Should you be afraid of your tap water? (Photo: Getty Images)
The toxic tap water crisis in Flint, Mich., has more than a few people wondering about the safety of their own tap water.
After all, researchers found that the city’s water supply became highly corrosive after officials switched water sources to save money, and a class-action lawsuit alleges there are high levels of lead in the water supply as a result. Flint-area pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, also discovered that the lead levels of toddlers in the area have doubled since the water switch occurred.
A state of emergency has been declared in Flint, and numerous celebrities are speaking out about the issue. Cher even donated more than 180,000 bottles of clean water to the city. “This is a tragedy of staggering proportion, and shocking that it’s happening in the middle of our country,” Cher said in a press release, adding, “I cannot wait for the water to get there to help these people who have been poisoned.”
Is this something the rest of us should be concerned about? Kind of, Nneka Leiba, deputy director of research for the Environmental Working Group, tells Yahoo Health.
“We don’t want to make it seem that our nation’s tap water is unsafe — it’s some of the best in the world,” she says. “But there are still problems.”
Leiba says it’s important for the average American to be aware of water quality issues and take the appropriate measures to make sure their drinking water is safe.
“We did an analysis and found more than 300 contaminants in the nation’s water,” she says. “One of the biggest problems is that more than half of those were unregulated — they have no safety regulations association with them.” As a result, Leiba says, the average American should be “cautious” about what they’re drinking.
Leiba calls the situation in Flint “horrendous,” but says it can happen anywhere — utilities can change water sources or there can be a break in a pipe, either of which can have an impact on the quality of your water.
Drinking water safety expert John Rumpler, senior attorney at Environment America, tells Yahoo Health that this has happened before. In August 2014, for example, the city of Toledo’s water was contaminated by toxic algae bloom from Lake Erie. Des Moines and West Virginia have also had issues with water safety.
What can you do about it? Leiba says that you should always filter your water before drinking it.
You can also look up the quality of your water safety by going on your utility company’s website and looking for its annual water quality or consumer confidence report, which it is required to display. “It will show you what contaminants the utilities tested for and whether they’re above the legal limit,” explains Leiba. If the water has high levels of contaminants, your utility company is required to let you know.
Even if there are no known issues with your water, Rumpler recommends having it tested by your utility company every few years. (Typically, you can take a sample from your tap and send it to them for testing for a small fee, but check with your water provider to be sure.)
Related: How Safe Is Your Bottled Water?
There are also water safety test kits on the market, but Leiba and Rumpler aren’t sure how effective they are.
Particular contaminants you should be wary of include lead, as well as disinfection byproducts like trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids. The latter two are created when water utility companies treat water that has been polluted with organic matter, and these contaminants are linked to DNA damage and cancer, Leiba says. However, filtering your water should reduce the levels.
If you find that your water tests high for lead, Rumpler recommends consulting your doctor and then trying to find the source of the contamination, because it’s possible that lead pipes in your house are causing issues as well. While it’s a good idea to switch to bottled water until the issue is resolved, Rumpler says that in some cases, you can flush a lot of the accumulated lead out of your tap by letting the water run for a few minutes. However, you’d need to test and retest your water to see whether the levels go down after you flush the pipes.
While the situation in Flint is extreme and terrifying, Leiba says it’s rare and your water is likely safe. To be sure though, use a water filter. Says Leiba: “A filtration system should be adequate for a large portion of the population.”