Women’s Health: What’s in Your Tap Water? (Part 3 of 3)

Sep 29 2010 Published by under Biology & Environment

This is a continuation of the look at the claims of Women's Health article "What's in your tap water?"

Put a cork in it?

In my previous posts, I took a look at the four pollutants that Women's Health highlighted as potential tap water pollutants: chlorination byproducts and bacteria and lead and pharmaceuticals. All are indeed possible tap water contaminants that have the potential to adversely affect your health.  But I think the way the article - really more of a short list - framed the information is really problematic.

Here is the intro:

Think that's clean water coming out of your faucet? Think again. New studies have found a host of nasties in tap water.

There's a lot wrong in that short paragraph: the "nasties" aren't new, the water that comes out of most faucets is clean, and, even if it wasn't, the article doesn't provide any information I could use to find out what's in my tap water.

First off, it's silly to suggest that the information is based on "new studies". The potential dangers of lead pipes has been known since the time of the Roman Empire. Treatments to kill bacteria and other pathogens have been in use  since the late 19th century, and chlorine was first added to water as a disinfectant a century ago. The potential risks associated with the ingestion of chlorination byproducts have been studied for more than 30 years. Over the years it has become less likely that the water you are drinking contains any of those pollutants.

The only fairly recent discovery is the presence of pharmaceuticals and drug by-products in the water supply. As yet there isn't any data demonstrating that these compounds are typically found at high enough levels in drinking water to be a health concern.

Some of you have probably noticed my use of weasel words: it's likely there are lower levels of chlorination byproducts in tap water than there were 30 years ago, and at typical levels the four pollutants aren't a significant health threat. That's because water quality can vary a lot from location to location.

The water coming out of my faucets has a different source and passes through a different treatment plant than the water provided to folks in the next town over. My water might even be different than what's coming from the tap of other homes in my neighborhood, since their plumbing might have a different amount of lead or corrosion.

So while the Women's Health article correctly points out the "nasties" exist, the information they provide can't help you assess the risk in drinking your tap water, and make the pollutants sound like a much bigger problem than they are.

So what is in your tap water?

I'd drink this.

If you are concerned - or curious - there are a couple of ways to find more information about your water.

The EPA requires suppliers that serve at least 100,000 people1 to send an annual water quality report to all customers . Most large water districts have their most recent report available online. See, for example, the reports for Metro Boston, St. Louis, and the East SF Bay Area.  The EPA also has links to other online reports and a database of reported violations of safety standards.

While the EPA-mandated reports can tell you what's in the water when it's distributed, it obviously can't take into account contaminants like lead that can come from the plumbing inside your home.  The only way to determine lead levels is to have your water tested in a laboratory.

Additional information:

EPA Information on home water testing (pdf)

EPA's safe drinking water Hotline (answers general questions about water safety)

EPA Local Drinking Water Information (find a report from your local water supplier)

EPA Safe Drinking Water Information System database (reports violations of EPA drinking water regulations)

USGS report on private well water safety and EPA Private Drinking Water Well information (well water is not part of the public water supply, and is not governed by EPA regulations)

1. I get an annual report from my local water supplier even though it only serves 40,000, and so is not required to mail out a report.  I assume that other smaller water districts do the same.

Is bottled water a good substitute for tap water?

Better bottled?

If an alien landed in Southern California, it might get the impression that drinking water only comes in plastic bottles. Ask around, and many people will tell you that they drink bottled water because it's "healthier" - or at least in some way "better" - than what comes from their faucet.

While bottled water may sometimes taste better, there isn't any evidence that it's any purer or healthier than tap water.  It can even contain the same pollutants, such as chlorination byproducts or bacteria.

That's not particularly surprising, since many of the brands of the bottled water that you find in your supermarket - like Pepsi's Aquafina and Coca-Cola's Dasani - are simply tap water that may (or may not) have gone through an extra round of purification.

To be fair, the Women's Health article doesn't suggest that we should buying bottled water. But since it strongly implies that "our" tap water is full of nasty pollutants, I wouldn't be surprised if some readers thought that was the unspoken take-home message.

Why is that a problem? Bottled water is much much more expensive than tap water and generates tons of plastic waste every year. It's bad for your wallet, bad for your environment and has no special health benefit.  I'm trying to break my own bottled water habit for that reason.

So what can you do?

If you are concerned about lead in your plumbing, the EPA suggests only drinking cold tap water, and, if the faucet has not been used for 6 or more hours, to let the water run briefly before filling up your glass.

You can also use a water pitcher with a carbon filter to remove minerals and other impurities. That has the added benefit of allowing the water to stand long enough for chlorination byproducts to evaporate.

And you can not worry too much - water straight from your tap is likely just fine.

Additional Reading

Lalumandier JA and Ayers LW. Fluoride and Bacterial Content of Bottled Water vs. Tap Water. Arch Fam Med. 9:246-250 (2000)     (free full text)

Bottled Water Regulation and the FDA.

National Academy of Sciences & Global Health and Education Foundation: Safe Drinking Water Is Essential

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Be sure to check out all the Women's Health review posts.

7 responses so far

  • [...] tomorrow: What’s really in your water and is bottled water the [...]

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  • Thrutch Grenadine says:

    Living in Cornwall, UK I am always very aware of the flocculating agent aluminium sulphate (that's aluminum sulfate to persons subject to Mr Webster's malign influence) because of the Camelford incident.

    • Peggy says:

      I had to look up the Camelford incident. What a terrible combination of human error and cover up! It's not just that the aluminum sulfate was added to the treated drinking water (making sulfuric acid) due to sloppy procedures, but that the water supplier then told people the water was safe and should just mix it with orange juice to mask the taste.

  • Ruchand says:

    This post made to me think a lot when it comes to water at any time, any where.

  • anon says:

    Our water comes from a well. We had it tested and found that levels of arsenic were higher than they were supposed to be (set by the state) but lower than the national cutoff (10 ug per L thanks to Christie Whitman of all people, who lowered it from 50). dammit. I don't like the idea of slowly poisoning myself with arsenic, but drinking un-regulated, un-tested plastic bottled water doesn't appeal to me either.

    • Peggy says:

      That's a difficult position to be in.

      From what I've read, the bottled water that is tap water + an extra round of purification (like Dasani or Aquafina), should meet stringent regulations regarding contaminants.
      But it's hard to know whether the risk of the small amount of arsenic in your water supply is worth the cost of purchasing drinking water separately.