Is Tap Water Safe To Drink in the U.S.?

Is Tap Water Safe To Drink in the U.S.?

Tap or faucet water across the United States is safe to consume in some places. Complex treatment systems and quality guidelines aim to ensure that municipal water sources function properly. The government invests millions each year so that citizens have access to clean drinking water.

While it’s a priority to keep tap water safe and accessible, situations can arise that put public health in jeopardy. Equipment failure at treatment facilities, broken or degrading water lines, chemical contamination, and other issues can deem tap water unsafe to drink.

According to USA Today, 63 million Americans (one fifth of the population) are exposed to unsafe drinking water.

Most notably, the Flint Water Crisis, where lead and other contaminants made their way into local water supplies and put thousands of people in danger, is one of the most glaring examples of tap water being at the center of a public health crisis.

While issues with tap water persist in the United States, there have historically been efforts to provide clean and safe drinking water to all Americans. The Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act both established baseline rules to lessen water pollution and increase regulations for water quality and measurements.

However, there are some shortcomings of these laws & regulations that leave a portion of the American people exposed to contaminated drinking water.

Moreover, continued research shows that a large portion of Americans (if not all) are exposed to "forever chemicals", also known as PFAS chemicals, which have been found to be hazardous according to the EPA.

What’s in Your Tap Water?

Tap water is more than just H2O. There are many different chemicals, minerals and additives that serve individual purposes to keep your tap water safe to drink.

Common substances found in tap water in the United States include:

  • Fluoride: All tap water contains fluoride, a mineral proven to strengthen teeth from decay.
  • Chlorine and Chloramine: These are the major disinfectants used in public water systems. Chlorination kills viruses, parasites and bacteria.
  • Minerals: Depending on your geographic area, a variety of minerals can be found in public water supplies. The most common minerals were sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, copper, manganese, phosphorus, and zinc.

Contaminants in Tap Water

The Safe Drinking Water Act defines contaminants as any physical, chemical, biological, or radiological substance or matter in water.

The law defines "contaminant" very broadly as being anything other than water molecules, this includes:

  • Physical contaminants impact the appearance and physical properties of water. Examples of physical contaminants are sediment or organic material.
  • Chemical contaminants are naturally occurring or man-made elements and compounds. Examples of chemical contaminants include lead, nitrogen, bleach, pesticides, metals, toxins produced by bacteria, and human or animal drugs.
  • Biological contaminants are organisms in water, also referred to as microbes or microbiological contaminants. Examples of biological or microbial contaminants include bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and parasites.
  • Radiological contaminants are chemical elements with an unbalanced number of protons and neutrons resulting in unstable atoms that can emit ionizing radiation. Examples of radiological contaminants include cesium, plutonium and uranium.

Tap Water Contaminants, a Growing Problem

While more research and studies are completed every year, it seems as though regulations from governmental agencies on the content of tap water sources are not keeping up to speed.

The Environmental Working Group has found 56 new drinking water contaminants across the US since 2019, adding to a growing list of over 300 known contaminants. Dozens of these contaminants are not yet regulated by the EPA. Many newly identified contaminants are PFAS, also known as ‘forever chemicals’. Other newly identified contaminants include pesticides, water disinfectant byproducts and radioactive materials.

A report from Heylion found that tap water contamination, particularly from arsenic, has been linked to 100,000 cancer cases in the United States.

Who is Most Vulnerable to Contaminants in Water?

Contaminants can be more harmful to certain groups of people, especially those with weakened immune systems and chronic illnesses, such as:

  • Infants and young children: Children have an inherent vulnerability to contaminants in water since they drink more water per pound of body weight and toxic chemicals can damage growing organs. It’s important to keep an eye out for symptoms that point to your child becoming sick from contaminants in water.
  • Elderly: Elderly people are more at risk for chronic illnesses and have generally weaker immune systems. Water contamination can exacerbate these issues and put elderly people in danger.
  • Immuno-compromised: A weakened immune system makes people vulnerable to illness caused by contaminants in water. People diagnosed with cancer, HIV/AIDS, people with organ transplants or on dialysis, and other immune disorders are at a higher risk from contaminants, especially parasites and biological contaminants.
  • Pregnant women: Contaminated drinking water is extremely dangerous to pregnant women and unborn children. In Flint, Michigan, children born to mothers exposed to unclean drinking water during pregnancy had lower birth weights on average than children born to mothers living in cities with clean water during the same period of time. This is just one of the examples of contaminated water affecting both pregnant women and their children and causing birth injuries.

