Written by Michael Richardson
Those berated for flipping on the tap for a drink instead of using the filtered pitcher or refrigerator water probably don’t have a good defense for their action. And those berating probably don’t have a great reason for the reprimand other than “well it’s filtered.” The truth is there’s a lot of confusion about tap water and its safety.
The confusion stems from the wide variety of problem-causing contaminants in water. Possibly the most dangerous are illness-causing microbes, which can find their way into drinking water in a number of ways. Recent estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show about 477,000 annual emergency department visits were documented for 13 diseases caused by pathogens that can be transmitted by water. The report also estimated about 7,000 deaths annually from those pathogens. That said, these pathogens can also “be transmitted through other routes, such as contaminated food or having contact with a sick person,” the CDC says. But their estimates also don’t include all pathogens that could be spread by water.
Researchers from the University of Arizona estimate that there are 19.5 million cases of waterborne illness each year in the United States, either from community groundwater systems, non-community systems, or municipal surface water systems.
The United States has strict standards for water quality, and a central goal of community water systems is to remove dangerous microbes. But there is always some risk of getting sick from the water coming out of your faucet, according to the University of Arizona’s Kelly Reynolds, MSPH, PhD.
“All water systems fail at one point or another,” says Reynolds, who serves as the Director of the Environment, Exposure Science and Risk Assessment Center (ESRAC).
As the treated water finds its way to your house through the established pipes and waterways, there is always some chance of contaminants entering. There is danger even when the water has reached your house, as water left stagnant in pipes, during vacation for example, can allow bacteria to grow.
So, go buy a filter, right? Well, filters you’ll find at the store generally aren’t built for bacteria, but affect the aesthetics of water, meaning the taste and smell, and remove nonliving contaminants. To purify water from microbes at your home, you’ll need a more complicated system, according to Reynolds. This will generally cost about $800-$1600 to install, and a couple hundred dollars a year to maintain, which will make financial sense to some, but not others.
So why does anyone buy PUR, Brita and ZeroWater filtration systems? Because microbes are just part of the battle.
The Worst Tap Water
The tap water in all of these cities contains numerous contaminants recognized and measured by government agencies.
The Best Tap Water
Des Moines, IA
Manchester, New Hampshire
Fort Collins, CO
Greenville, South Carolina
Source: Environmental Working Group (EWG)
Courtesy of mainstream media, we now know that pharmaceutical waste is finding its way into drinking supplies. A recent report from the Associated Press found that trace amounts of pharmaceuticals, including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones were found in the drinking water of more than 40 million Americans.
And it doesn’t stop there. Inorganic, organic and radiological substances called “total dissolved solids” (TDS), which includes arsenic, chromium-6, benzene, lead, aluminum, chlorine, chromine, copper, perchlorate, mercury and other hard metals can be found dissolved into your drinking water, according to Matthew Chilton of ZeroWater, a water-filter company that uses ion filtration to remove TDS.
While they don’t fight microbes, sink attachments and pitcher filters can serve to remove most pharmaceuticals and dissolved solids, and things like pesticides and personal care product waste that has potentially seeped into our water. Most use a carbon system, pushing water through a carbon filter, which removes much of the undesirable taste and odor, along with most of the dissolved solids and contaminants like road salts, lead and other minerals that can creep into the water as it travels from the its source to your house.
“It’s a matter of knowing what you’re drinking,” says Chilton.
The first step in protecting in your family is to understand the water challenges specific to your area. One area may be at high risk for arsenic, another for lead, and so on. The filter you decide on for your home should be based on local dangers, which the EPA provides.
Reynolds says that some people need to be especially carefully, like the very young, the elderly and those who are immunocompromised. Sometimes specific illnesses make a person more susceptible to illness from water.
Is bottled water a safe alternative?
Bottled water is generally safer than tap water, Reynolds says. If water is cleaned, put into bottles, and shipped, it is less likely to have contaminants than water that is piped underground for miles to your home, as these miles put the water at risk for contamination from outside sources. Not all bottled water is created equally, however.