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The New York Times series “Toxic Waters” written by Charles Duhigg presents a disturbing view of our drinking water quality in the USA.  The first article about herbicides (atrazine in particular) points out that it is time to strengthen some of the federal drinking water standards in light of new research.  You can read more about it in my earlier Earthsense blog entitled “Don’t give up on tap water.”  The second article in this series is about industrial waste, particularly in the coal-mining region of West Virginia.   Basically, Duhigg says the 1972 Clean Water Act was largely successful at stopping the rampant pollution of our rivers, lakes, and streams, but over the last 10 years it has not been well enforced by the EPA or states.  Consequently, our water quality is going downhill again.  His third article is about agricultural runoff which is a type of non-point source pollution (it doesn’t come out of a pipe).  Most of this runoff is not regulated by the Federal government, and it is not well regulated by local governments.  Disposing of huge quantities of manure by spraying it on nearby fields has led to bacteria and parasites in local water bodies and drinking water wells in heavily agricultural areas.

Before you panic and revert to bottled water, you might want to follow the advice of the New York Times on-line article “How safe is your tap water?”  First visit the EPA drinking water quality reports that are available on-line to check out the quality of water in your town.  Then, find out the names of the polluters that are located near you, by visiting the interactive database of water pollution records for the United States that was amassed by The New York Times.  If you are one of the small percentage of people who have impaired drinking water from your private well or your public water system, your next best step would be to use some sort water filtration at home while you lobby your legislators for cleaner water.  Don’t assume that bottled water is any safer, by the way.  It is regulated by the FDA, an even more poorly funded and staffed governmental agency.

There is a positive side to the story.   The EPA reports that 92% of the population served by community water systems had no reported health-based violations.   There’s also hope that investigative articles like these will pressure the EPA and states to improve enforcement of the Clean Water Act laws that were wisely enacted to protect us all those years ago.  Finally, Lisa Jackson, the new head of EPA has acknowledged these problems and says she will address them.   The more people who raise these issues with regulators and politicians, the better chance we have of achieving meaningful improvements so that everybody in the United States will be able to drink their tap water and enjoy recreation in our water bodies without fear of getting sick.

Being in the business of selling reusable bottles and recommending tap water, I cringe when I hear news stories about unwanted chemicals like atrazine in our public drinking water supplies.   Firstly, I worry about the possible long term health effects on people and critters. Secondly, I worry that these stories will drive people to give up on our public water systems and increasingly rely on bottled water.   Elizabeth Royte, author of “Bottlemania” has responded to the latest barrage of bad news about tap water in her article entitled: Every Story about Chemicals in Drinking Water is a Gift to the Bottled Water Industry.  I couldn’t agree more.

In a nutshell, bottled water is not a viable alternative to public water systems, nor is it necessarily any safer!  If you aren’t familiar with the gross inefficiency and wastefulness of bottled water compared to tap water, please watch our Back2Tap  video to learn about the life cycle of a bottle of water. 

What we need is continual improvement of our current public water systems.  So don’t give up on tap water – encourage the EPA to update drinking water regulations based upon up-to-date independently-financed scientific research.  We do need to be sure that our public water supplies are protective of health.  Support investment to improve our public water systems.  In the long run, it’ll cost us all a lot less than buying our drinking water in bottles.  In the meantime, if you live in an agricultural area, you might want to seriously consider filtering your tap water at home during the growing season.

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