As Americans, we can sometimes take clean water for granted. We hear about poor drinking water in other places but don’t believe a country as developed as the US would have such a problem.
In most cases, Americans are right not to worry if tap water is in compliance with federal safety standards. In fact, studies show that over 90% of US water systems are abiding by the Safe Drinking Water Act making the US one of the world’s safest drinking water suppliers.
However, in between "most" and "all" is a gray area that is littered with violations, aging infrastructure, and unsafe practices that may make you think twice before filling up from the tap.
EPA Admits Not All American Drinking Water is Safe
In March, Andrew Wheeler, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, went on the CBS This Morning show and claimed that drinking water -- not climate change -- poses the greatest and most immediate global threat to the environment.
He also reassured the American people that “92 percent of the water everyday meets all the EPA requirements for safe drinking water,”.
It's true, this may reassure some. But, for others, all that means is that 8% of American drinking water does not meet federal safety standards.
That may not seem like a lot but let’s do the math:
The population of the US is roughly 331 million. The average person drinks 4 cups of water per day. If 8% of the water is unsafe, that is roughly 106 million glasses of water drank per day that is unsafe.
If you are thinking this only happens in poor rural communities - think again.
One of the more recent violations was in New York and New Jersey where 12 million people were supplied water that was unsafe. Another study found that over 63 million Americans were exposed to unsafe drinking water in the past decade. Violations were found from rural California to the boroughs of New York City.
Daycare and Schools Are Even Less Compliant
It is one thing to have unsafe water coming out of our tap at home. It’s another thing to have unsafe water in our schools and daycare centers filled with America's youth.
An EPA study found that American schools and daycares are, on average, less compliant with federal drinking water standards than the rest of the US water systems.
What’s even more shocking is that the percentage of compliance is actually dropping in recent years. From 91% in 2016 to 89% in Q1 of 2019.
Some Regions Are Safer Than Others
Federal drinking water compliance is not uniform across the US. Some regions are more compliant while others are less according to the EPA.
In Q1 of 2019, region 2 (New York and New Jersey) and region 6 (New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas) were less compliant than the other US regions.
The most common violations were based on the Total Coliform Rule or other microbial violations. This means that bacteria were found in the water and that there was a potential for waterborne disease due to fecal contamination or inadequate treatment.
According to the CDC, there are an estimated 4-32 million cases of acute gastrointestinal illness (AGI) per year from public drinking water systems. This estimate does not include waterborne illness from non-public drinking water systems (for example, private wells), recreational water, or water for other uses (for example, irrigation, medical uses, or building water systems.)
What Can We Do?
Again, US drinking water is considered one of the best in the world. However, it is not perfect and there is a small chance the water you are drinking does not meet federal safety standards.
We are also discovering new contaminants regularly and/or finding what we once thought was safe to drink or treat water, actually is not.
One way to protect your home, business, or facility is to get you water tested for potentially harmful contaminants. Then, you can get a water treatment system installed to remove harmful contaminants in your water.
Water softeners, water filters, and reverse osmosis systems can all be an option to filter out contaminants and provide you safe drinking water. The bottom line - if you are trusting the US water system to provide safe drinking water, you are taking a chance on your health.