Is Your Water Safe?

Is Your Water Safe?

We’re a water-crazy country with more than 195 brands of bottled water. We drink 12.8 billion gallons of it each year—enough for every American to down almost 40 gallons annually. Fortunately, whether filtered from your local water supply or shipped half way around the world from some South Sea island, bottled water is generally safe—although there are occasional recalls for contamination with bacteria like E. coli, and often it’s no cleaner than your local water supply.

Bottled water health issues aren’t just about the water: There’s the impact of the plastic bottles themselves. The FDA mandates they be made from a more stable material, PET (polyethylene terephthalate). In the past, plastics for water bottles were permeable; ink from the label could seep through into the liquid and so could who-knows-what! But all that PET plastic—floating like some sci-fi monster in our lakes, streams and oceans—is a hazard to the whole planet. And we don’t like anything that’s got hormone-disrupting phthalates in it, as PET does.

So, let’s look at water you get from the tap at home—either from a community water service or a well.

The water in municipal systems is regulated, but there are ongoing roll-backs to the Clean Water Act (signed into law in 1972), and that comes at a time when our knowledge of contamination problems and their health risks is increasing!

Most folks are aware of the lead contamination in Flint, MI, but that may just be the tip of the iceberg. A National Resources Defense Fund report last year found that 18 million Americans are served by water systems that are in violation of EPA standards for lead and copper. Serious violations affect more than 1,100 community water systems serving 3.9 million people. Excess copper can damage the liver and kidneys, and lead (there is NO SAFE LEVEL) causes permanent brain damage in children, and nerve and immune system damage in adults.

Enforcement of on-the-books regulations would go a long way to reducing the risk. Allowing stricter regulation would be even better. Here’s why: Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health has released a study showing that after the EPA instituted a regulation on maximum levels of arsenic in drinking water, urinary arsenic levels declined for 17 percent of folks drinking municipally supplied water. The authors estimated that can eliminate between 200 and 900 cases of lung and bladder cancer every year.

In private wells, it’s another story. There’s no regulation of well water—it’s up to the 45 million folks in the US who use well water to monitor its safety. And if it is contaminated, as it can be from agricultural or industrial run off, or inherent contaminants in soil and rocks, it can be hard to figure out how to clean it up.

What you can do
In homes supplied with municipal water, it’s possible that contamination happens when the water reaches the pipes in your house or apartment building—they may leach lead, copper and rust. So testing your water is smart even if you believe your basic water supply is safe. You can find a reliable lab by calling the Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791 or visiting

Well water should be tested at least once a year. To find out what you should test for, go to and search for “well testing.” Shallow wells that use surface water should be tested seasonally. Test the water at the source, as well as the water from the tap.

If you find your water needs purification, install a filter. They’re not all created equal. To find out what type of filter eliminates which contaminants, check out the NSF International certification on the filter’s label and look up specific products in the NSF database at And don’t skimp on the cost. A good filter could save your health, your life.

Medically reviewed in March 2020.

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