Pure or Polluted:
A Closer Look at Drinking Water

The United States boasts some of the safest drinking water on the planet,
and some of the toughest standards. But research suggests it might not be
a great idea to take water safety for granted. Aging infrastructure and other
sources of waste pose threats, but there are options for ensuring
that we’re drinking quality water.


By Claire Sykes

July 2008

 It sloshes around on two-thirds of the earth and fills most of our bodies. We evolved from and began our lives in it, and no living thing ever strays far from it to survive. We simply cannot do without water. And Americans are known for having access to some of the safest on the planet, and among the highest standards for it. Water experts generally agree that you can go ahead and dive into our nation’s drinking water if you’re healthy and able-bodied.

Even so, you may face some risks. “Water quality varies from one place to the next. Taking the safety of our drinking water for granted is not a smart thing,” warns Robert D. Morris, PhD, an environmental epidemiologist and author of The Blue Death: Disease, Disaster and the Water We Drink (HarperCollins). Never mind that both the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act aim to protect our water. From lakes and rivers to water treatment plants to our cities’ and homes’ water pipes, our water faces serious threats, some from harmful chemicals and pathogens.

Main Dangers
The biggest watery threats come from factory farming’s animal waste and pesticides, which along with antibiotics and hormones, taint our surface and ground water. So do all those nasty plasticizers, solvents and propellants from industrial runoff. Then there’s pollution from personal care and household products.

Once this toxic soup hits our water treatment plants, it’s due for a good cleaning. Whether it actually gets one is another story. “Most treatment plants rely on relatively old technology,” says Morris. “Their sand and charcoal filters don’t remove all the microbes and chemicals.” Most systems rely on chlorine to finish the job. But when it mingles with organic matter you get a chemical mess called chlorination by-products, which some studies have linked to cancer in humans.

Other menacing stuff sneaks through, giving rise to some ten million cases of waterborne diseases in the US every year. These gastrointestinal problems were most readily apparent in 1993 when the microbe Cryptosporidium parvum wriggled its way into Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s drinking water, resulting in the biggest outbreak of any waterborne infectious disease in US history—400,000 sick and 50 dead. A March 2008 Associated Press investigation uncovered the dramatic breadth of the problem when it reported that pharmaceuticals were present in water supplies for over 40 million Americans, some of them kids at school drinking fountains. Recent studies have found that these drugs can mutate cells.

Yet all of these water suppliers met current government standards. America’s millions of miles of water pipes also comply, though some are over a century old—well past their safe life expectancy of 30 to 50 years. When water mains leak and break, they not only disrupt service but also hurl potential contaminants into drinking water supplies. Commonly, pipes and solder that are connected to water mains leach lead, a metal that poisons the brain and which has been found at dangerous levels in homes and schools throughout the country. Morris says terrorists would likely target pipes first, since they are not difficult to penetrate; further, a break can affect a large area.

Other safe-water advocates are more concerned about pollutants. The US Environmental Protection Agency reports that more than 90 contaminants are regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act; it cites another 104 contaminants that aren’t regulated, including pharmaceuticals and the insect repellent DEET.

Morris, though, says it is more likely that “thousands” of contaminants can potentially pollute our water supplies. “There’s tremendous inertia in the drinking water industry; we’re dealing with a cumbersome regulatory process and massive capital projects,” Morris observes. The technology is available to remove hazardous chemicals and microbes from our water, he says, but the cost would be simply too prohibitive to treat the roughly 100 gallons of household water used per person each day—especially when you conside that we drink less than half a percent of that. “We need to spend a trillion dollars over the next 40 years to improve the infrastructure,” Morris says.

Less and less water will rush through that infrastructure as the population increases, especially in areas with inadequate water supplies and precipitation to begin with, such as the Southwest. Then factor in climate changes that reduce snow pack levels and “we’re using water at a rate faster than it’s being replaced,” Morris explains.

Water News You Can Use
    What can you do? Shorten your showers and attach aerators to all your faucets. Get the Consumer Confidence Report, which your water supplier is required to provide, to learn what contaminants are in your water, possible negative health effects and the water’s source.

If you are considering installation of a home filtration system, know that there are three types: point-of-use (at a single tap, installed under or on top of the counter), point-of-entry (throughout the house, installed where the water line enters) and pitchers. The first two have both a particle filter (to remove small particles and some microbes) and a carbon filter (to remove some chemicals). Pitcher filters have just a carbon filter. “They all offer one more level of protection,” says Morris.

Filters are effective when they are certified to attack the contaminants present in the water. To find out, contact the National Sanitation Foundation (www.nsf.org). “Any filtration system will fail if you don’t replace the filters, creating the perfect medium for bacterial growth,” says Paul Schwartz, national policy coordinator with the environmental advocacy group Clean Water Action (www.cleanwateraction.org). Some will filter out lead. “If you’ve got that [lead] in your water and you haven’t turned on the tap for more than six hours,” Schwartz says, “let it run for two to three minutes, collecting it for your plants.”

Should you drink bottled water instead? “Like tap water, generally it’s a safe choice,” says
Greg Kail, public affairs director with the nonprofit American Water Works Association
(www.awwa.org), “but it does not undergo the same frequency of testing that your tap water does because it’s regulated by the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] as a food product.” Bottled water undergoes even less scrutiny if it does not cross state lines.

 Most bottled water is tap water, anyway. If it’s spring water, it likely came from some small town’s water source. If it’s distilled water, it’s been stripped of minerals, some of which you need. If it’s mineral water, it may include too many minerals, including some you don’t need.

Distilled water doesn’t just come in bottles; consumers can distill water at home, with countertop distillers or more elaborate systems that connect with a home’s water line. Distilled water is made by condensing the steam of boiled water. This process removes many potentially harmful chemicals like lead, copper, nitrates and chlorine, and bacteria and viruses you wouldn’t want in your body. While it also removes calcium and magnesium, distilled water is said to be an efficient medium for transporting nutrients. What’s more, your body doesn’t care where you get those minerals, as long as you get them; a healthful, balanced diet and dietary supplements (such as a high-quality multivitamin and mineral) can provide those needed nutrients, and a simple blood test can tell you how much you need.

As a consumer, you can help prevent even more contaminants from invading our water systems by using environmentally safe and sustainable personal care and household products. These and all other waste matter should be disposed of responsibly, which naturally means avoiding the sewer.

Further protect our source waters, treatment plants and distribution systems by learning how politicians and civic leaders address the issue of drinking-water quality. “Support policies that prevent contamination of source waters from agricultural and industrial runoff. When a utility has to build a treatment facility in order to remove contaminants, understand that it’s a smart investment,” says Kail.

Finally, a number of environmental groups are devoted to improving the quality of our water. “We can’t do it alone. We need collective action to hold government accountable, to change the way it and the water industry do business,” says Schwartz. “We have an incredible reserve of intelligence and capacity in our communities, and we know what’s right and wrong.”

From reducing pollution in our lakes and rivers and installing computerized sensors in city water pipes, to regulating more contaminants and extracting them at our water treatment plants, we’ve got our work cut out for us. Cautions Kail: “We’re not in a crisis situation at this point, but the longer we wait to address the infrastructure problem the higher the price tag will be.”

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