There’s been a lot of talk lately about what’s really in our drinking water. From the evening news to Netflix documentaries, events like the Flint, Michigan crisis and documentaries like Gasland and The Devil We Know have made the public hyper aware of potential risk factors related to the quality of drinking water in the US. But should we really be worried?
The simple answer is, maybe. It really depends on where you live. There are a number of variables that impact the water quality of drinking water making it complicated, and somewhat confusing, when trying to evaluate potential risks. Below are some factors to keep in mind when trying to decide if your household drinking water needs an added treatment boost.
Clearing Up Misconceptions
Intuitively, you would think the more purified your water is, the safer it is to drink. That is actually not true. Completely purified water with nothing other than hydrogen and oxygen atoms (aka distilled water), is not actually a good drinking water choice. A water molecule carries a slightly negative charge on the oxygen side and a slightly positive charge on the hydrogen side due to the imbalance of electrons. This polarity of water makes it an active absorber of charged ions. This means that any ions in air, in water, in your body…really anywhere, will bind to a water molecule upon contact under the right conditions.
Many of the nutrients and minerals that keep us healthy are charged ions. When drinking distilled water, any nutrients or minerals in your bloodstream will bind to those water molecules and eventually be excreted. This can actually deplete you of the natural nutrients and minerals your body needs to stay healthy. So steer clear of using distilled water as a drinking water source. Ideally, you want your drinking water to be purified enough to remove the excess harmful substances from water while maintaining low concentrations of beneficial minerals like calcium, potassium, and magnesium.
Land Uses in Your Area
The area you live in is one of the most telling when it comes to evaluating the quality of your drinking water. The water that is treated and distributed as drinking water comes from a surface water body or groundwater aquifer in you area – so whatever pollutants that water source is exposed to in the environment may end up in your tap water.
If you live in a highly agricultural area for example, there’s a higher likelihood that your tap water will have trace levels of pesticides. If you live in an industrial complex or near an oil and gas rig, you may end up with complex chemicals or hydrocarbons in your water. If you live in an urban area with high human populations, you’ll likely end up with a cocktail of drugs and pharmaceuticals in your drinking water. Additionally, considering water flows from higher elevations to low, you also want to make note of land uses present upstream of you as potential pollutants present in waters upstream will likely end up in your water source as well.
Water Source Characteristics
In general, the more polluted or low quality the original water source is, the lower quality drinking water you end up with. This is not always the case, but it’s a reasonable assumption to make when evaluating the overall quality of your drinking water. As mentioned earlier, drinking water sources are either from a surface water body (ex., river, stream, lake, reservoir), or from groundwater. The types of potential pollutants that can impact either are very different.
Surface water quality is highly variable, and in many instances, highly unpredictable. Aside from being more susceptible to contamination from a variety of discrete sources, surface waters are also highly impacted by changes in climate. During drought for example, surface water quality may degrade due to limited precipitation and high evaporation rates leading to higher concentrations of various compounds in water. Conversely, following significant rainfall, any nasty substances found on the land surface (oil, dirt, animal waste, fertilizer, etc.), makes its way into the nearest waterway either through a storm drain or surface runoff. The sweet spot for optimal surface water quality is the occurrence of moderate precipitation in combination with proper and progressive land management methods that help reduce the potential introduction of pollutants from the land surface into nearby waterways.
Groundwater on the other hand, is more consistent and predictable when it comes to water quality because it is, for the most part, protected from external forces. Any water from the surface that does make its way to groundwater reserves trickles through hundreds and thousands of feet of soil and dirt, which in it of itself treats the water. However, the presence of naturally occurring substances in the ground may contaminate groundwater resources in some areas. This includes various metals like arsenic, or even radioactive contaminants like radium or uranium. Human use impacts that may impact groundwater quality include the improper casing of oil and gas or wastewater injection wells, leaking or old septic tanks, or even the overuse of fertilizer or pesticides on cultivated lands.
Aging infrastructure is one of the leading environmental, societal, and health and safety issues we’re faced with today that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should. Failing water infrastructure not only wastes valuable water resources through old leaky pipelines, it also poses a drinking water contamination threat. Water pipelines constructed in the early to mid 20th century used materials that in many cases are banned today. For example, the use of lead in water pipelines and plumbing systems was not banned in the US until 1986. Approximately one third of all US households have plumbing and water systems that were made with lead.
A good portion of water infrastructure, including treatment plants and millions of miles of water pipelines, were built in the early to mid 1900’s with an expected life span of 75 to 100 years. Additionally, rapidly growing populations are putting added pressures and demands on already frail and outdated water systems. There is currently no comprehensive or feasible plan in place to upgrade old systems to the scale necessary. The American Water Works Association estimates a total of $1 trillion would be needed to meet the water infrastructure needs of our growing populations – pretty hefty ticket.
Knowing more about the age of your water infrastructure can give you some additional insights on what forms of added water treatment your home may need. Many of the potential contaminants that are introduced into drinking water systems through aging infrastructure are persistent compounds that accumulate over time – thus making things like lead so dangerous. Even if you’re only exposed to negligible amounts of these contaminants through your water system every month, it will stay in your bloodstream forever resulting in higher and higher concentrations to build up in your system over time. That is exactly what happened in Flint, Michigan. If we don’t set out to progressively address this growing issue, incidents like Flint will continue to occur.
Socioeconomics and Community Size
The unfortunate truth is that smaller communities, especially those in low-income areas, will generally be faced with more risks associated with drinking water quality. This is primarily due to the fact that such areas have limited funding for infrastructure improvements. A low tax base and limitations on feasible water rate increases are a couple factors that stunt the available funding pool at these facilities. Any money that is generated is used to maintain service and is not nearly enough to incorporate any improvements or repairs. This leaves a significant portion of small, low-income communities, urban and rural, with outdated and near failing water infrastructure. There are federal and state funding opportunities out there for small, low-income facilities pursuing improvement or repair. However, available funds are limited, and competition is steep.
Water Quality Reports
All public drinking water systems are required by law to monitor their drinking water quality on a monthly basis. These reports are available to the public and can easily be accessed through the facility’s website. Additionally, the EPA develops and maintains several additional analysis tools and information on their website. Check out their site if you want to learn more about source water quality or drinking water violations in your area.
There’s obviously a lot that plays into what the quality of your drinking water is. Overall, the US provides safe and reliable drinking water to its growing population. However, it’s always good be aware of potential risks and take action if necessary. I’ll provide more information on simple things you can do to help improve the drinking water quality in your home and community.
Until next time!