Tap Dance

Getting Control of What’s in Your Water
You’ve probably heard the saying that tap water is better regulated—and likely cleaner—than bottled water packaged and marketed as “pure” and “spring-fed.” New York City’s Catskills-based tap water, for instance, is considered as pristine as it gets—and the city’s water is rumored to be the secret ingredient behind its superior bagels and pizza. NYC’s water was so pure it didn’t even require filtering until recent years. Then, last November, city health and environmental officials told residents that elevated lead levels were found in 14% of water samples taken from hundreds of city buildings, the result of outdated pipes.

The Safe Drinking Water Act mandates that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set legal limits on contaminants (including chemicals, animal wastes, pesticides and human wastes) in drinking water. But tests by groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have found that many communities skirt the line of what’s safe. In their 2003 report “What’s On Tap?” NRDC found that several of the 19 U.S. cities they studied, including Albuquerque, Fresno and San Francisco, had “water that [was] sufficiently contaminated so as to pose potential health risks to some consumers, particularly to pregnant women, infants, children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems…” Out-dated pipes and weak regulations were major problems.

And new contaminants are entering water systems all the time, including traces of pharmaceuticals that are not tested or regulated. Organizations such as Water Quality Association (WQA) are working with the EPA and academics to catalog these new offenders. The biggest challenge is getting utility companies on board. “In 10, 15 years everyone is going to realize that they are going to need filtration devices,” says Peter Censky, executive director for WQA. “And [utility companies] will adapt and make sure every home has them.”In the meantime, here’s how you can assure your own quality water at home.


Find Out Your Water Facts

Those who get their tap water from a public water company should check that company’s Consumer Confidence Report. For anyone in a water system serving more than 100,000 people, the information is easily found on the EPA website; others can contact their individual water companies—listed on the EPA site—for reports, if they are not available online.

The first question to ask is whether the municipal water is filtered. Unfiltered water has a higher risk of containing particles and contaminants, says Dr. Stephen Edberg, Yale University professor and director of the clinical microbiology laboratory. Rick Andrew, operations manager for drinking water treatment units for the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF), adds that service lines can have old plumbing, so it is important to check tap water for lead or copper.

And homeowners with well water should regularly test and monitor their water, says Kelley Thompson, administrative coordinator for WQA. For farming and rural residents, she suggests testing every one to two years to check for E. coli and nitrates common in runoff from fertilizers and feedlots. Nitrate-contaminated water is particularly a health risk for infants and can result in a serious blood disorder known as methemoglobinemia, or “blue baby,” in which a baby’s blood is deprived of oxygen.

A local county health department or university extension office can direct you to testing labs. A credible water treatment dealer will sometimes offer a free analysis, Andrew says, although he’ll probably give you a sales pitch, too.

Filtering Options

Water filtering devices range from water softeners to reduce water’s harshness to oxidation filtration that treats iron and manganese. “Consumers have a lot of technology that can act as a final barrier,” Censky says.

And these devices can work together. For instance, an activated carbon filter with a reverse osmosis system can take care of most unwanted contaminants. Systems can range from point-of-use, such as those at a tap in the kitchen for drinking and cooking purposes, or for the whole house if water hardness is an issue.

Both the NSF and WQA websites have a rundown of certified products. These filtering systems aren’t state- or government-regulated, so Andrews adds that “Consumers should be aware of any product that is too good to be true and look to see if there is a certification or testing that backs the claims.” Also, homeowners should consider the type of installation required and how easy that might work with existing plumbing and cabinetry.

Of course, a basic filtering water pitcher from a credible company can be an effective and low-maintenance way to ensure a home’s water quality. Its sole drawback is that the pitcher can only filter a small amount of water at a time.

CONTACTS: EPA Local Drinking Water Information; National Sanitation Foundation,; NRDC “What’s On Tap?” report; Water Quality Association.

TRACI ANGEL is a health, science and environmental freelance journalist based in Kansas City.