The Water We Drink: Is it safe?

By Sarah (Steve) Mosko
Special to the OC Voice

Americans have grown suspicious of tap water quality, yet it’s doubtful that many could name a single contaminant they imagine spewing from their faucets.  Blind faith once placed in the public water supply is being transferred to bottled water, even though the average citizen probably knows equally little about pollutants that might lurk there too.

Thanks to the non-profit organization Environmental Working Group (EWG) for creating the largest-ever drinking water-quality database, most Americans can read now about the levels and health risks of specific pollutants found in their own tap water.

EWG’s database covers 48,000 communities in 45 states and catalogues millions of water quality tests performed by water utilities between 2005 and 2009.

Altogether, 315 different pollutants were detected in U.S. water utilities.  Forty-nine were measured in one place or another at levels exceeding federally-set health guidelines.

Particularly worrisome is that the EPA has set enforceable standards for only 114 of the pollutants found.  This means that over half of the chemicals tainting the nation’s water supply are exempt from any health or safety regulations and are legally allowed in any amount.

The list of unregulated pollutants includes the rocket fuel ingredient perchlorate which has been linked to thyroid toxicity, the gasoline additive known as MTBE and associated with liver and kidney damage, the plastic plasticizer di-n-butylphthalate linked to birth defects and reproductive toxicity, and the radioactive gas radon.

Among all California’s water utilities, 182 contaminants were detected, and 47 of these exceeded legal limits on one or more occasions.  Agricultural pollutants, industrial chemicals from factory discharges, and urban storm water runoff were major contributors as were, ironically, chemical residues from water treatment plants.

Huntington Beach’s water quality fell only somewhat below average for the nation. Sixteen different pollutants were detected over five years (the national average was eight).  Four of these exceeded established health guidelines at least once—arsenic, which has industrial uses, was the most frequent offender.

Nearby Irvine and Costa Mesa tested more poorly with 29 and 27 total pollutants, respectively, whereas 12 were detected in Newport Beach’s water supply.

Water quality in several larger southern California cities made a generally poor showing.  Riverside, for example, tested positive for 30 pollutants and was ranked among the nation’s worst three.  Los Angeles, Anaheim, Santa Ana and San Diego all rated in the lower half of the nation’s 100 most populous cities, with the number of pollutants ranging from 22 to 28.

To review the detailed results of any water utility’s tests, go to http://www.ewg.org/tap-water/home and type in the zip code or water utility company name.

Bottled Water’s Not the Solution
Despite the unwelcome news contained in EWG’s database, it’s hard to come up with a good reason to substitute bottled for tap water.  If the price tag doesn’t dissuade – bottled water can cost 1,000 times more – maybe knowing that tap water quality is more closely monitored than bottled water will.

Tap water is regulated by the EPA which mandates that water utilities provide customers with regular water-quality reports detailing water sources, contaminant levels, and compliance with federal, state and local regulations – the very data complied into EWG’s database.  Bottled water is regulated instead by the FDA which can’t require bottlers to divulge test results (even if contaminants exceed established standards), leaving bottlers to police themselves.

Previous studies conducted by Consumer Reports and National Resources Defense Council concluded that bottled water is not necessarily safer than tap water.  More recently, EWG actually warned against trusting the purity of bottled water after discovering 38 contaminants among 10 brands of bottled water in 2008.

Moreover, no matter what idyllic water source is depicted on the label, at least one-quarter of bottled water is just reprocessed tap water, including top-sellers Dasani and Aquafina made by The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo, respectively.  Even bottled water’s promise of better taste can be misleading:  In hundreds of taste tests pitting popular brands against local tap water conducted by the non-profit organization Corporate Accountability International, most tasters could not tell which was which, according to spokesperson Christina Rossi.

What’s more, bottle labels are not required to list any contaminants or additives.  Whilst it’s certainly true that consumers are free to contact the manufacturer listed on the bottle label to ask about contaminants, that’s of little help to the average shopper.  When I phoned customer services at PepsiCo, verbal assurances were offered about the Aquafina’s purity but formal documentation of water quality was not made available to me. The Coca-Cola Company, however, did provide an undated “example” analysis of Dasani water which listed three contaminants out of 25 tested substances.

Environmental impacts also tarnish the allure of bottled water.  The Pacific Institute calculated that the U.S. manufacture of water bottles in 2006 required about one million tons of PET plastic, the energy equivalent of over 17 million barrels of oil.  Only about one in four PET bottles gets recycled.  And, it takes three liters of water to produce one liter of bottled water!

Quench Thirst Safely with Home Filtration
The EPA estimates that nearly 40 percent of the nation’s waters (e.g. lakes, rivers) are impaired, and the nation’s drinking water infrastructure earned a D- grade in 2009 by the American Society of Civil Engineers.  By not insuring universal public access to clean drinking water, the government is shirking its most fundamental responsibility of protecting the public welfare and leaving Americans to defend themselves.

EWG recommends installing home water filters and offers an on-line tool that walks you through the steps to find the right one for your needs: http://www.ewg.org/tap-water/getawaterfilter.  Once you’ve settled on a price range and filter style (e.g. pitcher, faucet-mounted) and determined from the database exactly what chemical pollutants you want to remove, you can link directly to websites that sell filters able to remove those pollutants.

Visit www.BoogieGreen.com to view other environmental articles by Sarah Mosko.

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