t."

A recent NRDC report authored by Olson found the quality of drinking water in 19 major U.S. cities might pose health risks to some residents, especially those with compromised immune systems. Of all the cities studied, five had apparent or confirmed violations of enforceable tap water laws. The cities with the poorest water quality were Albuquerque, Boston, Fresno, Phoenix and San Francisco.

Water utilities are required by law to provide consumers with information about where municipal water comes from, whether it exceeds the allowable limits of the 80 possible contaminants regulated by the EPA and the health risks to which they may be exposed by drinking tap water. "If a system fails to monitor for a contaminant, it is subject to fines and penalties," says EPA spokesperson Cathy Milbourn. Utilities are required to mail these "consumer confidence reports" by July each year.

Can the utilities’ reports be trusted? According to NRDC, sometimes yes, sometimes no. Olson and his colleagues carefully evaluated the utility reports of the 19 cities. They determined that some, such as Chicago, Denver and Detroit, were doing a "good job." Others, including Atlanta, Boston, Houston, Newark, Phoenix, Seattle and Washington, D.C., published information that was "incomplete or misleading."

Studies show that it will take from $230 to $500 billion—more than $300 million in Washington, D.C., alone—to restore and upgrade the nation’s aging and outdated water systems. Some experts criticize the Bush administration for providing insufficient funding for such an important endeavor, and instead attempting to weaken the bedrock environmental laws that protect the nation’s drinking water supplies.

At press time, Congress was considering the administration’s proposal to revoke Clean Water Act protections for more than 20 million acres of wetlands that naturally filter pollutants and provide clean drinking water to American towns and cities. The administration did, however, cancel plans last winter to issue a new rule limiting the types of waters protected under the Clean Water Act.

"Clean drinking water has been one of the major public health triumphs of the past 100 years," says David Ozonoff, a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health and an expert on waterborne illnesses. "We’ve figured out how to build very efficient water delivery systems. But these systems can either provide safe drinking water, or deliver poisons and harmful organisms into every home, school and workplace. One misstep can lead to disaster, so we must vigorously protect our watersheds and use the best technology to purify our tap water."

Rene Ebersole is an associate editor for this magazine.

Analyze This

If you’re connected to a public water supply, you should receive a Consumer Confidence Report from your water utility annually in July. You can also obtain a copy of the report by calling (800) 426-4791, or by visiting www.epa.gov/safewater (click on local drinking water information). If your water comes from a private well, it’s up to you to do the testing. Visit the EPA’s safe water website to locate state-certified water testing labs, or consult your local health department or extension office for information.

How Much Should You Drink?

You need to drink eight glasses of water a day to be healthy, right? Wrong, says a recent National Academy of Sciences report: Most people can stay adequately hydrated if they simply follow their thirst. The scientists in fact found women who appear to be sufficiently hydrated consume an average of 11 eight-ounce glasses of water a day, while men drink nearly 16. But people who are very physically active or who live in hot climates may need more. The scientists also noted that roughly 80 percent of a healthy person’s fluid intake comes from drinking water and other beverages—including those containing alcohol and caffeine—and the other 20 percent is supplied by food.

Tapping Into a Filter

If a contaminant listed on your water report exceeds the EPA’s hazard level, your municipal water supplier’s filtering and disinfecting system has failed. Until the problem is rectified, you should use a home treatment system to eliminate the contaminant.

Water treatment systems come in all shapes and sizes, from "point-of-entry" filters that treat water as it comes into a home and "point-of-use" carafes, to faucet-mounted units and plumbed-in systems installed under the sink. But choose carefully. "There isn’t any single system that’s going to get rid of everything," says Cheryl Luptowski, consumer affairs specialist for NSF International, a public health and safety company that tests and certifies water treatment systems. "It’s best to identify what you want to remove. Then find a system that will take care of it."

Lead is one of the easiest contaminants to deal with—most carbon filters will do the trick. Other contaminants can be much more difficult. Getting rid of the parasite Cryptosporidium is a job for a heavy-duty ultraviolet water treatment system. Nitrates and arsenic, on the other hand, often require reverse osmosis.

Once you have chosen a treatment system (for help, see www.nsf.org), make sure the product has received the industry seal of approval. "If you see the word ‘lead’ on the label and the NSF mark," says Luptowski, "you will know the product was certified to reduce the required amount of lead."

Most conservationists consider filters preferable to loading up on bottled water, which can—in some cases—be nothing more than filtered tap water. At a few cents per gallon, a filter is less costly than bottled water and keeps plastic containers that take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade out of landfills.

Turning the Tide

No matter how far you live from the nation’s capital and its problems with high levels of lead in residential drinking water, you could soon see the upshot from that crisis at your tap. Concerned that the infrastructure that supplies Americans from coast to coast with drinking water is languishing from old age, lawmakers have begun searching for new ways to keep water supplies safe—and lead-free.

"It is time to get the lead out of our pipes, out of our water, out of our families and out of our lives," said Senator James M. Jeffords in a recent statement to the press. "Safe drinking water is not a privilege; it is a right—whether you live in Washington, D.C., or Washington State or Washington County, Vermont."

Jeffords and several other senators have introduced legislation to overhaul and strengthen the federal rules governing lead testing and standards in the nation’s public water systems. The bill would require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to revise the national regulations for lead in drinking water to ensure protection of vulnerable populations, such as infants, children, pregnant women and breast-feeding moms; establish better notification procedures for residents when a water system experiences high lead levels; increase water testing and lead remediation in schools and day-care centers nationwide; provide more federal funding to upgrade distribution systems; and ban the use of leaded plumbing fixtures and components.

"The EPA estimates that our nation needs $265 billion to maintain and improve its drinking water infrastructure over the next twenty years," said Jeffords. "If we don't address this, we'll be facing more and more health and environmental issues as our nation's water infrastructure degrades."—Rene Ebersole

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