Testing The Waters

by Bill Giebler

As toxins emerge in water supplies around the country, is your water safe to drink?

Cozy Jazz Age décor and artful cappuccinos make Café Rhema a popular stop in the heart of downtown Flint, MI. But, in the wake of Flint’s water crisis, is the coffee safe to drink? Owner Joshua Spencer says yes. In fact, he adds, “In downtown Flint, all tests have come back lead-free right from the tap throughout the entire process.” Surprising, when Virginia Tech found that 40 percent of Flint’s residential water was contaminated.

Still, Spencer—who employed triple filtration even before the crisis—says he added additional filtration, “just to ensure people our water is safe.” The Flint contaminations were spotty, often affecting only one home on a block, adds Spencer, who owns multiple residential properties in town. “If anything,” he says, “Flint is a wakeup call for the rest of the country.”

Indeed, Flint, Michigan, is not alone. Ithaca, Fort Worth and Pittsburgh are among the many cities reporting excessive amounts of lead in drinking water, often with elementary-school children acting as canaries in the waterline. But it’s not just lead. Last October it was revealed that Colorado’s Peterson Air Force base has routinely dumped perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) into municipal sewage. Concentrated animal waste from factory farms regularly makes its toxic way into ground and surface water. Mining tails and fracking chemicals like benzene, xylene and methane lace water supplies. Even the chromium-6 Erin Brockovich brought into awareness a quarter century ago persists.

“In the U.S., about 40 percent of our rivers or lakes are not safe for swimming or fishing,” says Waterkeeper Alliance Executive Director Marc Yaggi.

The problem isn’t halted at the treatment plant, either. In fact, the chlorine added to water to disinfect it is itself damaging and should be removed before drinking or bathing. Furthermore, says Yaggi, “If there is storm-water runoff and agricultural pollution getting into your drinking water system, the chlorine can have an adverse reaction to that and create disinfection byproducts that are carcinogenic.”

Then comes the municipal distribution infrastructure, and that’s where lead and other heavy metals come into play, leaching from aging pipes.

Safe water consumption begins with finding out where your water comes from. “That’s a fundamental piece of information we need to have,” says Yaggi. “The really important thing people need to understand is that political decisions are being made every day that jeopardize the quality and quantity of their drinking water.” These can result from cost-cutting measures or from politicians “turning a blind eye to polluters”—a product of campaign contributions.

Even so, the EPA, responding to OSM by email, wrote that thanks to nearly 100 national drinking-water standards, 91 percent of all drinking water systems across the U.S. meet all health-based standards all the time.

To find out if your water is safe, the EPA wrote, “Contact your local water supplier and ask for a copy of your Consumer Confidence Report. This report lists what regulated chemicals, microbes and bacteria may be in your drinking water and whether the system meets state and EPA drinking water standards.” The reports are generated and sent to customers annually and are available on request.

Well water is generally found to be safe to drink, says Yaggi, but no health authority tests it. “It’s going to be up to [residents] to have it tested every so often,” he says. Tests for bacteria and nitrates are inexpensive and are typically offered by county health departments. Yaggi recommends this test annually. A more extensive—and expensive—test for contaminants like lead and arsenic should be done every
few years.

The tests aren’t limited to well users. “Safe municipal water doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem with the infrastructure that’s coming into your home,” says Yaggi. If your home has a lead service line, the EPA recommends contacting your water supplier to determine if you should have your water tested.

Even if all tests come back clean, Yaggi recommends erring on the side of caution with home purification.

A pitcher or faucet filter will add safety assurance, remove chlorine and improve flavor. (A shower filter is a good idea, too, to avoid the age-accelerating effects of chlorine). Whole-home filters are another option, but with all household water running through it, including that which washes or flushes, filter usage is degraded unnecessarily. Also unnecessary, except in extreme cases, are reverse osmosis units and distillers that waste water and electricity respectively.

In all cases, change the filters regularly. Failure to do so can release contaminants previously captured in the filter media.

Learn, purify and drink up confidently—but don’t stop there. The Flint wakeup call may be as simple as: don’t take clean water for granted. “The most important thing is to stop pollution at the source,” says Yaggi, “and to remain vigilant and hold public officials’ feet to the fire.” The best way to do that is to support the local advocacy organizations that are addressing safe water every day.

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