What’s in your drinking water and should you be concerned?

Although news about the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan has waned in the face of the upcoming Presidential election, the water crisis is far from over. This water crisis was a wake-up call for many people and some of their elected representatives about the dangers of toxic lead (and other contaminants) that have leached into municipal water supplies, partly because of aging or flawed infrastructure.

But while Flint has become the poster child for lead poisoning in particular, and contaminated water systems in general, the attention that has been riveted on Flint by the mainstream media in the US has done little to inform – or alarm – us about the details of other ongoing water crises around the country.

Crises have the effect of making us hyper-aware of problems after they spiral out of control, there is a more insidious problem with the water supply that tends to go under the radar of most people: what is already in the tap water you use in your home. Barely a month after Michigan Governor Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency for Genesee County (which includes Flint), other cities began reporting high levels of lead in their water supply systems, while some cities discovered levels of lead poisoning in their residents’ blood that were even higher than the levels in Flint. The problem of lead contamination is one that is especially problematic in low-income and poor communities, which disproportionately comprise people of color.

Lead is only one of many toxic contaminants found in water supply systems in the US. The EPA groups them into 3 categories: Inorganic Contaminants (IOCs), Volatile Organic Contaminants (VOCs), and Synthetic Organic Contaminants (SOCs). The first group includes arsenic, nitrate, fluoride, and asbestos; the second includes benzene, vinyl chloride, and toluene; the third category includes toxaphene, PCBs, and di-(ethylhexyl) phthalate. The effects of some of these chemicals have been described in the Little Guidebook on toxic chemicals and are listed in the Green and Prosperous “clippable cheat sheet.”

Although the EPA has devised standards, known as Maximum Contaminant Levels, which determine “safe” levels of these toxins in the water supply, the standards are only recommended, not obligatory. What’s more, the levels themselves are periodically revised to reflect new findings on the effects of these toxins to human health. For example, in 2001 the EPA revised its standards for arsenic in water downwards from 50ppb to 10ppb, while also acknowledging that there are no safe levels for arsenic in the water we are drinking.

Aside from these are the toxic chemicals that people routinely pour down their drains in ignorance of the fact that these chemicals will inevitably return to haunt them. Toxic household pollutants harm groundwater and other surface water sources. Most sewage treatment systems can’t remove these chemicals or neutralize their negative effects on the environment. Does that mean the drinking water in the US is inevitably doing us harm?

The issue is far from black and white. With the exception of Native American reservations, many of which lack even running water, the drinking water supply in the US is far superior in quality to that found in most countries of the Global South (where 80% of the world’s population lives, if we use the measure of “developing nations” as understood within the HDI, Human Development Index). Finding a clean, regular supply of water in most countries remains a serious challenge to people, especially those in rural areas. But how does our water supply stack up against that of the other nations of the Global North?

Recent reports flag some serious concerns with Canada’s drinking water.  In June 2015, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported widespread concerns in that country over the lack of testing in many cities for harmful contaminants in tap water (including contaminants coming from medical waste). Boil-water advisories are common all over the country, and “rampant” on Canadian First Nation reserves. Many rural and low-income communities lack water treatment facilities altogether. National guidelines in that country remain voluntary and are, therefore, not enforceable. Drinking water safety is left to the provinces to manage on their own.

The quality of drinking water in Australia is generally high, with many sources coming from surface water like streams, rivers, and reservoirs, which are supplied by rainwater and runoff. Western Australian cities like Perth rely on groundwater supplies. The bigger dilemma plaguing Australians, and their (state) water agencies, water authorities, and local councils is how, in one of the driest climates in the Global North, to preserve, manage, and conserve water supply, especially in the face of climate change, which is expected to decrease spring and winter rainfall rates by up to 15% across southern Australia by 2030.

The UK and Northern Ireland have some of the highest drinking water standards in the world, according to the Water Utility, Water UK, with a compliance rate of 98.6% to national standards. On the other hand, just yesterday, the Express reported that high levels of arsenic have been found in the water supply in parts of Cornwall, which may also implicate drinking water supplies elsewhere in the UK. The discovery of the deadly cryptosporidium parasite in drinking water in Lancashire, England led to a bottled water panic-buying spree last August, 2015.

In all of these countries, though, as in the US, there are still debates over whether people should drink tap water or boiled water. These debates are fueled in part by fears about chemical contaminants in the tap water, but they are also sometimes fueled by concerns over whether there are mineral concentrations in some sources that are higher than recommended levels. Aside from these concerns, travelers point out that mineral content in one source of water can upset the digestive systems of people who are not used to drinking from that water supply.

In the US, tap water is sometimes touted as a safe alternative to bottled. However, this is only partly true: the quality of water varies widely, and studies have demonstrated that some sources of tap water are as good as, the same as, or even better than, some bottled waters. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that bottled water leaves a significant footprint on the environment: pollution from plastic water bottles litters about 40% of the world’s ocean surfaces, with Americans alone dumping around 35 billion of these bottles every year.

Some countries have responded to this crisis by taking what may seem to some like drastic measures: for example, in Germany, plastic water bottles are banned in office buildings. As a recent response to the crisis in Flint suggests to anyone concerned about their water quality – hundreds of union plumbers from all over Michigan traveled there this past February to install water filters for free – filtered is almost invariably better than drinking straight from the tap.

There is certainly a lot of blame to go around, not only in Flint, but in other cities that have faced water crises in recent history. Although it’s important to keep up the pressure on municipal authorities to ensure that our drinking water supply remains safe and healthy, the bottom line is you can do your part to help mitigate the problems on a daily basis. Pressure your local governments to invest more in vital infrastructure. Be careful who you vote for – not at the level of the presidency, but at the local and national levels, too. And make sure to hold your representatives accountable for their promises to ensure the health and safety of their constituents. Finally and most important, don’t pour toxic chemicals down the drain, or in the toilet. To the extent that it’s feasible for you (financially or otherwise), switch to non-toxic cleaners and personal products.

Green and Prosperous is developing a “Recommended Products” page (under the “Consumer Guides” drop-down menu) to help you make safe, healthy, eco-friendly choices. The page will go live on May 13th.  In the meantime, our “Non-Toxic Alternatives” page (also under the “Consumer Guides” menu) can help you to shop more wisely, and to make your own non-toxic cleaners simply and inexpensively.


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