What to Make of the Latest Article Warning of Scary Tap Water

Charles Duhigg’s recent New York Times article, That Tap Water Is Legal but May Be Unhealthy, was certainly scary. It let us know that drinking water systems in the United States are in sorry shape and, with over 60,000 chemicals in our industrial inventory, “…not one chemical has been added to the list of those regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act since 2000.”

I’m lucky to live in a place with very good tap water, but it’s clear from Duhigg’s article that some people have no choice but to drink bottled water. On top of being robbed of clean public water, something Americans generally think of as a right, the expense of bottled water (or water filters), which many people just can’t afford, adds insult to injury.

Still, Duhigg’s article should not generally be read as a reason to buy bottled water. Let’s remember the facts: as outdated as our water regulations may be, in the United States, tap water is far better regulated than bottled water, not to mention that up to 40 percent of the water sold in bottles is tap water that’s simply been packaged – and packaged in containers (those ubiquitous plastic bottles) that are harmful to human and environmental health.  To make matters worse, the bottled water industry, which is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is not required to disclose the results of any contaminant testing it conducts.

While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires municipal tap water to be tested hundreds of times a month, the FDA, which regulates bottled water, requires testing samples just once a week. Bottled water regulations include allowable levels of known contaminants such as volatile organic compounds and pesticides. Bacteria, carcinogens and other chemicals have all been found in bottled water. Some of these contaminants can be traced to the water source, while others leach from the plastic bottles into the water. You may think you are getting pure spring water in that shiny bottle with the cool graphics but often you are getting tap water or water from an unknown source.

If you are concerned about your local water, you can go to the database assembled by the Environmental Working Group referenced in Duhigg’s article. You can obtain a copy of your water service provider’s Consumer Confidence Report and find out precisely what has been identified in your water. You can also install water filters in your home or business. Food and Water Watch has a list of options for home filtration.

Many water service providers are overseen by citizen advisory boards. These are great places to learn about the issues associated with your community’s water and wastewater systems, as well as plans for new developments that could impact your water. This is important, especially as we face emerging contaminants from industrial, commercial and residential development and potentially more privatization of water utilities – something that should be fought at every level of government.

Today, while 70 percent of drinking water systems are privately owned, most people – about 86 percent of those who don’t get their water from their own wells – rely on public water utilities. As our water infrastructure ages, private companies may seem like an easy fix, but they have a financial incentive to oppose conservation programs that save water and thus lower their customers’ bills.  They have little financial incentive to improve infrastructure, for example by modernizing testing and treatment systems, because doing so costs them money.

Public water systems are accountable to the public, which gives the public more leverage and influence over their water resources. Private water services are accountable to private owners or shareholders.  This is a good reason to find out if your water service is publicly or privately owned, and to fight privatization when it rears its ugly head.

If we want clean drinking water, we’re going to have to hold government accountable for the comprehensive land use planning that’s needed to protect lakes, streams, rivers and underground aquifers from contaminated sites and polluted runoff. Duhigg’s article is a wake up call telling us to demand standards to cover the expanding list of new and emerging contaminants that threaten our water supplies and our health.  Sure, that’s more work than buying a bottle of water – but buying that bottle isn’t protecting your health; it’s helping destroy the environment and you’re paying for it with your hard earned dollars.

Looking to the future, there is a way to ensure adequate funding for publicly-owned drinking water systems. The proposed federal water trust fund would provide a permanent source of funding to modernize our antiquated water treatment systems and adapt them to ever changing technologies and emerging contaminants. In doing so, it would reduce financing costs and allow small municipal water systems to fend off privatization.

In the United States we are blessed to have fresh water that meets many of our needs. If we want to continue to enjoy all the benefits of that water, we have no choice but to take steps to protect and properly treat it. Otherwise we can keep our heads in the sand and wait for someone else to fix the problem. But hey, there’s water on the moon, right? I’ll start packing.


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