For months now my mind has been contemplating whether it is ok for me to drink tap water, i.e., the water that comes out of the faucet at my house. I’ve never liked the taste of the Central Texas tap water. I remember when I first moved to Austin about 10 years ago I complained to the City Of Austin about the taste, thinking that something was wrong with the water. The City dispatched an inspector who took water samples and sent them off to the lab for analysis. As I waited for the results to come back I remember wondering what kind of contaminants could be in the water. I had just graduated from college with an science degree and thought that surely I could figure out what was making the water taste so bad.
According to the City Of Austin Water FAQ website, the primary sources of water contamination in urban areas,
“is rainwater that flows into street catch basins (called urban runoff or storm water runoff). While the rainwater alone is not necessarily harmful, it frequently carries untreated waste products from our streets and yards directly to rivers, lakes, and streams – our drinking water sources.”
If you visit the City Of Austin’s website you can find a breakdown of some things that you might find in your tap water. The first four chemicals or elements that are listed are barium, fluoride, nitrate, simazine. Barium and fluoride are not big surprises; but, nitrate is a fertilizer and simazine is a herbicide (read: herb – “plant” and cide – “to kill”) – two things that I personally would not want in my body. There is a lot more information on their website as well that I’ll let you read for yourself.
So what would a chemist say? Are the chemicals in our water safe to drink? According to an article entitled, “Tap Water: Safe To Drink” by: Andrew Gaug,
“Everything we use every day, from your pharmaceuticals you take to your soap, it all goes down the drain. And most of that will end up in treatment facilities,” said David Alvarez, a research chemist for the U.S. Geological Survey. He is a St. Joseph [Missouri] native with a Ph.D. in environmental and analytical chemistry.
“The problem isn’t that huge doses of pharmaceuticals or soap are slipping past being treated, but that there isn’t a barometer for the miniscule amount that does get by.”
A drinking water sample has many chemicals in it. But they’re all likely to be at very, very low concentration,” he said. “Are they a problem to humans? I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
Final answer: “I don’t know. I don’t think so.” Hmm.. that doesn’t sound all that reassuring to me.
So what does the highest environmental organization in the land say about tap water safety? According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website,
“the taste and quality of drinking water varies from place to place. Over 90 percent of water systems meet EPA’s standards for tap water quality.”
Over 90 percent is safe? So what about the other 10 percent? Is it not safe?
“Tap water is not without its problems. The nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) in 2005 tested municipal water in 42 states and detected some 260 contaminants in public water supplies, 140 of which were unregulated chemicals, that is, chemicals for which public health officials have no safety standards for, much less methods for removing them.”
Again, not very convincing. In fact, I feel even less happy about drinking water out of the tap now. So what about bottled water? Perhaps it is better to drink than tap water.
In many ways bottled water is subject to less screening and testing than tap water. The EPA does not demand the rigorous testing and analytical methods for bottled water that it requires for tap water. And oddly enough, as much as a quarter or more of bottled water actually originates from tap water sources. So if you thought that the cool, glistening bottle of water with images of glaciers and mountains on the bottle label originated from some pristine underground aquifer or from an untouched mountain stream you may be mistaken. Had any Dasani or Aquafina bottled water lately? You’ll never guess where it comes from (hint: water does not come from a spring or glacier)!
Ultimately, I was told by the City Of Austin that my tap water was completely normal and they didn’t have an explanation for the bad taste I experienced. They assured me that the water I was drinking from the faucet was completely safe. And I’m sure it is. However, I only drink filtered or bottled water now. But that’s my choice I suppose.
Martin Whitton is a photographer and writer who lives and works in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.