Hard-to-swallow thoughts about tap water
April 29, 2001
ARA – According to the American Journal of Public Health*, as many as one in three gastrointestinal illnesses — often blamed on the “stomach flu” — are caused by microorganisms in contaminated drinking water. With news of contaminated drinking water affecting communities across the country, from Santa Monica, Calif. to Portland, Maine, Americans need to be more careful about the water they drink from their kitchen and bathroom taps.
Two of the country’s leading authorities on drinking water are James Elder, former director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, and Jan Schlichtmann, an attorney who was the subject of the movie “A Civil Action,” which dramatized the explosive issue of water contamination. Elder and Schlichtmann believe that Americans have a responsibility to educate themselves about water quality and learn how to reduce their families’ exposure to certain contaminants in drinking water. Below are their candid responses to several questions about the state of America’s drinking water supply.
What grade would you give America’s drinking water and why?
Schlichtmann: I would give America’s drinking water a “C.” We’ve done an excellent job educating the public to protect them against contamination, but we’ve been slow to acknowledge the threats associated with an aging water system.
Elder: On average, I’d say a “B.” For the most part, community water systems can be trusted, but there are some “Ds” and “Fs” out there. The majority of the 50,000 community water systems have not installed state-of-the-art technology to cope with current and future threats to drinking water safety. Rather than waiting for these community water systems to be upgraded, consumers need to take steps to protect themselves.
When you look at a glass of water from the average American kitchen tap, what do you see that most Americans don’t?
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Schlichtmann: What I see isn’t pretty. I see metals leaching into the water from lead pipes, microbes from a deteriorated delivery system, chemical breakdown from the use of chlorine, all of which can cause serious health problems.
Elder: Based on what I learned during my EPA career, I know there is a risk that contaminants such as bacteria, parasites, lead, pesticides, solvents and chemical by-products of disinfection are present. Just because tap water looks and smells clean, doesn’t mean that it’s safe to drink.
How would you compare America’s drinking water quality today versus ten years ago?
Schlichtmann: America’s drinking water quality will only be as good as the quality of our nation’s collective resolve to protect this precious and vital resource. We’ve seen a dramatic improvement in public awareness about drinking water quality. We’ve also seen the establishment of more stringent state and federal standards for water quality. Unfortunately, more work needs to be done.
Elder: It’s difficult to generalize, but on balance the quality is slightly better today than ten years ago. On the downside, we’ve also learned a lot more about emerging contaminants and the deterioration of drinking water supplies in many locations due to agricultural, industrial and residential development.
What simple things can consumers do to improve the quality of their tap water?
Schlichtmann: The most immediate and direct step a consumer can take to assure the quality of water at the tap is to use a high-quality water filter certified by the National Sanitation Foundation to remove specific contaminants.
Elder: I agree that using a filter certified to remove certain contaminants is the surest way to ensure safe drinking water. Also, lead and copper can leach into water from the pipes carrying it, so I would suggest running cold water through the tap for 30 seconds or more before drinking to help reduce the amount of leaching. In addition, consumers should pay attention to the appearance, taste and odor of their tap water.
What are the greatest threats to America’s drinking water?
Schlichtmann: Ignorance and inaction. Informed and active citizens can assure themselves safe and healthy drinking water. The knowledge and technology are there if people choose to take action. The key is education. Citizens must educate themselves about the threats to their drinking water and the remedies they can employ to minimize those threats. The first step is obtaining a local EPA-required Consumer Confidence Report from http://www.purwater.com.
Elder: Beyond the obvious issues of water contamination and the excessive depletion of ground water resources, there are serious concerns with how water systems operate. Those in charge of local water systems are often unwilling to spend money to pay for modern technology unless the EPA or their state drinking water agency forces them to do so. The historical weakness and under funding of state drinking water agencies and the lack of managerial and technical expertise throughout the nation’s more than 200,000 public water systems are also serious threats to safe drinking water.
What do you think should be done to improve America’s drinking water supply?