Water-related Diseases

Poor water quality and contaminants are linked to numerous infections and illnesses. Contracted largely from bacteria or chemical exposure, these illnesses are serious.

The most prevalent water-related diseases and illnesses include:

  • Giardiasis: An intestinal infection caused by a giardia parasite. Giardiasis spreads through contaminated food or water or by person-to-person contact. It's most common in areas with poor sanitation and unsafe water.
  • Legionnaires' disease: Legionella bacteria spreads through mist, such as from air-conditioning units for large buildings. Adults over the age of 50 and people with weak immune systems, chronic lung disease, or heavy tobacco use are most at risk.
  • Norovirus: Highly contagious and commonly spread through food or water that is contaminated during preparation or through contaminated surfaces, norovirus infection can cause the sudden onset of severe vomiting and diarrhea.
  • Shigellosis: Caused by shigella bacteria found in contaminated water and other natural and human sources, shigellosis is an infection that is easily spread.
  • Campylobacteriosis: Campylobacter infection is the most common bacterial cause of diarrheal illness in the United States. Animals and untreated drinking water spread campylobacter bacteria.
  • Copper: Carried by coated pipes and present in wells, copper contamination can cause a host of health effects ranging from gastrointestinal issues to kidney and liver issues.
  • Salmonella: Salmonella bacteria can cause Salmonellosis. Symptoms include diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps.
  • Hepatitis A: Hepatitis A is an inflammation of the liver that can cause mild to severe illness. Ingestion of contaminated food and water or direct contact with an infectious person are the routes of transmission.
  • Cryptosporidiosis: Caused by a microscopic parasite called cryptosporidium, the illness is spread by humans, animals, and various types of water (drinking and natural/lake water).
  • E. coli: Escherichia coli bacteria come in many strains, most relatively non harmful to humans. Some can cause extreme health effects and serious illness. Humans, animals, contaminated food and drinking water spread E.coli bacteria.

Where is Tap Water Safe in the U.S., and Where is it not Safe?

Tap water in the United States is generally safe. Most municipalities have little to no contaminants and have up-to-date water infrastructure. Other cities and rural areas especially have unsafe and lacking infrastructure to treat contaminated water.

Unsafe drinking water has a windfall effect on local communities. From impacting the health of people who drink it and contaminating vegetation and soil when used for agriculture, to influencing whether or not people move to or from the area, safe water is one of the most important factors in everyday life.

Urban vs. Rural Water Quality

The argument of whether to live in an urban or suburban city or rural area involves various topics of interest. Water quality often goes unmentioned, but is crucial in how we live our everyday lives.

Urban Water Quality:

While infrastructure may be better in urban areas, there are many potential contamination sources and pollutants that affect water quality that are not an issue in rural areas. An increased amount of car traffic results in an increased amount of runoff pollution into water sources.

Rural Water Quality:

Rural areas face unique and ever-mounting issues in maintaining safe drinking water. Outdated infrastructure, private wells, runoff from agricultural practices, increased wildlife interaction with water sources, and more contribute to contamination issues across rural America.

Water Contaminants in My Area

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has maintained a database of contaminants in American tap water sources. Sortable by zip code, the database can be used to find what contaminants are common in an area and subsequently research ways to keep safe.

State, City, or Municipal Violations

People all around the country are refusing to drink tap water. Contamination from a number of different sources, inaction from the government, and various instances of unmitigated contamination are eroding trust in tap water. Violations of laws and regulations on contamination are flashpoints in the fight to keep water safe and drinkable.

Cases such as cancer alley in Louisiana, pesticide contamination in South Carolina, and lead contamination in Flint, Michigan and Newark, New Jersey are long standing instances where government inaction has led to debilitating illnesses and financial burdens for residents.

County Health Rankings has a database listing violations by county for each state. Check to see how your area ranks in terms of clean water, what contaminants are common, and how to keep yourself safe.

What to do if You’ve Consumed Contaminated Tap Water

If you suspect you’ve consumed contaminated tap water, seek medical care and advice as soon as possible. Research common water-borne illnesses and their symptoms, and relate your condition to those resources. Some symptoms reveal themselves hours after exposure, while other symptoms and illnesses can take weeks to develop.

As you find out more about your diagnosis, consider obtaining legal representation. An experienced personal injury lawyer can help you achieve justice and provide detailed advice on how to move forward.

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Kennedy, Merrit. “Lead-Laced Water in Flint: A Step-by-Step Look at the Makings of a Crisis.” NPR, NPR, 20 Apr. 2016, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/04/20/465545378/lead-laced-water-in-flint-a-step-by-step-look-at-the-makings-of-a-crisis.

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