Even now, it’s easy to assume that in a country like ours, you should be able to turn on the tap and feel confident that the water that flows out of it is safe for you and your family to drink. However, there have enough high profile news reports during the last couple of years for the message to get through that in fact, America’s tap water isn’t necessarily safe.
America’s Aging Pipelines
It isn’t a secret that the pipework that criss-crosses the country has been there for a long time. Parts of the water system are over 100 years old. In many areas, the water supply was originally built to supply only a few hundred, or a few thousand people. As the population grew, and towns and cities expanded, the pressure on those aging water pipes increased. The pipes were originally laid for a very different America of 100 years ago.
One of the most frightening stories to have emerged is the presence of lead in drinking water. In Flint, MI, the story that the town’s water contained dangerously high levels of lead hit the headlines. And yet Flint is not alone. The water-bearing infrastructure across the whole country is in trouble, and the cracks are, literally, starting to show.
‘Buried No Longer’
In 2012, the American Water Works Association published a fascinating and worrying report, ‘Buried No Longer: Confronting America’s Water infrastructure Challenge.’
A number of key findings in the report bring home the scale of the problem.‘Investment needs for buried drinking water infrastructure total more than $1 trillion nationwide over the next 25 years,’
American Water Works Association
The estimated aggregate cost of replacing the 700,000 miles of water bearing pipework totals over $2.1 trillion.
Aging pipes corrode and leak. The corrosion and solder is how lead ends up in the water supply and coming out of our taps. There’s chemical and polluted groundwater contamination to consider, which allegedly will increase as a result of fracking.
Killing with Kindness?
In addition to all of this, there’s also the major problem of the stuff that’s put into our water, that’s designed to protect us. Chlorine is added as an all-purpose disinfectant which nullifies pathogens. However, chlorine reacts with organic waste particles and produces a stew of by-product chemicals called trihalomethanes (THM). These chemicals are toxic and harmful to our health, and are implicated in cases of rectal and colon cancer, bladder cancer and incidents of miscarriage.
In a report from the Environmental Working Group, it was found that in tests that involved 201 water utilities, serving 100 million people, all of the test samples contained THMs.
Another concern is the effect that increased agriculture has on our water supply. Chemical fertilizers and manure runoff can contain phosphorus and nitrate. These elements can lead in turn to both direct health issues from consumption of nitrate in particular; and the need for further chemical water treatment to eliminate algal blooms due to excessive levels of phosphorus.
All in all, tap water cannot be considered the safe option that it once was.
Patching Up the Problem
There’s not enough money in the pot to fix America’s water problems, and so repairs and replacement pipes are fitted on a piecemeal basis. Before the scale of the problem really took hold of the public’s attention with beleaguered Flint, some $6 billion was set aside by congress to help the water crisis, in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. That’s a lot of money, but nowhere near enough.
It’s safe to assume that water quality on a wholesale basis isn’t going to improve anytime soon. What you can do is find out about your own water supply and whether it gives you cause for concern. To access information about current local water quality, you can apply for a report from American Water.
Where Do We Go from Here?
You may still wish to continue drinking tap water. After all, there is nothing more convenient than simply turning on the tap, and there is an argument that if you pay something (which you do, directly or indirectly), then you should be able to use it.
If that’s the case, then there are steps you can take to make drinking tap water safer.
- Only drink water from the cold tap
- Run the tap for a minute or so before filling your glass
- Boil the water before drinking it
Clean water for all is a basic requirement. In these uncertain times, make yourself aware of the quality of your own water and act accordingly. It’s likely that more stories will hit the headlines about America’s water over the coming months and years; and we can only hope that each time, important lessons are being learned.