Is my water safe? That’s the question asked by many Americans these days. After a number of highly publicized water quality issues around the country, a recent Gallup poll showed that 63 percent of the population is concerned a “great deal” about water drinking quality, with many rating it a higher worry than air quality and climate change.
While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains that America’s drinking water remains “among the safest in the world,” a recent report shows that it’s not without issues. In an extensive effort, News21 – an investigative journalism project backed by the Carnegie Corporation and the James L. Knight Foundation – analyzed 680,000 EPA violations from the last 10 years to discover if U.S.-based water treatment facilities were falling short of protecting the nation’s water supply. The findings weren’t good.
According to the News21 report, up to 63 million Americans may have been exposed to potentially unsafe water at least once during the past decade. From aging infrastructure to industrial runoff, farming waste to radioactive materials, fracking to high levels of naturally occurring contaminants, nearly one-fifth of the US population may live in areas with water quality issues.
Water treatment plants are required to monitor and report water quality based on standards set by the EPA, and often the state, which regulates testing. With 680,000 violations since 2007 – and even more issues that aren’t reported, according to a 2011 Government Accountability Office study – it’s not hard to believe that 1 in 5 Americans could have consumed unsafe water in the past, and will in the future.
News21 found that some of the most vulnerable residents live in small towns or rural areas that struggle to maintain proper testing – let alone implement solutions for quality issues – due to budget and/or personnel shortages. And that doesn’t include the 15 million homes with private wells that may be subject to contamination from a variety of sources.
Even with a larger budget and more staff, metropolitan areas aren’t immune to water quality issues. For instance, New York City received violations for failing to protect its water (which serves 8.3 million people) from viruses and bacteria – twice in the past 10 years. And a treatment plant in Tacoma, WA received citations for failing to test for specific chemicals as well as missing a deadline to install a treatment system designed to kill a dangerous parasite.
Given the huge task of assuring water quality for homes and businesses across the U.S., is there anything you can do to be reasonably sure that the water in your home is safe?
Assessing Home Water Quality
First off, don’t panic! According to the EPA, if your water ever fails to meet EPA or state standards, or if there is a waterborne disease emergency, municipal water companies must notify consumers via “newspaper, mail, radio, TV, or hand-delivery.” In many cases, the water can be made safe by boiling, but the notice from your supplier will include what steps and precautions to take.
Second, you should be aware that virtually all of the drinking water in the U.S. supplied by municipal water systems goes through decontamination, including filtration and disinfection. There is no source of “pure” water (despite what some bottled water commercials may want you to believe). Thus, the question isn’t whether the water in your area has contaminants, but rather what kind of contaminants are found in the water and how are they mitigated to meet water quality regulations?
To answer this question, you first need to understand how well your local water treatment facility performs when it comes to removing contaminants.
For an overarching answer, locate your county on the interactive “Water Quality Violations” map made available by News21 on this page (scroll down to see the map). In addition to the number of EPA violations the facility has received, many counties include information about specific contaminants found in the water, as well as the number of treatment rules applied to the water. The site also contains a map for “Monitoring and Reporting Violations” by county. This information will give you a rough idea of the quality of water supplied to your community.
For a more specific answer, contact the water utility that supplies your area and ask for its latest Consumer Confidence Report (CCR), or annual drinking water quality report. The EPA requires this drinking water report to be produced annually by “community water systems that serve the same people year-round.” Even if the utility in your area is not required to produce the report, they should have data available on where your water comes from and what contaminates are found it in it (and at what level) both before and after treatment. The EPA provides a CCR FAQ that can help you understand the report. You should also be able to get clarification about the report details from your local water company.
These two steps will help you understand the quality of water in your area, but you’ll still want to know if the water coming out of your tap is safe after it travels from the water treatment plant to your home.
For example, some homes have lead components in the plumbing, including the service line, the solder holding the pipes together, and even the faucets (up until 2014, brass fixtures could legally contain up to eight percent lead). Many experts recommend having the water tested for lead if the home was built before 1991, when lead solder was banned from plumbing systems.
There have also been health concerns over plastic plumbing made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC). If the home was built before 1977, it could have PVC pipes that have been found to leach toxic levels of polyvinyl chloride into stagnant water at dead-end pipe segments. Another type of plastic piping, polybutylene, may be found in homes built between 1978 and 1995. This type of pipe has been known to leak or break, which can cause flooding in the home that can lead to mold.
Copper pipes can be found in older and newer homes, as well as copper fittings. Copper can leach into the water, especially in areas where the water is acidic. Ingesting too much copper can cause vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, and nausea, and has been associated with liver damage and kidney disease.
Given these various issues, it’s important to know what type of plumbing your home uses. Then you can research the specific health concerns, if any, associated with the type of piping. (Certain types of piping are also less dependable than others, so you may uncover other important information during your research.)
Once you understand the types of contaminants that may be present in the local water supply, and the risk of any additional contaminants being added by your home’s plumbing system, you can seek assistance with testing your water.
Contact your municipal water company or your county health department to find out if they do at-home testing. If not, you can work with an EPA-certified lab, which will most likely ask you to collect a sample and deliver it to the lab for testing. Test costs vary and can range up to several hundred dollars. There are also home test kits that can detect high levels of specific contaminants. This may be a good place to start, but these tests may not give you the peace of mind that a professional lab test will provide. If you have questions about testing, the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline can provide more information.
If you do find that your water quality is not up to par, there are many types of home water filtration systems that have been designed to remove or reduce specific contaminants.
Visit Troubled Water for detailed findings from the News21 report.
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