The Experts’ Take on Tap Water Safety

Tap waterTap waterBy Lori Bongiorno

Many water experts say that tap water in the U.S. is perfectly safe to drink. Bottled water, they point out, is not necessarily any safer, and sometimes it's just tap water with a much higher price tag.

Yet those statements can be hard to believe if the water that flows from your tap smells funny, tastes bad, or is discolored. It can also be difficult to ignore reports of pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and other unwanted substances in water.

What do the experts say when you dig a little deeper? "The fact that it might have an off taste or odor may not appeal to the consumer, but it doesn't mean the water is unsafe," says Philip C. Singer, Professor, Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Of course, there are exceptions to this.

Read on for explanations to common water quality concerns.

Tastes metallic

For example, if your water tastes metallic it could be contaminated with lead from corroded pipes so it's worth checking out, says Joan B. Rose, Homer Nowlin Chair in Water Research, Michigan State University. (In fact, she recommends reporting any funny smell or taste to your local water utility just to make sure there isn't a problem with the pipes.) Iron, which is not harmful, can also be the cause of a metal-like taste.

Smells like rotten eggs

If you have hydrogen sulfide in your water, it can smell like rotten eggs. Rose says it is generally not harmful, but it can cause diarrhea for a short amount of time while you get used to it.

Other tastes and smells

Some other common, but harmless tastes and smells: Minerals might make your water taste a little salty. Algae can give water a musty taste or smell. Some people are put off by the smell or taste of the chlorine used to kill any pathogens in water.

Looks cloudy or rusty

Particles in water can make it cloudy (know as turbidity) and water can appear rusty when pipes in your local distribution system are being maintained or repaired, according to Kellogg J. Schwab, Director, Johns Hopkins Center for Water and Health. He recommends flushing the pipes by running your water until it's clear.

Pharmaceuticals

Pharmaceuticals and other emerging contaminants are more complicated. They are showing up in very low levels in streams, rivers, and lakes, but we don't find them as often in treated tap water, according to Rose. "They haven't been regulated yet because where they are found they are found at very low levels and at levels where they are presumed not to be harmful to public health," says Singer.

That doesn't mean that the Environmental Protection Agency couldn't be looking harder for emerging contaminants, especially when you take into account the precautionary principle.

The bottom line

Schwab, Rose, and Singer all say they drink tap water in the U.S. without worrying about it. "We have very high quality tap water," says Schwab. "Does that mean it's risk free? No." Outbreaks do happen, but they are rare.

In order to keep them rare, experts say we need to aggressively invest in our aging infrastructure.

What you can do

Here are some steps you can take to make sure you're drinking the healthiest tap water possible:

  • Find out what's in your water. Read your Consumer Confidence Report (each year it should arrive in your mailbox by July 1) to learn where your water is from and what's in it. Or find it online on the EPA's website. You can also call the EPA's Safe Drinking Water Hotline, 800-426-4791, with questions.
  • If you have your own well, follow the EPA's guidelines on monitoring your water.
  • Water filters can improve taste and smell and remove some contaminants. Do your homework to make sure you're buying a filter that will address your specific needs. Look for one that's been certified by the NSF International to address the issues you are concerned with. The Environmental Working Group has an extensive guide to choosing water filters. One thing to remember: You must change your filters regularly or there's no point in filtering your water.

Environmental journalist Lori Bongiorno shares green-living tips and product reviews with Yahoo! Green's users. Send Lori a question or suggestion for potential use in a future column. Her book, Green Greener Greenest: A Practical Guide to Making Eco-smart Choices a Part of Your Life is available on Yahoo! Shopping and Amazon.com.


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