Bottled water brands continue to line the aisles of supermarkets, and water filters have gone mainstream.
All of which begs the question which we’ll be investigating in depth in this article — is it safe to drink tap water?
IS IT SAFE TO DRINK TAP WATER IN THE US?
So, is drinking tap water safe? To put it short and sweet, the answer is a big fat YES - for the most part.
In 1974, Congress enacted the Safe Drinking Water Act ensuring the quality of public water systems in the United States. Passing this legislation paved the way for the Environmental Protection Agency.
ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY GUIDELINES
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the United States government agency dedicated to protecting human health and environmental health, with a large focus on drinking water standards.
Furthermore, the EPA is responsible for providing information to consumers about the public water systems in their area, including the water source, contaminant levels, and potential health risks.
There are two sectors of Drinking Water Regulations, plus a report to keep an eye out for:
NATIONAL PRIMARY DRINKING WATER REGULATIONS
The National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWRs) are the legally enforceable health standards for water suppliers. These determine the legal limits of contaminants from industrial chemicals, bacteria and parasites, fertilizers, and other potentially harmful sources in drinking water.
NATIONAL SECONDARY DRINKING WATER REGULATIONS
National Secondary Drinking Water Regulations (NSDWRs) are non-enforceable guidelines for contaminants that may cause cosmetic effects or alter the taste, odor, or color of drinking water. Water systems are not required to comply with NSDWRs, but some states adopt them as enforceable standards.
CONSUMER CONFIDENCE REPORT
If you are part of the majority that’s on the grid – the EPA grid, that is – you should receive an annual water quality report from your local water supplier or Environmental Working Group every year by July 1. This report, called the Consumer Confidence Report, tells you where your water comes from and what’s in it. You can also always search for the records online via EPA’s website.
WHO IS AT RISK OF CONTAMINATED WATER?
Still, there are some caveats to bear in mind, and factors to consider when determining the safety of your home’s tap water.
While tap water is generally safe in the United States, there are a couple specific cases in which the EPA recommends testing your water:
IF YOU LIVE OFF THE GRID
Homes in rural areas tend to have private wells, which are not part of a community water system and therefore are not regulated by the EPA.
This puts these areas at a higher risk of the water supply containing physical, biological, and other contaminants. You should test your water at least once a year to ensure your water source adheres to safety standards.
YOU LIVE IN A PRE-1986 HOME
If your residence was built before 1986, it’s a smart move to conduct your own water quality test and not rely on the one your water supplier provides. That year, Congress banned the implementation of lead pipes as lead, like other heavy metals, was found to cause adverse health effects known as lead poisoning. While the protocol for plumbing has switched to safer alternatives like copper, galvanized steel, and PVC, some older homes still have lead pipes.
LISTEN TO YOUR LOCAL HEALTH OFFICIALS
Even if you’re not among the certain groups that are at risk of contaminants, it’s crucial to keep an eye out for water advisories from your local health authorities.
Something as simple as a water line breakage or malfunction at the water treatment plant can lead to temporary contamination.
HEALTH RISKS OF DRINKING CONTAMINATED TAP WATER
Anyone who has endured food poisoning can attest that it is Not. Fun. Consuming water that’s been contaminated with harmful bacteria can cause a slew of gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and even kidney failure.
Furthermore, contaminants like pesticides, pharmaceuticals, and other chemicals like toxins from metals can play a role in anything from skin discoloration to organ damage and cancer.
HOW TO TEST DRINKING WATER QUALITY
While you might occasionally be able to detect contaminants in the form of a metallic taste or even tiny visible particles, it’s impossible to diagnose your water accurately without a test kit.
There are a few different methods at your disposal for testing your water quality: You can purchase an at-home water testing kit, or ask your water supplier to provide you with one. However, the EPA recommends using a certified lab for the most accurate results.
