Do you know what’s in that glass of water you’re drinking? Depending on where you live, what you don’t know could harm you.
Just ask the residents of Flint, Michigan, where what initially appeared to be simply a bad call on the part of government officials may result in an estimated $400 million in health care costs.
While those responsible for hiding reports showing high levels of toxic lead in Flint’s water now face criminal charges, the health crisis there has raised the alarm about everyone else’s water.
But before switching to bottled water for all your hydration needs, get the facts.
U.S. Water Sets a Gold Standard ― Mostly
Americans actually enjoy the world’s safest drinking water supply. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which sets enforceable health standards regarding the contaminants in drinking water, reports that 90 percent of municipal water systems are in compliance with safety regulations.
To find out about your own city’s tap water, check out your water system’s Annual Water Quality Report. After July 1 of each year, water systems are required to provide this report by including it with your water bill or via a link. The report lists common contaminants and the levels at which they are found and are generally available online: Do a web search of your city’s name and “annual quality report.”
And you can go one step further by using a filter. Look for filters certified by the NSF International, which developed the national standards for reducing contaminants.
Lead: Unsafe at Any Level
The crisis in Flint has brought widespread attention to the potential for lead contamination in our water supplies.
“There is no level of lead that is safe,” says Mary Grant, director of Public Water for All at nongovernmental organization and consumer rights group Food and Water Watch. “Cities like Jackson, Mississippi, and Sebring, Ohio, with older systems have lead service lines. We really shouldn’t have lead lines.”
According to a study by the National Resources Defense Council, 18 million people were served by water systems with lead violations in 2015. In addition to Flint, cities like Cleveland and Newark, New Jersey, have high levels of lead in their water systems as well, according to the New York Times.
“Each year in America there are roughly 90,000 low-level exposures (5–9 micrograms per deciliter), which commonly result from sources such as drinking water,” says Peter Muennig, an associate professor at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, in a letter to the journal Health Affairs. “These exposures rob children of IQ points, leading to lower economic productivity, higher welfare use, and additional criminal justice system costs.”
Muennig goes on to note that because of the effort to save $5 million by switching water sources, Flint will suffer costs of $395 million, as well as “1,760 quality-adjusted life-years lost.”
In addition to water system safety concerns, lead can also be present closer to home. Older houses may have lead plumbing, in which case, your options include replacing your plumbing system ― a prohibitively expensive proposition for most homeowners ― buying a filter that can reduce lead or packing it in and moving to a newer house.
A short-term solution to avoid consuming lead from tap water is to use only water from the cold tap for drinking and cooking and to let the water run for 60 seconds before using it.
Microorganisms, Bacteria and Parasites, Oh My!
There can be other contaminants in your water too: microorganisms like bacteria and parasites, chemicals from industrial waste or from spraying crops and nitrates used in fertilizers from runoff.
The EPA ensures that the amounts of these contaminants are below hazardous levels, but they can still be evident.
Unregulated Dangers in Tap Water
Then there are the contaminants the EPA doesn’t regulate, like drugs and hormones.
“These unregulated contaminants are a big concern,” Grant says. “Hormones have been found in surface waters. We’re not sure what the levels are.”
A recent Harvard study found that another class of contaminant — an obscure industrial pollutant associated with cancer and other severe health consequences — was found in unsafe levels in the drinking water of 6 million Americans.
This could be changing, though. The EPA is looking for new contaminants and ways to better regulate them. The agency currently has an unregulated contaminant list that it’s testing for in large cities, but it’s still in the review process.
The “Champagne” of Tap Water
Many of us are fortunate enough to live in cities that test water systems thousands of times a year and exceed the safety levels required by the EPA. A few cities with the best water are New York, San Francisco and New Orleans.
“New York has the champagne of tap water,” Grant says. “It’s a model of source protection. They make sure the contaminants don’t enter in the first place.”
Going further, the American Water Works Association has annual tap water taste tests. The 2016 winner for best-tasting tap water is Bloomington, Minnesota.
Who Has the Worst Tap Water?
On the other end of the spectrum, problematic water systems abound in underserved communities.
“The worst water is found in systems that serve Native American populations,” Grant says. “And small, private systems have bad water quality.”
Concerned about your tap water quality? You can call the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791 to find out about your drinking water, or you can use its Consumer Confidence Reports search tool to find reports or to connect to your local water supplier to get a copy of the report.
What’s in the Water?
Lead: On its way to your faucet, water may pass through corroded plumbing that can allow lead to leach into it. Lead-related health risks include neurological damage, kidney and liver problems and developmental delays in children.
Chlorine: Chlorine is added to water to kill bacteria and viruses, but it can react with other materials in the water and form byproducts that have been linked to increased cancer risk.
Fluoride: Added to water in some areas to promote dental health, fluoride in excess may result in bone disease.
Pharmaceuticals: These compounds are increasingly appearing in trace amounts in drinking water, and there’s growing concern that certain drugs or combinations of drugs may harm humans over time. While no known effects on humans have been reported (yet), exposure to estrogen-like substances in the Potomac River have produced fish with both male and female characteristics, with some fish having both testes and ovaries.
Nitrates: Farm runoff can introduce nitrates from fertilizer into a water source. Nitrates interfere with the oxygen-carrying capacity of newborns’ blood.
Polyfluoroalkyl and Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAs): These chemicals are used in a range of commercial products. Some are linked to health problems, including high cholesterol, immune deficiency, hormone disruption and kidney and testicular cancers.