Humans can go for a month without eating food, but see what happens if they are
denied water for even a week. According to scientists, water is the single most important element in supporting human life. Yet across the globe, evidence demonstrates that tap water is increasingly unsafe to drink.
And the trend towards polluted drinking water is only getting worse. Consider the following facts about water in the United States:
■ Chlorine, the most
common disinfectant used by water treatment systems, combines with
common organic compounds in water to create byproducts that scientific
studies have linked to more than 10,000 additional cases of bladder and
rectal cancer cases each year.
■ Pesticides seep into
aquifers, lakes, and rivers that are the source for much of the water
consumed in the United States. In the Midwest alone, 14 million people
consume water containing high levels of carcinogenic pesticides.
■ Nearly one million people become ill each year from waterborne disease
such as cryptosporidium or giardia.
■ The drinking water of
30 million or more Americans is contaminated with high levels of lead.
■ The Republican Contract on America is attempting to loosen rather than
strengthen safe drinking water laws.
It Doesn't Just Smell Bad
The most obvious problem suffered by those drinking tap water is
chlorine. Used by most of the municipal water systems in the country as
a disinfectant, chlorine has come under increasing fire recently as a
threat to human health. In addition, many consumers are put off by the
poor taste and odor chlorine causes in water treated with it. This alone
has driven many people to seek alternatives.
In the early 1900s chlorinating drinking water was the most effective
method for cities to stop the spread of cholera, typhoid, and other
infectious disease. Because of its success, the chemical became the
primary method of sanitizing water in treatment plants across the
country. But recent studies are pointing out a darker side to chlorine.
For example, it reacts with common matter in water like leaves and grass
to create byproducts that can cause cancer.
According to U.S. News and World Report, these byproducts were
clearly linked with bladder cancer in a study by the National Cancer
Institute. According to the article , "Drinking chlorinated water
may as much as double the risk of the illness, which strikes about
40,000 people a year." The article also points out the danger of
absorbing these chemicals through the skin when showering. Since then a
Finnish study showed a 20% increase in bladder cancer and a 20 to 40%
increase in kidney cancer due to ingesting chlorine by-products in
Even though the evidence of chlorine's harm is apparent, little has been
done to rectify the problem and there is no remedy in sight.
Unfortunately most municipal water systems can't simply phase out
chlorine -- it is one of the most important aspects of the program. To
rectify the problem they would have to install pre-filters to remove the
organic substances that react with chlorine to form the carcinogenic
by-products. And since there are no federal regulations requiring the
systems to pre-filter it is not likely that this will occur any time
soon because of the cost of installing such modifications.
Tap Water Blues
Irresponsible agricultural practices are another serious impediment to
safe drinking water. Nowhere is this more evident than in Milwaukee,
Wisconsin. In 1993 residents served by its water system were exposed to
the Cryptosporidium bacteria. One hundred people died in this outbreak
and nearly 400,000 became ill -- all from drinking water they thought
It is likely that the cryptosporidium came from the fecal matter of cows
that graze near the streams and rivers that feed into Lake Michigan, the
source of Milwaukee's water. At the time of the epidemic, the system was
unable to filter the tiny cryptosporidium bacteria out. Since then the
city has made some changes to increase the filtering capacity of its
system, but until major changes are completed in 1997 the chance of
contamination still exists.
Cryptosporidium is only one type of microbe coming from huge animal
farms that can pass through municipal treatment plants to infect those
drinking the water. Others include viruses, other types of bacteria, and
waterborne parasites that are impervious to chlorine and which pass
through most carbon filtration. To compound the problem, many water
systems don't regularly test for these microbes -- even cryptosporidium.
To its credit, the City of Chicago's water department notes that they do
test treated water for cryptosporidium and have never found it.
Non-sustainable farmers are also causing immense harm to groundwater
across the country. This is because agricultural chemicals such as
pesticides and fertilizers leach from the soil into underground wells or
aquifers. In other instances, these chemicals are dropped into streams
and rivers by cropdusters, leaving a toxic legacy for those nearby.
A recent study by the Environmental Working Group, "Tap Water
Blues," documents the harm caused by just five herbicides used by
farmers in the Midwest. According to the study:
14.1 million people routinely drink
water contaminated with five major agricultural herbicides [including
every major Midwestern city south of Chicago].... Drinking water
contaminated with these herbicides is a serious public health issue; the
manufacturers' own laboratory shows that these five herbicides cause
nine different types of cancer, various birth defects, and heritable
genetic mutations. None of these herbicides are removed by the
conventional drinking water treatment technologies that are used by more
than 90 percent of all water utilities in the U.S.
The dangers of these
and thousands of other agricultural chemicals have been known for years,
yet nothing has been done about them. Instead, agribusiness and the EPA
refuse to implement any serious reform to ensure the safety of the
drinking water of so many Americans. According to "Tap Water
Blues," "The time is ripe for a reassessment of the impact of
agriculture on America's drinking water, and a new approach to
protecting public health and taxpayer dollars by developing safer
farming practices and preventing agricultural pollution at the
Get the Lead Out
Lead is one of the most insidious dangers present in drinking water.
Since it has no smell and is invisible to the human eye at low levels,
it is impossible to know if water is contaminated with lead without a
special test. Yet, research shows that even small levels of lead are
dangerous, especially for infants and children. Numerous studies have
indicated that lead can cause learning disorders, attention deficit
disorder, hyperactivity, significant drops in IQ levels, and other
Lead is particularly a problem in water systems where lead pipes were
used for service lines and connections to people's homes, businesses,
and apartments. The lead readily leaches from these pipes into the water
as it passes through. In addition, lead-based solder was used until 1988
to connect pipes. And many faucets contain high amounts of lead.
