Are You Sure Your Tap Water is Safe to Drink?

Sep 8, 2017

Safe drinking water isn’t a given. If we’re accustomed to drinking water straight from the tap without getting sick, it can be easy to forget that.  

But a recent report from the Center for Public Integrity highlights the harsh reality of drinking water contamination: In the past 10 years, nearly one of every five people living in the U.S. have consumed water that’s potentially unsafe. 

Developing awareness of water quality issues in our communities is a great starting point. From there, we can take steps to protect ourselves and our loved ones from harmful contaminants.  

“You need to know your enemy,” said Diane Oleson, a renewable natural resources educator at Penn State Extension. “You have to know what the danger is before you can address it.”

Unfortunately, many people lack this basic awareness, Oleson said. The way many folks seem to view it? 

“Water is magic. You turn on the faucet and it appears.” 

Oleson educates the public about drinking water safety and other water resource topics through one-on-one consultations and educational programs, including the Master Watershed Stewards program. 

Unlike the cliché, when it comes to drinking water, what you don’t know can hurt you. And, it is often impossible to guess if water is potentially harmful based on its odor, taste or texture, said Susan Boser, another Penn State Extension natural resources educator based in Beaver County, Pennsylvania.

Oleson and Boser shared with Rewire what we need to know about our drinking water and the steps we should take to ensure we can stay hydrated without ingesting harmful contaminants:

Protecting the water in our communities

“We all live in a watershed…, the actions you take will have an impact on the watershed,” and, in turn, the drinking water supply, Oleson said. 

A watershed is an area of land that has a common water outflow point—all the water that falls there will find its way to a common creek or river, for instance. Eventually, it winds up in our water bottles and drinking glasses.

Because of that, we should be careful about what we leave on the ground, Boser said. Pesticides, pet waste and cigarette butts are common culprits for contamination. 

One make-or-break principle?  

“If you wouldn’t drink it, don’t dump it.” 

Once waste winds up on the ground, it’s easy for contaminants to then enter our water supply. And, contrary to popular belief, water treatment plants can’t catch everything.

“A lot of our water treatment plants are not equipped to deal with pollutants like pesticides, herbicides and pharmaceuticals,” Oleson said. 

Don’t flush your old pills

Have extra medications that you don’t intend to take? While it can be tempting to flush them down the toilet, take the extra time to dispose of them properly.  

Don’t know what to do with them? Oleson recommended contacting your local waste authority for guidance on where you can take medications for proper disposal in your city. A simple Google search will probably point you in the right direction, too. Each city will have its own way of getting rid of medications and other hazardous waste.

Know the story of your water

It’s not enough to simply know whether your water comes from a private source (such as a well on your property) or a public one, the experts said. Here’s how to take control of your water in both situations.

If you’re getting your water from a public water system: 

Even though your city’s administration decides where your water is coming from, you’ll still want to know how that water is managed. Information about your municipal water source is public and typically available online.

The Environmental Protection Agency sets minimum standards for contaminants present in your water, Oleson noted. When a municipality exceeds a contamination limit, a violation occurs and local regulations are put in place to ensure it’s corrected. 

Nationwide, cities and towns are expected to meet the standards set by the EPA, but individual “states can set a more stringent standard” for their municipalities, Oleson said. Municipalities must perform the required testing through a state-accredited laboratory, she said. 

Your water, your right to information 

You have a right to know what testing has been performed on your water and the results of those tests.  

“Each year by July 1st you should receive a Consumer Confidence Report (CCR), also known as an annual drinking water quality report from your water supplier. Your CCR tells you where your water comes from and what’s in it,” according to the EPA

Don’t remember receiving a CCR?

“You can also call your public water company,” Oleson said. “They will tell you (the results of water quality testing). They have to tell you.”

If you use a private water system: 

For better or worse, you’re on your own. Private water systems “aren’t regulated by the public,” Boser said, meaning that you won’t be held to any testing or treatment schedule.  

Still, water quality issues shouldn’t be an afterthought. Fail to properly maintain your water quality, and the result could be major health issues, from gastrointestinal illness to organ damage and elevated cancer risk. 

Where oh where is your well? 

First things first, you need to know where your water source is located on your property. This might sound like a no-brainer, but the experts said folks have asked them, “How do I know where my well is located?” 

Once you locate your water supply, you need to create a 100-food protective zone around it, Boser said. Keep pesticides, fertilizer, fuel, oil and pet waste out of that zone.

If you have a septic system, it needs to be located outside of that protective zone, too. 

Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3… 

Private water supply owners should have it tested at least once a year, Boser said. Maintain records of testing and any treatments that were required.  

Even if your water comes from a public system, you may want to invest in having the water at your home tested at least once for contaminants likely to be present given your location and the age of your home.  

Even if water is safe to drink when it leaves the water treatment plant, it can be contaminated as it travels through the rest of the system on the way to your tap.

For example, it’s common for lead to be present in tap water in houses built in the 1920s and ’30s, Oleson said. It wasn’t until 1992 that a ban was placed on the use of lead as a household pipe soldering material. 

Don’t wait–act now

Waiting to test your water until you notice a change in its taste, smell or texture is a risky bet. Those changes don’t necessarily signal danger–and danger can be present without any red flags at all.

“Not everything in your water that has the power to make you sick will impart taste or smell to the water,” including arsenic, nitrates, lead and illness-causing bacteria, Boser noted. 

Choose appropriate treatments, but don’t over-treat

Got some shady water test results? Choose the wrong water filtration system for the job and you’ll be wasting money while still ingesting harmful contaminants, the experts explained.

And if you treat your water for substances that aren’t present at harmful levels, you’ll be wasting your money and making your water taste worse.

Of course, gray areas exist. For example, you might want to treat your water for a taste or texture issue, such as hardness. While that might make your water more palatable, you are also removing important minerals (such as calcium and magnesium) and replacing them with sodium (a substance that many of us are already taking in a lot of). 

“Everything in life is a tradeoff,” Oleson said.


Rachel Crowell is a Midwest-based writer exploring science and math. Rachel lives in Iowa with Delilah, a golden retriever a stranger once called “the cutest thing in America.” Outside of STEM topics, Rachel welcomes writing opportunities on everything from art to finance. Follow Rachel on Twitter at @writesRCrowell. Reach Rachel at