If you don’t live in the New York City area, you might be surprised to learn that the big, crowded, congested city has some of the purest and safest drinking water in the world. That’s because it’s invested millions of dollars in protecting its drinking water, which comes from a system of reservoirs stretching up to 125 miles north of the city.
New Yorkers know they can just turn on the tap and drink clean, clear water. But how do you know if your own tap water is safe and fit to drink? And if it isn’t, what should you do? Buy bottled water? Put in a water filter? Invest in a purified water system?
Every municipality’s water is different, because they’re all coming from different sources. New York’s pure reservoir system requires less treatment and filtration than, say, Washington, D.C.’s water, which comes from the less-than-sparkling Potomac River.
“For the most part in the U.S., the water coming out of the tap is very likely to be safe. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll get sick from it. It does happen sometimes, but it’s rare,” says Jim Karrh, formerly the chief marketing officer for the Mountain Valley Spring bottled water company.
That’s not to say that there are no problems. A 2005 report from the Environmental Working Group found more than 140 contaminants with no enforceable safety limits in the nation’s drinking water.
To know for sure what’s in your tap water and where it’s coming from, contact your local water utility. The Environmental Protection Agency requires all water suppliers to issue an annual report to their customers, called a Consumer Confidence Report. Learn more:
- Look for your water report on the EPA’s local drinking water information page at www.epa.gov/safewater/dwinfo/index.html. If it’s not posted there, call your water company and ask for a copy.
- From the same site, you can read “Envirofacts” reports for your area, which will tell you if your supplier has been cited for violating EPA standards.
- Find out how to read and understand your water report with a guide from NSF International, a standard-setting and product certification organization for food, water, and consumer goods. You can download the guide at www.nsf.org/consumer/drinking_water/dw_quality.asp?program=WaterTre.
- Check the Environmental Working Group’s database on drinking water contamination at www.ewg.org/tapwater/yourwater/index.php.
But the EPA and your water bureau can only tell you about the quality of the water when it gets to your house.
“They don‘t know what kind of building you live in and what pipes you have,” Karrh says. “The majority of pipe systems are just fine, but I have had plumbers tell me about going into renovated buildings and it’s pretty gunky in there. It’s probably not something to worry about unless you have medical conditions or a reason to be suspicious, like a really old piping system.”
If you’re worried, order a do-it-yourself water testing kit online or arrange for a water quality test from a water filtration company.
“There are many places where you don’t need to filter what comes out of the tap; it’s just fine. If you look at some of the reasons people drink filtered water or bottled water, often it’s because they don’t like the chlorine taste that is in city water, which has to be put in as a residual disinfectant to keep water safe after it travels through all the pipes to get to your house,” says Craig Mains, an engineering scientist at the National Environmental Services Center at West Virginia University.
If your tap water is safe but you don’t like the taste, you can get around that in several ways:
- Fill a pitcher and refrigerate for about half an hour. “The chlorine will dissipate quickly,” Mains says.
- Purchase a filtration system that attaches to your tap (and/or refrigerator water dispenser) or a filtered-water pitcher, from companies like Brita or PUR Water.
- Install a carbon filter under the sink. These filters generally cost less than $50 and, Mains says, can be more economical because they don’t have to be replaced as frequently (between every three months and annually, depending on how much water you use). “They’ll also remove some other contaminants you have, like in an area where there might be some volatile organic chemicals.”
- Purchase a whole-house filtering system, such as Culligan’s popular reverse-osmosis systems. These cost approximately $1,000 to install, along with service fees starting at $20 a month (which includes annual filter changes).
If you do choose to filter your water, look for filters certified by NSF International. And don’t forget to change the filter on the recommended schedule.
“Many people are more consistent about changing the oil they put in their cars than the filters on the water they put in their bodies,” says Eric Rosenthal, senior vice president of marketing for Culligan. “They think ‘I’ll just give it another month.’ But after they’ve been in there too long, filters not only don’t work, they start to be worse for the consumer.”
Bottled water has exploded in popularity over the last 10 years. In 1997, Americans drank 13.5 gallons of bottled water per capita annually; by 2007, that number spiked to 29 gallons per capita. In 2007 alone, we spent about $11.5 billion on brands like Dasani, Evian, and Poland Spring.
But bottled water’s popularity may have reached its peak -- in 2008, there was a 3.8% decline in bottled water revenues, the first in a decade.
In fact, about 25% of bottled water is simply purified tap water, including two of the most popular brands, Aquafina and Dasani.
“They contract with municipalities across the country, set up plants, and have a ‘formula’ for their water, so if you buy a bottle of Aquafina in Sacramento, it tastes the same as it does in Dubuque,” Karrh says.
How can you tell if your bottled water is really from a “pure mountain spring” rather than the filtered product of a municipal water system in another state? Look for the words “spring water” on the label. Bottlers can only claim spring water if their product is verified to be from a spring. (Other bottles will say things like “purified” and “distilled.”)
Like tap water, bottled water is generally safe to drink, although perceptions of it as “safer” than tap water are unfounded.
“The difference really is in taste and what you want in the water. A lot of the bottled water in the U.S. comes from the old European model, which adds minerals to the water like sodium or calcium,” Karrh says. “If you’re trying to watch your sodium intake and don’t want that ‘heavy’ taste, you might not want those.”
“The advantage of municipal water -- whether you filter it or not -- is information. For bottled water, that information is not quite as easy to find,” Mains says. “You don’t get the equivalent of a consumer confidence report on the outside of a bottle of water.”