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What’s in the Water?

Leaky faucet

We are lucky here in the United States: our drinking water is some of the cleanest and safest in the world.

However, water quality isn’t something that should be graded on a curve. Despite having better tap water than most, our water supply isn’t perfect. Far from it.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which sets drinking water standards, regulators are constantly on the lookout for the following contaminants:

  • Microorganisms: e.g. human and animal fecal matter
  • Disinfectants: e.g. chlorine
  • Inorganic chemicals: e.g. lead, nitrates, arsenic
  • Organic chemicals: e.g. benzene, dioxin, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
  • Radionuclides: e.g. uranium

Most of the time, concentrations of these contaminants are small enough to be harmless, and regulatory compliance among utilities and municipalities is quite high. Which is encouraging. But …

Research from the nonprofit Environmental Working Group nonetheless paints an unflattering portrait—that’s putting it mildly—of our nation’s water supply. The most unsettling aspect of their analysis? Most of the 300+ chemicals detected in our drinking water are unregulated, which means that public health officials have not set safety standards for them.

Some of these unregulated chemicals include:

  • Perchlorate, a rocket fuel ingredient known to be harmful to the thyroid gland
  • MTBE, a gasoline additive associated with liver and kidney damage and nervous system
  • Di-n-butylphthalate, a chemical from a group of industrial plasticizers linked to birth defects


A study commissioned by Everpure, a maker of water filtration systems for the food service industry, found that U.S. consumers care deeply about water quality.

Over 65 percent of consumers said that restaurants that filter their water are likely to have better quality food and beverages, and 74 percent said it is somewhat to extremely important for restaurants to filter their drinking water.

A Gallup poll had similar results, reporting that Americans rank water pollution as the number one environmental concern facing the country, with 84 percent saying they worried a “great deal” or a “fair amount” about pollution of drinking water.

Despite these widespread worries, progress still seems slow. For whatever reason, legislators don’t seem as interested in water quality as the rest of us, their constituents. But no one can argue that we’ve come a long way since the summer of 1969, when the Cuyahoga River caught fire and spurred the passage of the Clean Water Act.

Today, we don’t have the image of a burning river to get our attention. Our challenges are, in some ways, more difficult because they’re harder to see and easier to ignore.

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