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Tainted Tap Water Sickens 1.1 Million Each Year

Viruses Creep Into Public Water Supplies Through Leaky Pipes

Looking at the Safety of Public Water Supplies continued...

After the two years of watching the water, researchers found that no community had consistently clean or consistently contaminated water.

When they plugged their measurements into models that estimate risk, they found that nationwide, drinking water that’s tainted as it travels through pipes to people’s homes could be responsible for as many as 1.1 million cases of acute stomach illness each year. That’s a level of illness that’s 559 times higher than what the EPA considers acceptable for public drinking water supplies.

Mark A. Borchardt, PhD, a microbiologist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, says that normally, the average person can expect to get sick with a stomach bug once or twice in a given year. People who drink water from public systems that aren’t disinfected can expect to see that risk climb by about 30%. Looking at the numbers another way, that means as many as 1 in 5 cases of stomach illness each year may be caused by contaminated water. That number may be as high as 2 out of 5 cases in kids.

Public Water Infrastructure Problems

Researchers were concerned about what happens to water on its way to the tap because much of the public water infrastructure in the U.S. is in a state of disrepair. In a 2009 report, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America’s drinking water systems a D- grade and stressed the need for more money to replace crumbling facilities and plumbing.

To make matters worse, Borchardt says many pipes that carry drinking water are laid close to lines that carry untreated sewage. Like the water pipes, the sewer lines are also often not in great shape.

“If you dig up soil around drinking water pipes, you can find all sorts of pathogens that come from leaking sewer lines,” Borchardt says. Pressure changes may then suck some of those disease-causing germs into the drinking water.

Advice for Safer Tap Water

Smaller towns and rural areas are more likely than larger cities not to disinfect their water. To find out if your water is disinfected or not, contact your municipal water supplier.

If you live in a community where groundwater isn’t disinfected, Loge says there are home systems that can be installed to clean water before you drink it.

Those systems range from $100 to $500 in price and usually need to be professionally installed.

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