The Flint water crisis reminded most Americans of how important clean drinking water is, but Flint was also a disastrous outlier. Even for people not affected by the crisis in Flint, however, it raised an unsettling question: How safe is the average glass of tap water? Whether you’re the type of person who always drinks from a Brita Filter—or someone who fearlessly guzzles from the tap—it can’t hurt to know a little more about what’s likely going into your body.
Unsurprisingly, the most important factor is where you live, says David Reckhow, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Massachusetts—Amherst. “In large-sized communities, it’s [generally] very safe. We have good regulations and good systems.” Water systems that serve communities with less than 10,000 people, meanwhile, deserve more scrutiny, he says. Although many smaller systems are well-run, the lack of resources in these communities can create problems. Reckhow serves as the director of the EPA-funded Water Innovation Network for Sustainable Small Systems, which strives to improve water systems in smaller communities.
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What we drink doesn’t just depend on our water source. The pipes that transport our water can impact the final product, too. Utility companies must produce non-corrosive water, which some experts argue is an oxymoron. “There’s no such thing as non-corrosive water,” says Paul Chadik, a retired professor of environmental engineering at the University of Florida, where he taught for more than 30 years. “If you put metal in contact with water, there’s going to be corrosion.” But utility companies must limit the corrosive effects of water. To do that, they test the water along the pipeline and in the home after nobody has run the tap for at least six hours, allowing the water to sit in the pipes and cause potential corrosion. If you live in an older home—especially one with copper plumbing—Chadik recommends taking a shower in the morning before drinking your first glass of tap water. Running the shower will flush out whatever corrosion occurred overnight.
How can I test my water?
Testing your own water supply isn’t easy. “You can check to see if the community has a history of health-related violations online,” Reckhow says. “Beyond that, it’s really tough.” Your utility company must provide an analysis of your water with your bill once a year. The EPA database compiles these analyses online, but not every water system has a report listed, and many of the links don’t work. The Environmental Working Group will let you search your zip code’s water supply. It’s pretty easy to use, but the analysis can incite paranoia. Its goal levels of certain contaminants are far lower than what most health agencies recommend.
There are also tests you can use at home: First Alert tests for lead, pesticides, and bacteria, and you can find them for about $10-15 at a Walmart or a hardware store. Tap Score, on the other hand, tests for more contaminants, but the cheapest option costs $119. And if you’re worried because your water tastes like chlorine, fear not—that’s not necessarily a bad sign. “Chances are, things are at least safe in [terms of] pathogenic organisms,” Reckhow says.
What should I look for in a water filter?
If you want to be extra careful and use a water filter, there are certain considerations to keep in mind. A recent study from Ohio State University found pitcher filters with activated carbon are the most effective. Coconut-based filters, on the other hand, were much less effective. Look for carbon-based filters that filter water slowly. Sadly, the cheaper versions usually don’t work as well.
Make sure you replace your filter as often as recommended. “They have a fixed capacity to hold contaminants,” Reckhow says. If you try using your filter for too long because you want to save a few bucks, the filter can actually release old contaminants that it has been holding. “They can make the water a little worse if you use them beyond their lifespan.”
How will environmental problems affect water moving forward?
As is the case with pretty much every community health issue, climate change affects our drinking water. More extreme weather means more intense rains and droughts. More rain means more flooding, and runoff will pour pesticides and fertilizers into water supplies. “Major floods present big problems because they can compromise the supply,” Chadik says. “Any time the well head is flooded, that’s a time we go to boiled water notices.”
Rising sea levels also present a looming problem to drinking water, especially if you live near a coast. Anytime you drill into the surface for water, you will hit fresh water before salt water. Rising sea levels, however, mean you will hit salt water sooner. So even though the water supply isn’t right on the beach, it’s a problem for coastal cities. “It can increase the chloride and the taste of the water,” Chadik says. “But it can also increase the concentration of other chemicals that are in seawater that you don’t particularly want from a health perspective.”
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