An estimated 1.1 billion people in the world do not have access to a safe water supply. For many in the U.S., this is a fact far removed from every day life. The truth is the worldwide water crisis is exactly that – worldwide.
Though significantly worse in developing countries lacking improved sanitation, everyone has reason to question the water they drink. Pollution is nothing new, but the amount of chemicals and pesticides that exist in today’s water supply is staggering, and the EPA regulates only a fraction of these toxins.
In addition, most U.S. cities are using out-of-date water treatment plants that do not filter out many dangerous contaminants. The water is then distributed through old pipes that are deteriorating and leaching elements like lead into the water supply.
In 2003, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released a study titled What’s on Tap? They surveyed 19 major U.S. cities, rating water quality and compliance, right-to-know reports, and source water protection. Among the chemicals found in most cities’ water supplies were arsenic, rocket fuel, lead, and pesticides. The results bear few “excellent” ratings and shine some light on what we need to be concerned about here at home.
Ensuring you are drinking safe water can involve a number of different things, depending on the source of your supply. Do you use public water or private? If you are serviced by your local public water supply, then you legally have the right to know the results of testing. As shown by the NRDC report, these right-to-know reports (also called a water quality or consumer confidence report) are not always wholly forthcoming in the information they provide.
Organizations such as Clean Water Action strive to help cities create helpful reports that are clear and disclose what consumers need to know. The EPA now requires that utilities annually deliver reports to their customers. Even after reading your report you may want to test your water, as more toxins can enter the water after leaving the treatment plant through out-dated and decomposing distribution systems.
Things to bear in mind:
- The EPA claims it tests for approximately 90 percent of contaminants found in water under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Though these are the primary toxins found in water, there are often trace amounts of many other contaminants (and possibly pharmaceuticals) not yet regulated.
- The regulations placed on contaminants are not necessarily safe amounts. For example, while the EPA standard for arsenic is 10 parts per billion, scientists say no amount of arsenic is safe for human consumption.
- While most people will be fine if their water is up to regulation, pregnant women and people with depressed immune systems are more vulnerable to contaminants and should take precautionary measures, such as filtering.
If you have a private water supply, you should have it tested once a year, and under the following circumstances:
- If anyone in your family experiences reoccurring gastrointestinal illness.
- If your plumbing contains lead or you notice corrosiveness in your pipes.
- If your water stains, tastes or smells funny, or looks cloudy.
- If the water appears hard (hinders cleaning with soap, leaves a residue).
Check out this Drinking Water Testing Advice for some helpful advice on specifics that vary by household.
Unless your water comes directly from a glacial spring, you probably want to consider a water filtration system for the water that comes out of your tap. Once you know the contaminants present in your water, you can decide which type of filtration will work best for your household.
Cost is a factor as well. Whole systems cost more upfront but last longer than the smaller faucet or water jug filters that require frequent changing. Determining how much filtered water your household requires can help you decide what would be most economical.
Here are some filtration options to consider:
- Reverse osmosis: One of the most effective filtration methods, it removes a wide array of contaminants. The drawbacks are that it’s a slow process and requires 3 to 10 gallons of untreated water to make 1 gallon of pure. This system usually goes under the sink.
- Activated Carbon Filtration: Most effective in removing organic contaminants. Often used in combination with reverse osmosis. Another under-the-sink system.
- Individual filters for faucets, water jugs, refrigerators: Usually activated carbon and ion exchange as the filtration methods. These are a good bet, but won’t keep out smaller contaminants.
HowitWorks.net provides a good comparison of how the different method filter out contaminants.
There’s been much debate about the value of bottled water in recent years, especially as it contributes to excessive waste. The bottom line is, if you really want to know what’s in that bottle, you can call the company and request a water test.
Don’t be misled by the picture on the label or by the claims of “spring water” or “pure”. It turns out that bottles bearing “spring water” or “natural source” labels are actually the ones to avoid, as the water could be pumped from anywhere (rarely a mountain spring) and could contain many naturally occurring pollutants. For more about bottled water check out this article from 2002.
What about those in the world without a municipal water supply or even plumbing? Those who can’t afford a water filtration system or even have access to one? Those of the 1.1 billion who lack access to safe water.
One amazing technology exists that allows those without means to drink filtered water. The LifeStraw is a convenient, simple device that is changing lives. It comes in individual and family models and meets EPA standards for drinking water. You can help out by donating, essentially providing someone with clean water for a year!
Technologies such as desalination are in the works and hold hope for all of us as the water crisis continues to become more critical. Remember, the best thing you can do is conserve the water you have, and not just by fixing those leaky faucets, but by incorporating methods like graywater systems into your plumbing. The technologies are available now and those of us who can afford to use them can’t afford not to.