Combined, these lead sources leave many residents at risk for lead
In the past, the city of Chicago was one of the worst in the country for
lead contamination in water. This was best reflected in a 1993 Consumer
Reports study which performed tests on the tap water of thousands of
their readers across the country. According to the study,
"...Chicago subscribers turned out to have more serious lead
problems than those in any other city we tested.... This unusual pattern
could be explained by the fact that Chicago has an extraordinarily high
number of lead service lines. Its building code actually required lead
to be used until 1986."
Since then, Chicago was forced by new federal clean water standards to
clean up its act. The standards decreased allowable lead levels from 50
to 15 parts-per-billion. To achieve this, the city now adds chemicals
which reduce corrosion in lead pipes. As a result, "Chicago's water
is now in compliance with all federal and state regulations for water
quality," according to Cindy Gountanis, Public Information Officer
of the Department of Water.
But some critics feel that even 15 parts-per-billion is too high,
especially since blood tests have shown so many children to have high
levels of lead. By some estimates, nearly 100,000 children in the city
under the age of six have lead poisoning. Another concern is that these
tests are generally done after standing water is purged from the lines,
thus not recording levels elevated by lead that may seep into the water
while it is sitting in the pipes.
According to John Knox of the Lead Elimination Action Drive, concerned
parents should take the following steps to safeguard their children:
1. Have your child tested for lead levels. If lead levels are above 10
parts-per-million, have your home and water tested for lead.
2. If you are drinking water from the tap, let the water run for 1-3
minutes to avoid water that has been sitting in a lead pipe.
3. If budgets permit, buy a water filter that can take out lead. Be sure
to look for certification of this claim from an independent laboratory.
4. If you can't afford a good filter and you have an infant, give the
child bottled water.
Getting Clean Water
A recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council clearly
describes the state of water safety in the U.S. The report shows that in
1993-94, 53 million Americans drank water that violated EPA standards.
And these violations are for standards that are considered too low by
Unfortunately, the future of clean drinking water may be getting worse.
The U.S. House of Representatives recently voted to weaken the Clean
Water Act and the Senate will soon be contemplating a bill that will
weaken the Safe Drinking Water Act. "The number of violations of
the Safe Drinking Water Act nationwide are staggering, but the solution
is not to lower the standards. Lowering standards may mean fewer
violations, but it will mean more dangerous chemicals and parasites in
our drinking water," says Diane Brown, Executive Director of
Illinois PIRG, an environmental and community watchdog group.
People concerned about safe water should contact their congressional
representatives to voice their support for laws that protect our water.
In addition, to further ensure safe drinking water you should consider
other drinking water alternatives including:
Home water filters can be the most effective way to ensure safe drinking
water. Good ones are effective and convenient because they don't require
delivery as is the case with bottled water. Here is a description of a
few of the methods.
■ Carbon Block -- These systems effectively take out nearly all of the
contaminants which threaten water safety. These includes lead, chlorine,
pesticides, asbestos, cryptosporidium, giardia, and other bacteria
contaminants. They work by passing the water through a dense carbon
block which traps impurities. Unlike other carbon filters, the block's
density prevents bacteria from growing and being passed into the water.
Some models also have an additional membrane that removes fluoride.
■ Reverse Osmosis -- These systems run the water through a membrane that
prevents the passage of contaminants. In the process the impurities and
excess water are flushed out of the system. Some reverse osmosis
systems, if combined with a supplemental carbon filter, can be effective
at removing most organic and non-organic contaminants. These systems are
not as convenient as the carbon block because they often take longer to
provide water and also waste significant amounts of water. Another
disadvantage is that these systems remove trace minerals that are
beneficial to good health.
■ Charcoal Filters -- These filters can remove pesticides, dirt, rust, and
sand, plus the taste and odor of chlorine -- if they have enough carbon
to do a thorough job. Most of these filters fail because there isn't
enough carbon and the water passes around the granulated carbon instead
of through it. As a result, these filters can miss most contaminants.
Charcoal systems can also serve as a breeding ground for bacteria. To rectify this,
some filters have added silver which is supposed to prevent the growth
■ Distillation -- Water is boiled and then the water vapor is re-condensed.
This process removes all minerals, including those that are beneficial.
Distillation also boils some chemical contaminants which then are re-condensed into the distilled water. These systems can be expensive and
Bottled water can be an effective solution for safe water if the company
processing it has a good source or effective treatment methods. Most of
the bottled water sold in the U.S. is actually municipal water that is
filtered.Other bottled water known as "spring water" comes
from springs or wells that may or may not be pure. In some cases, spring
water is filtered to insure quality.
The Perrier scandal of a few years ago was a good indication that
bottled water may not be safe. In this case, the water was contaminated
with benzene from its filtration system. After a messy recall, Perrier's
market share was cut in half in the U.S. and consumers began to take a
deeper interest in the quality of bottled water.
As a result of this incident, many bottlers have adopted extra
safeguards to provide pure water for their customers. But as in any
transaction, let the buyer beware. Make sure you read the label.
If you have concerns about the safety of a particular product, ask the
company for independent lab reports on the contaminants it tests for. A strong report will
at least indicate that the company is continually monitoring for the