How to Tell if Your Tap Water is Contaminated

New rules could affect your water supply. Before you draw bath, or pour a cup, see if yours is safe.
young woman looking through glass of water

First it was Flint, Michigan. Then it was Newark, New Jersey. Both cities made headlines in recent years when their drinking water was considered undrinkable, due to lead, and neither city has fully recovered. Imagine waking up one day realizing that the half gallon of water you drank every day was contaminated with poison.

The Environmental Protection Agency's over 14,000 employees are doing the best to guard us from the water contamination but despite their efforts American tap water is not always 100% safe. The water issue may get even more pressing with President Trump's Administration expected to complete the legal repeal of a major Obama-era clean water regulation.

It makes turning the tap on in your city a frightening proposition. Could yours be contaminated too?

How worried should I be about my water?

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The United States is fortunate to have one of the safest public drinking water supplies in the world. "I want to make sure the American public understands 92 percent of the water everyday meets all the EPA requirements for safe drinking water," Andrew Wheeler said in his first interview as the Environmental Protection Agency administrator. So that's all good, right? Erm, not exactly…

"Let's do the math on that. Nationwide, 327 million Americans each drink two to eight glasses of water on average every day. If 8% of that supply doesn't meet EPA standards, that's up to 209 million unsafe glasses of water per day, or 2.3 billion gallons of water—enough to fill a quarter of a million bathtubs," Joan Rose, Laboratory Director/Principal Investigator in Water Research at Michigan State University points out in her article for The Conversation. "In short, high compliance numbers do not mean everything is fine."

So should you be worried about your water? It depends if you are a person who thinks that glass is 92% healthy or 8% unhealthy.

How unhealthy is U.S. tap water?

Water Plant In Flint
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A 2018 analysis by Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that between January 2015 and March 2018 nearly 30 million people in the United States drank water from community water systems that violated the EPA's Lead and Copper Rule. That's not all — about 5.5 million Americans got their water from systems that exceeded EPA's Lead Action Level—which is not a safe level. NRDC is the non-profit environmental advocacy group which filed a lawsuit against Newark last year.

"The U.S. has not been investing in its drinking-water infrastructure for generations," Erik Olson, the senior director for health programs at NRDC told The Atlantic. "A lot of our pipes are 50 or 100 years old or more, and many are lead. And water-treatment plants are still using World War I–era technology for treatment."

An earlier NRDC report highlights unequal distribution of lead-related violations across states and communities. For example in Puerto Rico before Hurricane Maria, 97.2 percent of the island's population was served by systems with violations of the Lead and Copper Rule—the largest percentage of a population of any state or territory in the nation.

The lead is not the only problem—Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University reports that 712 locations in 49 states are known to be contaminated with the highly toxic fluorinated compounds known as PFAS. The New York Times reported in May 2019 that home faucets of farm workers in California's Central Valley spew toxic water tainted by arsenic and fertilizer chemicals. And researchers confirmed that Californian Governor Gavin Newsom's statement that "more than a million Californians" don't have "clean water to bathe in or drink," is correct.

For the list of the top water systems with violations click-through the last slide of this article.

What does the government actually check?

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Remember Andrew Wheeler—the new EPA administrator? He is aware of the problems but doesn't want you to panic. "We have the safest drinking water in the world. We are working to update a number of regulations, one of which is our lead and copper rule, which takes a look at the pipes. The lead pipes that we have around the country. As part of that, we're looking at what we can do to require regular testing for schools and daycares, so that would be part of that regulation when it comes out later this year," Wheeler told CBS.

The EPA's violation occurs when a public water system did not adhere to legislation in the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).

The SDWA currently regulates about 100 contaminants including a high level of the presence of a microorganism, such as Legionella or coliforms. A public water system may also be issued an EPA violation if disinfectants, such as chlorine, are found in the water served to the public. An excess of inorganic chemicals, such as arsenic and fluoride, can also lead to an EPA violation. Recently due to mass poisoning in Flint and Newark public opinion is focusing on lead contamination.

So what went wrong in Flint? "Part of the problem with Flint was there was a breakdown in once they got the data, once the city of Flint, the state of Michigan, the Obama EPA—they sat on it," Wheeler said. "We're not doing that. As soon as we get information that there's a problem, we're stepping in, we're helping the local community get that water system cleaned up," Wheeler explains in the interview.

What are the dangers of contaminated water?

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Drinking water that contains a high and unhealthy level of contaminants can cause illness. The CDC confirms contaminated public water can cause different types of dangerous diseases, such as Legionella, salmonella, e. Coli, or Hepatitis A.

Due to the Flint and Newark crises, public opinion is focusing on lead poisoning. The most common sources of lead in drinking water are lead pipes, faucets, and plumbing fixtures according to CDC. Certain pipes that carry drinking water from the water source to the home may contain lead. Household plumbing fixtures, welding solder, and pipe fittings made prior to 1986 may also contain lead.

What are the health effects of exposures to lead in drinking water?

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The EPA and health experts agree that no amount of lead is safe. Lead is a toxic metal that is persistent in the environment and can accumulate in the body over time.

