What’s on tap?
Thursday 22 March is World Water Day. This is Muriella’s Corner blog on tap water. We shared with you in our last blog information on bottled water.
We often take the purity of our tap water for granted — and we shouldn’t.
The National Resources Defense Council – NRDC – produced a document 6 years ago, called What’s on Tap?, a carefully researched, documented and peer-reviewed study of the drinking water systems of 19 U.S. cities. Among other things it found that pollution and deteriorating, out-of-date plumbing are sometimes delivering drinking water that might pose health risks to some residents.
It also found that tap water in many cities might pose a health risk to some residents; that sometimes cities aren’t truthful about what’s in the water; that
the sources of tap water often aren’t adequately protected
Many cities around the country rely on pre-World War I-era water delivery systems and treatment technology. Aging pipes can break, leach contaminants into the water they carry and breed bacteria — all potential prescriptions for illness. And old-fashioned water treatment — built to filter out particles in the water and kill some parasites and bacteria — generally fails to remove 21st-century contaminants like pesticides, industrial chemicals and arsenic.
What’s on Tap? found one overarching truth: If steps are not taken, our drinking water will get worse.
Is the situation better today than 6 years ago? Actions taken seem to be more in lline with protecting corporate polluters than protecting public health,
Government — whether city, state or federal — should be doing all it can to ensure that citizens get clean, safe drinking water every time they turn on a faucet or stop at a public water fountain. Public participation is the key to the process.
Everyone should be encouraged to look into the quality of their city’s water supply, and to demand that elected officials do whatever is necessary to provide safe tap water.
Citizens have a right to know about : water quality, right-to-know reports, and about protection of water sources, at least
Good drinking water depends on cities getting three things right:
• Lakes, streams, reservoirs and wells must be protected from pollution
• Pipes must be sound and well-maintained
• Modern treatment facilities are a must
If just one of those three factors goes awry, water quality will suffer. For example, according to the NRDC, four cities 1n 2001 were found to have fair-to-substandard drinking water:
• Atlanta, which maintains its distribution system poorly
• Albuquerque and San Francisco, which have poor treatment systems
• Fresno, which has no real source water protection
What do we drink in our glass?
Tap water may at times carry a worrisome collection of contaminants,
some of which showed up repeatedly in the water of the cities studied:
• Lead, which enters drinking water supplies from the corrosion of pipes and plumbing fixtures and can cause brain damage in infants and children
• Pathogens (germs) that can make people sick, especially those with weakened immune systems, the frail elderly and the very young
• By-products of chlorine treatment such as trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids, which may cause cancer and reproductive problems
• Arsenic, radon, the rocket fuel perchlorate and other carcinogens or otherwise toxic chemicals
Contaminants like these get into our water from many different sources. A few examples: runoff from sewage systems that overflow after a heavy storm; runoff from contaminant-laden sites like roads, pesticide and fertilizer-rich farms and lawns, and mining sites; wastes from huge animal feedlots; and industrial pollution that leaches into groundwater or is released into surface water.
NRDC’s study found that relatively few cities are in outright violation of national standards for contamination of drinking water, but this is more a result of weak standards than it is of low contaminant levels.
For example, cancer-causing arsenic is currently present in the drinking
water of 22 million Americans at average levels of 5 ppb, well below a new EPA standard for arsenic of 10 ppb that will go into effect in 2006. Yet scientists now know that there is no safe level of arsenic in drinking water. (The EPA found that a standard of 3 ppb would have been feasible, but industry lobbying and concerns over treatment costs prevailed over public safety.)
Thus, the tap water in some cities might pose health risks to vulnerable consumers –
those with immune system problems, pregnant women, parents of infants, those
with chronic illnesses and the elderly should consult with their health care providers about the safety of tap water. Imagine that!
Each citizen has a right to know what is in their tap water.
The first question on reading the above is, “How do I find out what’s in my glass of water?” And according to U.S. law, every citizen is entitled to a straight answer. Every city is required to publish reports about the safety and quality of its drinking water system.
The problem, as NRDC found, is that while some cities do a good job with their right-to-know reports, others publish information that is incomplete or misleading, or omitted it entirely, or failed to report on the health effects
These right-to-know reports hold enormous promise. In addition to informing citizens about the state of their city’s water system, they can also build support for investment and encourage citizens to participate in fixing local problems.
The NRDC has included a set of recommendations that cities might adopt in setting goals for their right-to-know publications.
The first line of defense in ensuring the safety and quality of drinking water is to ensure that water sources — lakes, rivers, streams and aquifers (porous underground formations that hold water) — are protected from pollution.
There are many ways that contaminants get into source water, among them:
• Municipal sewage
• Polluted runoff from stormwater or snowmelt in urban and suburban areas
• Pesticides and fertilizers from agricultural fields
• Animal waste from feedlots and farms
• Industrial pollution from factories
• Mining waste
• Hazardous waste sites
• Spills and leaks of petroleum products and industrial chemicals
• “Natural” contamination such as arsenic or radon that occurs in water as a result of leaching.
Some cities are doing a fine job of protecting their drinking water supply. Seattle is doing an excellent job of protecting source water; Boston, San Francisco and Denver also get high marks. But many other cities have a long way to go:
• Albuquerque’s groundwater is becoming seriously depleted; Fresno’s groundwater is highly susceptible to contamination;
• In Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles,
Newark, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Diego and Washington, D.C., source water is threatened by runoff and industrial or sewage contamination;
• Water supplies in Baltimore, Fresno, Los Angeles, San Diego and several other cities are vulnerable to agricultural pollution containing nitrogen, pesticides or sediment;
• Denver’s source water faces an additional challenge from debris from wildfires and sediments from floods;
• Manchester’s problems apparently come from recreational boating activity in its reservoir.
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on the NRDC study.
Next time we talk about ice…yes, ice in your drinks… for ice is also water.
Until we meet again, this is Muriella’s Corner – send us an email at email@example.com for the newsletter dealing with the issue of bottled versus tap water.
Source: Related NRDC Pages
What’s On Tap? Grading Drinking Water in U.S. Cities (report table of contents)
Tap Water Quality and Safety (FAQ)
Environmental Working Group