Water is one of the most abundant substances on earth and may be the most important. Human beings can't survive more than three to five days without it. Deprived of fluids the body's cells and organs rapidly deteriorate. As the saying goes: where there is water, there is life.

Countless daily tasks—cleaning, bathing, gardening, cooking—and enjoyable pastimes like swimming, fishing, and boating involve water. It's versatility is unrivaled—it can be harnessed for energy, and it's used in agriculture and manufacturing, too. Hurricane Sandy's destructiveness reminded the world about the hardships of living without clean water.

Through the ages, populations of people have perished from deadly diseases like cholera and dysentery contracted after drinking contaminated water. Today, water treatment facilities remove harmful bacteria and other pathogens providing one of the safest water supplies in the world, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),

Can We Trust Our Tap Water?

The Clean Water Act of 1974 requires communities to deliver safe water to local residents or be subjected to large fines and penalties. However, there are stories every year about illnesses and death caused by dirty water. Francie Cuffney, PhD, professor of biology and acquatic ecologist at Meredith College in Raleigh, NC offers these tips on trusting your tap water—or if you should.

For municipal water supplies, filters are not necessary. "Most tap water that has been treated by a municipal treatment system is safe to drink," says Cuffney. "Filters cannot improve the quality of the water. In fact, some remove nutrients the body can use. Home filtrations systems and portable pitchers are really about personal taste."

Be wary of well water. People who use well water must be more vigilant as nitrates from human and animal waste and fertilizer can leach into the ground water. Elevated nitrate levels may also suggest the presence of other contaminants such as disease-causing organisms, pesticides, or other inorganic and organic compounds that cause health problems. To be safe, the EPA recommends well water be tested at least every three years.

Cuffney recommends more frequent testing if you live in an area that is undergoing significant environmental changes such as major construction or fracking. "Extracting natural gas from shale through a process called fracking can release harmful gases into the water supply which is currently a big issue in Pennsylvania," Cuffney explains.

Check your water supply's quality report.  If your water comes from a public system, the list of contaminants and their levels is public record. Many localities make their water quality report available through a link from the EPA's website. For more information, go to www.water.epa.gov. In addition, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has studied the water supply in many cities. Visit www.nrdc.org/water/drinking for more information.

Use a filter for taste. Geography and the particular chemical makeup of the water can affect taste. Cuffney's water—which comes from a well—has a slightly high fluoride content but it's not harmful and she says her family has grown accustomed to it. "The filtered water may taste better to some, but I never remember to change it," she says. In areas with hard water, there is a higher calcium content. Again, not harmful but many people complain about feeling slimy after bathing in hard water that's been filtered.

No single filter can remove all contaminants. If you are in the market for a home water filter, the NRDC recommends looking for one that removes the contaminants of concern found specifically in your tap water since no single filter can remove all types of contaminants. Brita filters, for example, remove copper, mercury, and cadmium, but those minerals may not be present in your tap water. Be sure the NSF International, or a similar organization, has independently certified the filter (look for the seal on the label).

It's important to follow the manufacturer's recommendations regarding the care, cleaning and maintenance of any system, device or pitcher filter you purchase. As contaminants build up, filters can become less effective and even make your water worse by slowly releasing harmful bacteria or chemicals back into your filtered water.

Say goodbye to bottled water.  Cuffney says many people turn to drinking bottle water wrongly believing it to be the safest solution. "It takes three times as much water to produce bottled water and much of it is just ordinary tap water."

Also being debated: harmful chemicals from the plastic bottles leaching into bottled water. Recent research suggests chemicals called phthalates, which are hormone disruptors, can leach into bottled water over time. According to the NRDC the water is regulated but the phthalates in the plastic bottles are not.

Although it can be difficult to learn where bottled water originates, a few state bottled water programs (notably Massachusetts and New York) maintain lists of sources. The NRDC suggests calling or writing the bottler to make inquiries. Disclaimers such as "from a municipal source" or "community water system" which appear on the water bottle label or cap likely indicate the water is derived from tap water—the very same stuff you get from free when you turn on your faucet.

The Latest Threat to Our Water Supply

Pharmaceutical (prescription medications) and personal care products (such as shampoo) are a new area of concern, according to Cuffney. Known in the field as PPCPs, researchers and the government are starting to think about their presence in the water supply. "PPCPs are starting to show up in small traces in our surface water. The ones of particular concern are estrogens; anti-depressants such as serotonin, antibiotics, acetaminophen, and caffeine," says Cuffney.

In 2000, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) published its first findings about PPCPs. "Unfortunately, they found a large percentage of surface water contained them. Since PPCPs didn't exist when our water treatment systems were developed, today's facilities aren't capable of removing these contaminants," she adds.

The good news is the EPA is aware of the issue and considering whether or not to regulate certain contaminants. Until further research is conducted—and government recommendations are made—it's not possible for homeowners and apartment dwellers to have tap water tested for PPCPs. "Remember, PPCPs are an emerging issue," cautions Cuffney. "They have been found in very tiny amounts, but little is known of their possible effects at any concentration."

In the meantime, experts say it's important to do your part to protect the environment.  Always recycle responsibly. Never dispose of motor oil or paint down the drain. Don't flush prescription medication down the toilet and never drink from a pond, river, or stream. Even water that appears to be clean could contain harmful bacteria.

Francie Cuffney, PhD, reviewed this article.




Francie Cuffney, Ph.D, professor of biology at Meredith College in Raleigh, NC.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

The Environmental Protection Agency

The New York Times

U.S. Department of the Interior/U.S.  Geological Survey