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What If Your Tap Water Is Not Safe to Drink?

In the U.S., 89.3 percent of tap water is deemed safe, but what if you're one of the 29 million people whose water missed the mark?
 
 
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It's easy to be disdainful of bottled water if you've got no problem with tap. I live in a city with excellent municipal water. I've got lead-free pipes, a nice reusable bottle (which I almost always remember to bring with me), and I have no qualms about refilling it from public spigots or sinks. But not everyone is so lucky, and despite the airtight arguments against bottled water- it costs thousands of times more than tap, it often tastes no different, and it has a significant carbon footprint -- it isn't so easy for everyone to quit the habit.

And that's the dirty little secret behind the bottled-water wars. Not all tap water is perfect. It may meet all federal and state requirements but smell like rotten eggs or a swimming pool. The Environmental Protection Agency calls many taste and odor problems an "aesthetic," not health, issue, in which case a decent filter may solve the problem. But what if your water contains high levels of carcinogenic disinfection byproducts, which can result when organic matter mixes with chlorine? What if you live near an industrial plant or an army base that's contaminated your groundwater? It's happened around Binghamton, Minneapolis, Las Vegas, and dozens of cities around the nation. A countertop filter isn't going to protect you from perchlorate, perfluorochemicals, or trichloroethene.

The fact is, 89.3 percent of the nation's community water systems met or exceeded federal standards in 2007 (down from 92 percent in 2006). It sounds good, but that still leaves more than 29 million people drinking water that missed the mark on either health or reporting standards. (Utilities that fail to report test results to the feds may be trying to hide something considered unhealthy.) Who are the unlucky millions? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, they live in small communities that lack the funding to take good care of their water. Utility managers deal the hand they're dealt, in terms of source water, but the ones with more financial resources inevitably play a better hand.

For those with sub-par tap water, does a retreat to the bottle make sense? Hardly. First, bottled water isn't necessarily more healthful than tap. The Food and Drug Administration allows in bottled water basically the same levels of contaminants the EPA allows in tap water (no naturally occurring water is absolutely pure). Contaminants that go unregulated by the EPA -- such as perchlorate or MTBE, a gasoline additive - also go unregulated by the FDA. While utility customers can learn the results of testing from annual reports, bottlers aren't required to reveal the results of either their self-testing or their far less frequent independent inspections. As an EPA employee told me, with bottled water "it's a crapshoot what you're getting." Another difference: bottled water is tested at the plant, not after it's been sitting in plastic for up to two years. Chemicals from bottles have been shown to leach into water over time.

Second, many people can't afford bottled water, especially with oil so precious. Third, and perhaps most importantly, abandoning tap water en masse will only make it worse for its remaining consumers. Good water doesn't just happen: it takes political will to allocate and spend money to protect watersheds, wrangle with polluters, and replace old pipes. Distanced from public systems, committed bottled water drinkers have little incentive to support bond issues and other methods - including rate increases - of upgrading municipal water treatment.

And that's the conundrum: environmental groups readily point out our water systems' failures (the dozens of unregulated contaminants, the discharge of 850 billion gallons of raw sewage into the nation's waterways each year, the $22-billion-a-year funding shortfall to fix distribution pipes and treatment plants). But those same groups are uncomfortable steering us toward an apparent solution: water that's been ultra-filtered by private companies, or water sourced from supposedly pristine springs. Instead, advocacy groups say, protect yourself with an on-tap or under-the-sink filter, which remove far more contaminants than countertop models.

Of course, filters have their own environmental and economic costs. So what's a better solution? Ultimately, we must fix and improve the systems we've got. Clean drinking water is an index of a functioning society: more than a billion people worldwide lack sufficient access to clean water, and more than 5 million a year die from waterborne diseases. The United States still has one of the best water systems in the developed world: it would be criminal to run it into the ground. Our water will either continue to degrade -as development, agriculture, and industry pollute our water -- or we'll forge ahead with strengthened treatment standards and watershed protection and serious investment in water and distribution infrastructure (funded by more realistic water rates, and by large-scale water users and polluters).

Bottled water isn't, in the larger scheme, the worst thing in the world. (If you absolutely must buy a containerized beverage, it beats soda or other high-calorie drinks.) But if our leaders continue to under-fund and ignore the nation's water systems, and the public flees municipal supplies for private, these systems will degrade to the point where only those who can afford to buy good water, from protected sources, will have it. And that would be a tragedy.

 
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