Like the incessant drip of a leaky faucet, questions about the quality of ordinary tap water are starting to keep us up at night. Sure, travelers know to stockpile bottled water in Tulum and Shanghai, but stateside, reusable bottles reign and opening the tap for drinking water has become second nature. Or not. Our water—a daily essential that protects the brain, lubricates joints, regulates body temperature, and helps remove waste—is now suspect due to the crisis in Flint, Michigan, and reports of recent lead contamination in Sebring, Ohio; Jackson, Mississippi; and Durham and Greenville, North Carolina. Suddenly, Americans have been left wondering just how old the pipes in our buildings might be (especially while riding creaky elevators or admiring original Art Deco fixtures) and where, exactly, their water comes from. Here, a guide to understanding the problem—and what you can do to protect yourself.
How does contamination happen—and could it happen to you?
Lead leaching from old pipes is the root cause of the recent contaminations reported in the news. In the case of Flint, officials had switched sources from Lake Huron to a cheaper water source from the Flint River, which contained more corrosive materials and entered city pipes without phosphates added to prevent corrosion. The water quickly accumulated lead, a neurotoxin that affects the developing brains and nervous systems of children and infants. Aging distribution systems in older cities like Atlanta, Detroit, New York, and San Francisco must be monitored, warns Saugata Datta, associate professor of geology specializing in water quality at Kansas State University’s Urban Water Institute.
So how safe is our water?
University of California professor David Sedlak, author of Water 4.0 and codirector of the Berkeley Water Center, says that U.S. tap water, in general, is extremely safe. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires continual testing of public water sources, often more than 100 times a month. “The EPA tests for over 90 different contaminants in public drinking water systems,” he explains. “Not just metals, but also pesticides, fertilizers, microorganisms, salmonella, E. coli, hepatitis A.” However, Sedlak says the systems that deliver the water, rather than the water itself, can cause problems: “The country tends to underinvest in its water infrastructure, and situations like the one in Flint are not unique.”
Can you find out your water’s test results?
Every water system is required to send out yearly consumer reports. Kate Fried of the Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit Food & Water Watch says they often arrive with the water bill in July, but you can request a copy now from your local water company. The report lists any contaminants found in your community’s drinking water.
Can you test your home’s tap water?
Sedlak says water testing should be done by a certified laboratory. Homeowners should find out what type of pipes they have both inside and leading from the city water line, and should watch for changes in tap water. The smell, taste, and look of water can sometimes indicate a larger problem. Home testing kits for arsenic are available, but labs test for a broad range of contaminants and are most accurate. You can also request to have your water tested. The EPA’s safe drinking water hotline is 800.426.4791.
What about water filters?
To further treat water, Sedlak recommends a carafe-type filter or an activated carbon version attached to your kitchen faucet that’s changed regularly. “These filters effectively remove most pesticides, metals, and organic compounds,” he says. Reverse osmosis systems attached to the tap and refrigerator, which force liquid through a semi-porous membrane at high pressure, are another option. Datta says they attack many metals, especially in places with unsafe source water (though he notes Flint’s water had too much lead for these sort of filters to help). However, he points out, reverse osmosis can also remove beneficial minerals; if you tinker with water too much, you start to throw the good things out with the bad. So this method may be overkill for many municipalities with good water quality. “You can’t strip everything from water,” Datta says. “Minerals including calcium and added things like fluoride help teeth. Good tap water requires a very delicate balance.”
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