You know about Flint, Michigan, but rattle off any number of other cities—Ithaca, Joliet, Chicago, Minneapolis, or even your hometown—and you wouldn’t second-guess drinking water from the tap. But maybe you should.
The problem with your water
Ithaca, New York, had problems with a new disinfection system that produced too-high levels of chlorites in its water. Last year, Joliet, Illinois, did not complete all of the required testing for lead, copper nitrate, and radium and admitted that it “cannot be sure of the quality of our drinking water during that time.” Nearby, a 2018 Chicago Tribune analysis of the water of 2,797 homes found lead in nearly 70 percent of them. And in Minneapolis, 3M Co. settled a lawsuit for $850 million due to water contamination with PFCs, chemicals that are linked to increased risk of cancers and infertility. The list of transgressions flows on—so strong, in fact, that recent research by the Natural Resources Defense Council revealed that in 2015 one quarter of Americans were drinking from commu-nity water systems that had at least one violation of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. And the law itself—which allows the EPA to regulate water standards—is outdated. “It’s somewhat incredible that the agency has not set a single new drinking-water-contaminant regulation or legal limit in over two decades,” says David Andrews, Ph.D., a senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington D. C. “In that time, we’ve learned a significant amount about how potent and dangerous some of these chemicals in our water can be.” Basically, the onus is on you to be aware of what is in your water, says William Dichtel, Ph.D., a Northwestern University chemist whose lab develops water-purification technologies. It gets a whole lot easier when you know how to do it.
The Most Toxic Pollutants for Men
America’s aging water infrastructure, built using lead pipes and fittings, leaches contaminants into the water of more than 18 million people, according to the NRDC. The EPA issues alerts when levels of lead exceed 15 parts per billion (ppb) in more than 10 percent of samples.
More than 200 million Americans drink water containing unsafe levels of the chemical, made infamous by Erin Brockovich. California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment established a public-health goal for chromium-6 of 0.02 ppb.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (aka PFAS)
These pollutants are in the water of up to 110 million Americans, according to a 2018 EWG report. They're linked to cancer and decreased immunity.
In the water of nearly 90 million Americans, the EWG reports. Found in plastics, manufacturing, paint strippers, varnishes, and detergents, the toxin is linked to an increased cancer risk.
In the water of an estimated 250 million Americans, according to the EPA. These are by-products created as a result of the chlorination process—11 are regulated, but more than 600 exist. These also are linked to increased cancer risk.
These are found aAt harmful levels for 7.6 million Americans, according to a 2017 EWG report. The common pesticide is linked to an increased cancer risk.
How to protect yourself
Know your H2O
Every year by July 1, your home’s water supplier is required to send you a Consumer Confidence Report that will make note of found contaminants and list violations. If you live in an apartment or condo building, download a copy at epa.gov/ccr.
Check your pipes
Up until the mid-1980s, lead pipes were allowed in new home construction, explains Judith T. Zelikoff, Ph.D., a professor of environmental medicine at the NYU School of Medicine. And many of those lead-leaching pipes still exist in houses across the country. If you have an older home, call your city’s water department and ask if you have lead service lines. There’s no known blood level of lead that is considered safe.
Flush your pipes with cold water
If you do have lead pipes in your system—and don’t have the cash to switch them out—the CDC recommends running the cold water every time before using it. Exactly how long depends on if lead pipes are in the house, the pipe at the street (the header pipe), or both, says Scott Meschke, Ph.D., a water expert with the University of Washington Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences. Run the cold tap water for one to two minutes if lead pipes are present in the home. Run the cold in the shower or tub for five minutes, followed by one to two minutes from the sink, if your header pipe has lead. Use only cold water for drinking and cooking (lead is more soluble in warm and hot water), and regularly clean out the faucet’s aerator to remove any chunks of lead.
Test your water
The EPA has a list of certified laboratories to test your drinking water for lead and other contaminants at epa.gov, or you can call its Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791. If you drink from a private well, have your water tested by an environmental consultant once a year. Schedule additional testing if your area has flooded or your water looks, smells, or tastes different.
Bottled water is not always better
About 25 to 30 percent is actually tap water, which may or may not receive further treatment, accord-ing to a report by the NRDC. In one EWG investigation, bottled water tested from ten major brands contained an average of eight different contaminants—such as pharmaceuticals (acetaminophen), heavy metals, fertilizers, and industrial solvents. And earlier this year, a State University of New York study found microplastic contamination in 93 percent of 259 bottled waters tested. All of this despite the FDA’s regulation. Look for the seal from standards organization NSF International on the bottle (or search the directory at nsf.org) to ensure any bottled water you drink has been independently tested.
Find a great filter
Your basic carbon filters, found in pitchers and faucet-mounted devices, are an effective way to significantly reduce contaminants, but good-quality reverse-osmosis filters “will remove pretty much everything,” Andrews says. They’re pricier, though, and may require under-sink installation. The EWG’s website has a water-filter guide, searchable by filtration method (carbon, ion exchange, reverse osmosis), type (pitcher, faucet, plumbed, etc.), and the contaminants you’re looking to reduce or eliminate.
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