Over a lifetime you will put more water into your body than any other kind of food or drink. So, paying attention to the water you drink is at least as important, if not more so, than inspecting the food that you eat.
The Safe Drinking Water Act, passed in 1974 and amended in 1986 and again in 1996 with more rigorous standards, required the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set maximum allowable levels of contaminants in municipal water supplies and to periodically monitor compliance with these standards. Under these laws, the EPA issued minimum contaminant levels (MCLs) for 83 contaminants (for example, pesticides, radioactive materials, chemicals and bacteria). As part of the law, the EPA must continually update its monitoring to include more contaminants. The law also makes the EPA responsible for setting up criteria for safe purification procedures and for monitoring water purification in the United States. Sounds like the government has taken tapwater in tow, and the water drinker can imbibe without worry.
Not exactly! Even though U.S. water is touted to be the safest in the world and water-borne disease is uncommon in the U.S., there are still concerns about contaminants in the public water supply. Here are some of the reasons:
- Many municipal water purification plants are too old or too poor to totally comply with EPA standards.
- There may be contaminants that enter the water supply that are not on the EPA’s hit list, and thus they escape detection.
- Current testing and purification technology may miss some contaminants, which get past filtering systems and enter the water supply.
- Some germs may be resistant to current disinfecting methods, such as cryptosporidium, the chlorine-resistant parasite that was implicated in the 1993 Milwaukee water contamination episode, in which 40,000 people suffered gastrointestinal illnesses and over 100 immuno- compromised people died. Even so, this germ is still not on the EPA’s “most wanted” list for monitoring and detection. Other germs, such as E.coli and Giardia, are tiny enough to slip through some filtration systems.
- The long-term effects of drinking a gallon of chlorinated water every day for seventy years have not been determined.
CONTAMINANTS OF CONCERN
Here are the specific contaminants to be concerned about:
Chlorine. While chlorine (a chemical also found in household bleach) is a disinfectant that kills germs, it may also pose health hazards. Chlorine reacts with the leftover organic waste products in water to form a possible carcinogen, trihalomethane, which may increase the risk of bladder and rectal cancers. Chlorine vapors can be inhaled through shower steam (so ventilate your shower well) and even absorbed through the skin during showering with chlorinated water. (You can eliminate this risk by placing an inexpensive, replaceable, activated-charcoal carbon filter in the shower head and by using a chlorine-free ozone filtration system in your pool or spa.) There is also the possibility that chlorine used to kill germs in water, might upset the balance between harmful and useful bacteria in the human intestines, perhaps even killing the weaker bacteria and allowing the stronger, and sometimes more harmful ones, to multiply unchecked. While chlorination of the water supply has eliminated public health problems, such as water-borne outbreaks of cholera and hepatitis, the question about the overall safety of chlorination is still unanswered.
Agricultural chemicals. Pesticides which seeps into water from old pipes and plumbing solder. Lead plumbing materials were not banned until 1986, so many homes and municipal water systems still have pipes held together with lead solder.
Radioactive water. Another concern is the seepage of radioactive material into ground and surface water. This problem is of particular concern if you live near old radioactive dumping sites or downstream from them. Theoretically, these potential toxins are monitored by EPA testing.
WATERED DOWN SAFETY
You drink a glass of water that looks safe and tastes okay, and you don’t feel any the worse afterwards. So what’s the worry about the water? The problem is that disease doesn’t develop all of a sudden. Contaminants damage cells little by little, yet it may take years, or even decades, for the whole organ to fail or for tests to find cancer. This is why safe water is of such importance. You drink water every day, yet you may not know for 50 years whether the water you drank was good or bad for you. Actually, you’ll never know if it was the water, the food, the air, or back luck. Here are some alarming statistics:
- The National Resources Defense Council (a non-profit, public environment watchdog agency) reports that over two-thirds of the nation’s water treatment plants are obsolete and perhaps unsafe.
- Despite the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1986 which banned lead in plumbing, in a 1993 report the EPA admitted that 819 water treatment plants in the United States produce water containing above safe levels of lead.
- The government’s Office of Technology Assessment reported that the water in one-third of 954 American cities was seriously contaminated.