The Tap Water Crisis
In 2015, the residents of Flint, Michigan were faced with a water crisis – city officials failed to properly treat or test a new water supply for contaminants, which resulted in lead levels far above what’s permitted by state and federal regulations, and forced the Governor and the President of the United States to take action.
The CDC estimates that annually, nearly 20 million Americans fall ill due to contaminated drinking water. Two Virginia Tech professors wrote in the Washington Post that Flint is not an isolated case: “It’s not unusual for cities to have lead in their water supplies. In 2004, The Washington Post reported that 274 water utilities serving 11.5 million consumers had exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s lead standard in the previous four years and that several cities (including Boston, New York and Philadelphia) were out of compliance with EPA reporting requirements.” Chicago has 385,000 lead water pipes, and up until 1986 mandated their use. There are about 6 million lead pipes across the country.
Even more startling, the authors called it a myth to say that if tap water samples meet EPA standards, the water is safe. For instance, the release of toxic lead into tap water lines can be sporadic. The testing may occur on “flushed” water lines, which may affect the sampling.
What’s in our tap water?
Note: Data comes from the Natural Resources Defense Council
Fecal bacteria (coliforms)
Fecal bacteria (coliforms)
The presence of coliforms in drinking water indicates the possible presence of organisms that can cause diarrhea, cramps, nausea, and headaches. In 2015, there were 10,261 violations at community water systems serving 17,768,807 people.
Exposure to these contaminants can lead to cancer and may be linked to reproductive impacts such as miscarriages and birth defects. In 2015, there were 11,311 violations at community water systems serving 25,173,431 people.
Nitrites and Nitrates
Nitrites and Nitrates
Exposure can lead to blue baby syndrome in infants (potentially leading to death in extreme cases), developmental effects, and cardiovascular disease. In 2015, there were 1,529 violations at community water systems serving 3,867,431 people.
Lead and Copper
Lead and Copper
Exposure to lead is particularly toxic to children and can cause serious, irreversible damage to their developing brains and nervous systems. Lead exposure can also cause miscarriages and stillbirths in pregnant women, as well as fertility issues, cardiovascular and kidney effects, cognitive dysfunction, and elevated blood pressure in healthy adults. In 2015, there were 8,044 violations by systems serving 18,350,633 people.
Exposure can lead to cancers and compromised kidney function. In 2015, there were 2,297 violations in community water systems serving 1,471,364 people.
A known human carcinogen, exposure can lead to cancers, development effects, pulmonary disease, or cardiovascular disease. In 2015, there were 1,537 violations at community water systems serving 1,842,594 people.
Exposure from pesticides and other synthetic organic contaminants can lead to cancers, developmental effects, central nervous system and reproductive difficulties, endocrine issues, or liver and kidney problems. In 2015 there were 6,864 violations serving 2,669,594 people.
The tap water problem is worse than you think
From the most rural parts of America to the country’s largest cities — millions of Americans primary source of water for daily activities is tap water. We drink, shower, and brush our teeth with potentially toxic tap water on a daily basis with little, to no, warning.
Even when violations are reported to the EPA, the agency rarely takes action. Research finds that in 2015, the EPA took action on just 13 percent out of over 80,000 violations that had been reported.
By 2020, the average water pipe in America will be 45 years old — with many being well over 100 years old. Worse, the standards for lead in tap water are actually less strict than the restrictions for lead in purified (bottled) water.
The EPA has not updated the regulations on tap water set forth by the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) since 1996. Some contaminants remain unregulated, putting Americans across the country at risk. Substances such as polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl, known as PFAS, are a group of manmade chemicals that have been linked to serious health complications. These synthetic substances have seeped into our waterways after being released by industrial, military, and firefighting operations. PFAS chemicals are also found in disposable lunch bowls. New research has demonstrated a cause-and-effect link between PFAS chemicals and reproductive harm.
Does your tap water have PFAS in it? If you are concerned, the Rhode Island Department of Health recommends that you not boil tap water, since that will concentrate these chemicals. The Department suggests you “reduce your risk of exposure to these chemicals by using bottled water or other licensed drinking water that has been tested for these chemicals or that uses a treatment that removes these chemicals.” Routine showering and bathing are not a major source of exposure for PFAS chemicals.
The Environmental Working Group has more information at its own tap water database. The EWG recently found 91 tap water contaminants linked to cancer that could be in your local water.
Below are some of the most egregious examples of water contamination in the United States.
The Water Process
Why is tap water across the country putting American families at risk? And why does tap water taste different from other filtered water?
Tap water is regulated by the EPA, while other water, such as purified bottled water, faces additional regulations from the FDA and goes through additional purification.
What About Purified and Bottled Water?
Bottled water generally starts out as tap water before it undergoes superior purification. Under federal law, bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA has regulations that are just as stringent as the EPA when it comes to water quality — and oftentimes, have additional regulations that are more demanding.
Bottled water companies use processes such as deionization and reverse osmosis. If it meets FDA standards in this way, it can be labeled “purified water.” (Bottled “spring water,” by contrast, must come from a spring.)
For a humorous look at tap water tasting, watch this video.