How Safe is Our Drinking Water?

contaminated tap water
A sign tells Flint, Michigan residents that boiling water doesn't remove lead. Residents here have been dealing with contaminated tap water since 2014. Sarah Rice/Getty Images

When you turn on your faucet for a glass of water, you expect that water to be safe, right? Unfortunately for some residents of the United States, that's not always the case.

We've been hearing about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan since late 2014. The city's drinking water was found to be high in lead after the city switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River as its water source. The water was never treated with an anti-corrosion additive, required by federal law, so it eroded the iron water mains and picked up lead. When Flint residents gained the attention of the media, it became a national scandal that has drawn out over years, and it's still not resolved.


City Water Supplies

But Flint certainly isn't the only case of contaminated water in the U.S. In July 2016, many residents of Pittsburgh were shocked when they were notified by the Pittsburgh Water and Sewage Authority that their tap water contained 22 parts per billion of lead. That's 1.5 times higher than the legal limit.

In Milwaukee, the health commissioner resigned in December 2017 because his agency didn't notify the city's families whose children tested positive for elevated levels of lead.


And people living in Brady, Texas are dealing with radium in their tap water. And not just unacceptable levels — levels nine times higher than legally allowed.

In April 2018, the Chicago Tribune published a story after it conducted an analysis of water samples taken from 2,797 homes across the city during a two-year period. It revealed that nearly 70 percent of the samples were contaminated with lead at more than 5 parts per billion, the maximum allowed in bottled water by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Chicago's tap water comes from Lake Michigan, which is free of lead until right before it arrives in the tap. The contamination in Chicago water comes from lead service lines, which connect individual residences to the main water system. According to city code, homeowners can opt to have these lines replaced but at their own expense. When reached for comment, the City of Chicago Department of Water Management declined to elaborate on how much it would cost a homeowner to undergo this repair.

Lead exposure is most dangerous for children and pregnant women because it affects brain development. However, it can also harm the nerves, heart and kidneys — and everyone is vulnerable to those effects. Lead poisoning is gradual and has no telltale symptoms.


EPA Coverup

While all these stories are shocking, the most recent damning news regarding contaminated tap water broke Monday, May 14 and revolves around a federal government coverup. Politico reported that email exchanges between Trump administration officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and Office of Management and Budget in January warn of a "public relations nightmare" regarding a Health and Human Services report on chemicals in drinking water.

The chemicals, known as PFOS and PFOA, were found in drinking water or groundwater in amounts that exceed levels deemed safe by the EPA near 126 military facilities, the Department of Defense said in a study in May.


PFOS and PFOA are used in products like Teflon and firefighting foam, and have been linked to thyroid defects, issues with pregnancy and certain cancers.

The emails were made public through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Union of Concerned Scientists.


What Can You Do?

Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for older homes to have lead plumbing, and concerned homeowners can buy lead tests and replace plumbing as necessary. When the city is in charge of a widespread problem, however, there isn't much that residents can do to fight back.

If you're concerned about lead — or other contaminants — in your tap water, the EPA says there are a few steps you can take to reduce the hazard:


  • Learn more about the water coming into your home
  • Have your water tested for lead
  • Before drinking tap water, flush your pipes by running your faucet first
  • Regularly clean your faucet's screen (also known as an aerator)
  • Use a water filter certified to remove lead

As far as that HHS report on PFOS and PFOA and whether it will be released? Three-and-a-half months later, the HHS report is still not public, and the agency has set no date to release it.