According to the EPA, even low levels of lead in the blood of children can result in:

Children

  • Behavior and learning problems
  • Lower IQ and hyperactivity
  • Slowed growth
  • Hearing problems
  • Anemia
  • In rare cases, ingestion of lead can cause seizures, coma and even death.

Pregnant Women

  • Reduced growth of the fetus
  • Premature birth

Adults

  • Cardiovascular effects, increased blood pressure and incidence of hypertension
  • Decreased kidney function
  • Reproductive problems (in both men and women)

What are the symptoms of lead exposure?

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Children absorb more lead than adults and are facing much more severe health consequences from even low levels of exposure. Lead can also be transmitted from mothers to babies through breast milk.

According to NHS the signs and symptoms in young children can include:

  • Irritability and fatigue
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Hearing loss
  • Developmental delay and learning difficulties

Symptoms in adults can include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Abdominal pain
  • Constipation
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Pain, numbness or tingling of the extremities
  • Headache
  • Miscarriage or premature birth in pregnant women
  • Fatigue
  • Memory loss

If you are experiencing one or more of these symptoms, it does not necessarily mean you have lead poisoning but you should probably contact your doctor. Want to know more about the health dangers of contaminated water and how to avoid them? Check out 30 Ways Tap Water Could Ruin Your Health to learn more.

How can I check my water?

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According to the EPA, you should check the quality of your private well water annually. The test you obtain should provide you with the levels of:

  • Nitrates
  • Coliform bacteria
  • pH levels
  • Total dissolved solids

Your local health department should also be able to provide you with information on potential contaminants that are common in the groundwater in your area. If you live with elderly residents or children, you should test your well water more frequently since they are more susceptible to negative health effects from water contamination. Additionally, you should conduct a well water test if you recently:

  • Experienced a flood or land disturbance near your well
  • Replaced or repaired components of your well
  • Notice a different odor, color, or taste in your water
  • Learned about problems with your area's tap water

To get a test completed, you can bring a sample of your water to a state-certified lab in your area. Your local health department may also offer water testing for free in your area.

If you get your tap water from a public source, you should receive a water quality report, also called a Consumer Confidence Report (CCR), annually from your water company. This report provides you with information on contaminant levels and notifies you if any of these levels are high enough to warrant an EPA violation. If you don't receive this report, ask your water company for a copy.

You only need to test your water yourself if you plan to install your own water treatment unit. You should also test your water yourself if you suspect it's contaminated with lead. Your public water source is already tested for lead, but if lead is present in your household lines, it may enter your tap water. You can call the Safe Water Drinking Hotline at 800-426-4791 to find a state-certified lab to help you test your water.

How can I protect myself from contaminated water?

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It's important to review your CCR each year when you receive it from your public water company. Learn about any potential EPA violations or high levels of contaminants so you can obtain the proper water filters or other protections for you and your family members.

If you have a private well, be aware of potential groundwater contaminants in your area. Contact a local expert, such as a state environmental agency official or a local health department official, to learn more about what to look out for in your area. A natural disaster, such as flooding, can put your private water quality at risk. The CDC warns not to drink water from the tap after your area has experienced flooding or another type of disaster that may have affected the functionality of your well. Consult a professional for assistance before resuming normal water use after a natural disaster has occurred.

How do I report contaminated water?

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If your home's water comes from a public source and you feel there is a problem that needs to be reported, you can contact the water company directly. Be prepared with your water test results or information on a change in the odor, taste, color, or smell of the water when reporting. If you have a private well and a water test reveals contaminants, it's your responsibility to take action and follow the necessary steps to resolve the contamination issue.

The Top Water Systems With Violations By Population

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Between January 2015 and April 2018, NRDC analyzed action level action level exceedances and came up with a list of U.S. water systems with action level exceedances (or ALEs) during the study time frame. According to NRDC the top ten systems with exceedances by population served were:

  • State: Oregon
    PWS name: PORTLAND WATER BUREAU
    Population served by system with ALE: 614,059
    Number of ALEs: 2
  • State: Pennsylvania
    PWS name: PITTSBURGH WATER & SEWER AUTH
    Population served by system with ALE: 520,000
    Number of ALEs: 3
  • State: Rhode Island
    PWS name: PROVIDENCE-CITY OF
    Population served by system with ALE: 311,270
    Number of ALEs: 2
  • State: New Jersey
    PWS name: PASSAIC VALLEY WATER COMMISSION
    Population served by system with ALE: 310,121
    Number of ALEs: 2
  • State: New Jersey
    PWS name: NEWARK WATER DEPARTMENT
    Population served by system with ALE: 290,139
    Number of ALEs: 2
  • State: Oregon
    PWS name: TUALATIN VALLEY WATER DISTRICT
    Population served by system with ALE: 222,000
    Number of ALEs: 1
  • State: New Jersey
    PWS name: TRENTON WATER WORKS
    Population served by system with ALE: 205,000
    Number of ALEs: 2
  • State: Pennsylvania
    PWS name: YORK WATER CO
    Population served by system with ALE: 194,000
    Number of ALEs: 1
  • State: Mississippi
    PWS name: CITY OF JACKSON
    Population served by system with ALE: 192,547
    Number of ALEs: 3
  • State: Wisconsin
    PWS name: GREEN BAY WATERWORKS
    Population served by system with ALE: 104,057
    Number of ALEs: 2

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