By Tasha Stoiber, Environmental Working Group
Americans have good reasons to question the quality of their drinking water. EWG’s Tap Water Database shows that water from most public utilities nationwide contains industrial or agricultural contaminants with known health effects. “Safe” legal limits for many contaminants are based on outdated science, and scores of contaminants aren’t regulated at all.
But buying expensive bottled water isn’t the answer – particularly if it’s unfiltered, untreated, and marketed with misleading and unscientific claims.
The New York Times recently reported on the “off-grid water movement” that is attracting followers “with sophisticated marketing, cultural cachet, millions of dollars in funding and influential supporters from Silicon Valley.” One Los Angeles company called Live Water charges almost $15 a gallon for “living spring water” in glittering glass “orbs” with “probiotic bacteria” that allegedly has “vast healing abilities.”
As backcountry hikers know well, drinking raw spring water can cause serious illness from harmful bacteria and parasites. And news reports have revealed that the water hyped by Live Water is the same water a small Oregon utility delivers to its customers’ taps.
Last week EWG sent a letter to Live Water seeking answers about whether the company tests for the contaminants the Oregon utility has detected. We also asked Live Water to remove a link to our database that could falsely imply we support its unfounded claims.
Consumers should have the same questions about any water sold in plastic bottles. Most popular brands are just bottled tap water, which are sometimes filtered before bottling. Utilities have to tell their customers what regulated contaminants were found in their tap water, but bottled water companies don’t have to disclose test results. Despite costing up to 2,000 times as much as tap water, last year bottled water became the most popular beverage sold in the U.S.
Bottled water companies are reaping huge profits by exploiting legitimate concerns. The Environmental Protection Agency has not set a new standard for any unregulated contaminants in tap water since the Safe Drinking Water Act was updated in 1996. Here are just some of the tap water contaminants the EPA doesn’t regulate or for which the agency hasn’t updated legal limits in decades:
- Radium, a naturally occurring and radioactive element, which has been detected in drinking water systems serving over 170 million people. The EPA classifies all ionizing radiation as carcinogenic.
- Chromium-6, or hexavalent chromium – the “Erin Brockovich” chemical, which can be naturally occurring or result from industrial activity. It has been detected by utilities serving 250 million Americans.
- 1,4-Dioxane, an industrial solvent classified as a likely carcinogen, which has been detected in drinking water supplies for 90 million people. More than 7 million people are exposed to levels of the chemical that can marginally increase cancer risk.
- Poly- and perfluorinated chemicals, which are used in countless consumer products for their nonstick properties, contaminate drinking water for at least 15 million Americans – and probably many more.
Federal regulations for water quality testing and standards do not apply to private well owners. Some states have limited testing requirements, but many private wells go untested for common contaminants such as arsenic, a naturally occurring carcinogenic metal; or nitrate, a fertilizer chemical that can cause cancer and harm developing babies.
What’s the real solution to safer water?
First find out what’s in your water. Type your zip code into EWG’s Tap Water Database to find information on contaminants in your drinking water and their health effects. If you have a private well, get it tested at least once a year, and consult your state or local health department about your results.
Once you’ve learned what’s in your water, take these steps to protect your health:
- Buy a water filter certified to remove the contaminants found in your tap water.
- Urge your local utility, your state and the federal government to address pollutants of concern in your tap water.
- Skip the trendy and expensive bottled water. Instead, use a refillable stainless steel water bottle to transport filtered tap water.