BENEFITS OF DRINKING TAP WATER
Given that your city water has been determined safe, there are some real benefits to be reaped by taking advantage of your home’s drinkable water coming straight from the tap.
You might be surprised to find out that not only does tap water often meet or exceed the quality of bottled water, but it also contains mineral content essential to our health. For example, a 2013 study found that a quart of tap water contains about 1 percent of your daily required copper, calcium, magnesium, and sodium.
Constantly buying cases of bottled water can become a drain, not only on your time and effort, but on your wallet. Following the FDA’s daily recommended intake of at least 8 cups a day equals four 16-ounce bottles per day. In this reasoning, a 24 bottle case lasts one person 6 days, with the average cost of a case ranging between $10 and $20. That’s an extra $40 to $60 per month you’re spending on bottled water that you could be saving with tap water!
In addition to health and economical benefits, perhaps one of the most profound burdens of bottled water is its negative environmental impact. The US has been found to be the top producer of waste from plastic bottles - a scary statistic that can be alleviated by simply drinking the tap water provided for free in your own home.
TAP WATER ALTERNATIVES
There are certain cases in which you’d be justified in seeking an alternative to drinking the water straight out of your tap. Perhaps it has been advised by your local health authorities, your home relies on well water that you’re unsure of the quality of, or you’re among those that are vulnerable and simply don’t want to risk it. Whatever your situation, there are some alternatives to consider to ensure the safety of your water.
If you are concerned about your tap water quality not meeting water safety standards or suspect it of posing a risk of contaminants, there is luckily a solution that is convenient, economical, and environmentally friendly.
Many types of home water filters are available, with some systems attaching directly to your sink, while others in the form of a pitcher with a water filter in them to store your filtered water.
While bottled water in the long term is not ideal in terms of the environment and your wallet, it can certainly serve as a fast and easy temporary solution when you’re in a pinch. In instances like traveling to areas with water that is potentially contaminated, bottled water is most likely your best option.
As a long-term solution, however, bottled water is costly to both the environment and your wallet. It should also be noted, however, that bottled water manufacturers are held to the same (or sometimes even more lenient) drinking water standards as tap water, and the origins are often the same water sources anyway.
WHERE IN THE WORLD IS TAP WATER SAFE TO DRINK?
Like the United States, tap water in Canada is strictly regulated by Health Canada's Water and Air Quality Bureau (Canada’s equivalent of the EPA). In addition, the United Kingdom and most countries in Western Europe are generally deemed to be regions where you can safely drink the tap water.
WHERE IS TAP WATER AT RISK OF CONTAMINANTS?
If you are traveling to Mexico or South America, however, you might want to think twice before taking a swig from the faucet. These countries tend to have elevated levels of risk of contaminants, so you should be prepared to buy bottled water. As for Asia, Eastern Europe, and the rest of the world, it’s smart to do some research before taking any risks.
WHO IS MORE VULNERABLE TO CONTAMINANTS?
There are some groups that might want to take extra caution when drinking water from the tap. Safe drinking water to one person may be just enough to pose a serious health risk to others. High risk individuals include those with immunocompromised health conditions; pregnant women; those living with weakened immune systems; very young children and babies; the elderly; and those with chronic illnesses.
DOES BOILING TAP WATER MAKE IT SAFE?
If biological contaminants like bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other harmful microorganisms are detected in the local water supply, health officials may issue a “boil water advisory”, as boiling is an effective way to kill germs that may pose a threat. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends those to boil water at a rolling boil for at least 1 minute, then allowing it to cool before use.
SAVE MONEY DRINKING TAP WATER
Tap water remains the most cost-effective, environmentally friendly, and convenient way to stay hydrated. Save some bucks and reduce waste by ditching the bottled water and investing in high quality reusable drinkware instead.
Don’t fall for any old drinkware, though! Studies have found the most sustainable and durable drinkware is made of stainless steel, having a lower negative environmental impact than their plastic, glass, and ceramic counterparts.