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Tap water is relatively safe. However, some of the most common contaminants that remain in our tap water after treatment include aluminum, arsenic, copper, iron, lead, pesticides, herbicides, uranium, and more (Neilsen Research Corporation).
Each of these contaminants poses dangerous side effects. For example, the consumption of too much copper can lead to liver damage and kidney disease. Lead, on the other hand, generally comes from the pipes that the water travels through, and it can have life-altering effects on developing children (slowed growth, anemia, lower IQ, and more), pregnant women (causing premature birth and reduced growth of the fetus), and adults (reproductive problems, decreased kidney function, and cardiovascular effects).
Several cities are plagued with lead-infested water, including the now widely-known case of Flint, Michigan where city officials outright neglected the health crisis. Other cities have also had challenges with lead in their water supply infrastructure, including Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Some of the most contaminated water can be found in low-income rural areas, according to the New York Times, including areas of Oklahoma and Texas.
Pharmaceuticals have also been found in water supplies that enter through the sewage system — through either human excrement (in the toilet) or when people flush their medication down the toilet. The WHO warns that we do not know the long-term effects of drinking trace amounts of pharmaceuticals – it is certainly not something we should consume daily. The chlorination treatment process that most tap water undergoes removes only about 50% of the pharmaceuticals from public water systems, according to WHO, but it depends on the type of drug, according to a study by Harvard.
It’s not just foreign contaminants that prove to be an issue in our tap water — it’s also byproducts of the treatment process itself. Introducing chlorine into our water system produces halogenated disinfection byproducts (DPS), which has shown a link to bladder cancer as well as reproductive and developmental effects. Every city has a water supply with a unique combination of contaminants, and you can check your local report using the EWC’s Tap Water Database by entering your zip code. You may also refer to the EPA’s comprehensive list of regulations for known contaminants and their acceptable levels.
Ultimately, tap water is regulated by the EPA who sets limits on 90+ contaminants in our water supply through the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), though the policy only applies to public water systems that serve more than 10,000 people. Communities smaller than 10,000 are not regulated under the SDWA — instead, they are monitored every five years for only 30 contaminants through the UCMR (Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule) by the EPA.