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What's in My Tap Water?

Most people in the United States have access to tap water in their homes and public places such as restaurants and cafes. But, what is in the stuff we drink every day? What is its source? Are the treatments effective? And, is it safe to drink?

In this article, we'll be taking an in-depth look at the quality and content of drinking water in the United States, investigating its sources, filtration processes, and how it measures up to bottled or filtered options. Read on to find out more about this essential — but often overlooked — diet staple. 

 

Is Tap Water Safe to Drink in the U.S.?

Before we delve into the details of this topic, it's crucial to note that, in general, tap water is relatively safe for consumption in the U.S.
The quality available in
most local municipalities is of a high international standard and is safe and healthy. 

However, there are some issues with tap water in this country, including local issues in rural areas, and flint problems in some states. There is also a lot that we don't yet know about its long-term health impacts, such as the effect of micro-plastics or the low doses of nitrates present in the supply. Other issues arise from the treatment processes, such as THMs, or trihalomethanes, chemical compounds formed when treating H20 with chlorine.

Should I Drink Tap Water?

According to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), 85% of the U.S. population has access to safe drinking water. That leaves 15% affected by contaminants in their tap supply. 

  • According to Neilsen Research Corporation, the most common contaminants in tap water after filtration and treatment include:
  • Uranium
  • Herbicides
  • Aluminum
  • Arsenic
  • Lead
  • Copper
  • Iron
  • Pesticides

Pharmaceuticals also can enter the sewage system when flushed down the toilet or passed in human excrement. According to WHO research, they have found trace amounts in municipal sources. The long-term effects of consuming trace pharmaceuticals remain unverified, but the WHO warns that this is not something that anyone should drink daily. 

Each city's supply is different, and it will contain a unique combination of contaminants. Check your local area by entering your zip code in the Tap Water Database by the EWC. 

Ultimately, the quality and content of what comes out of the tap are subject to regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Through the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, they have sets limits on 90+ contaminants in the supply in the U.S. 

However, this policy is only applicable to public systems that serve 10,000 people or more. Smaller — and often rural — communities do not count in this act's regulations. Also, they only monitor the supply every five years for just 30 contaminants, under the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR).

Where Is the Source of My Tap Water?

There are three primary sources of tap water in the U.S.: groundwater, rivers, and lakes. The source of your specific tap supply depends on where you reside. 

Some cities rely on lakes and rivers as their source for municipal tap supplies. Others, such as Boston, rely on reservoirs. Some cities and their reserves in the U.S. include:

  • New York gets 90% of its supply from the Delaware River Basin.
  • 100% of drinking water in Washington DC comes from the Potomac River.
  • Most of the 4.1 million residents of Atlanta get their tap supply from the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers.
  • New Orleans collects its tap supply from the Mississippi River.
  • Half of the H20 in Los Angeles comes from the Owens River.
  • For more information on the source of your tap water, you can check out the list of resources compiled by the American Rivers

While rivers and lakes are a substantial source for tap supplies in this country, much of what we drink comes from groundwater. These underground aquifers contain water that originates from rain that seeps into the soil. We can access these via natural springs or wells.

How Is Tap Water Filtered and Treated?

Unless you get your water from a private well, your main supply will come from one of the nation's 150,000 public water systems. This water will undergo processing, filtration, and sanitization at a treatment facility before it reaches your faucet. The steps of this treatment process are as follows: 

Catchment

Water gets to the treatment plant through a series of pipes and pumps. Most treatment centers use gravity to move and direct the liquid.

Screening

Water goes through an initial screening when it reaches the treatment area. This process usually consists of a large metal screen, designed to trap large debris such as fish, trees/branches, plants, and trash.

Coagulation and Flocculation

Coagulation and flocculation take place to bind small particles in the water together and filter them out. The treatment centers achieve this process by adding chemicals with a positive charge (known as coagulants) to the supply. Common coagulants include ferrous sulfate, aluminum sulfate, and activated silica. These bind to the negatively charged dirt particles and form much larger particles called floc.

Sedimentation and Clarification

This stage in the treatment process will filter out the floc particles. The system pumps floc into a sedimentation point, while the rest of the water moves on to the next stage of treatment. 

Ozonation

Some treatment systems will add the highly reactive gas ozone to the supply. When pumped through the water, it will kill viruses and bacteria. It also can reduce the concentration of iron and sulfur. It also helps break down pesticides and eliminate foul odors. 

Filtration

During this stage, the water goes through filters to remove remaining particles (such as dust and microorganisms). These filters usually consist of gravel, sand, or activated charcoal.

Disinfection

Finally, disinfection takes place using chlorine gas or compound. This step ensures the elimination of any remaining microbial contaminants from the supply. Some treatment centers also add fluoride for dental health.

What Is Better: Bottled Water vs Tap Water vs Filtered Water? 

While many people think that bottled water is a safer, healthier option than tap, this often isn't the case. 

Not only do bottles increase energy usage and plastic waste, but the stuff in the bottles also hasn't proven to be consistently safer for human consumption than what you get out of your faucet. 

Tap water is subject to regulation by the EPA. Meanwhile, bottled H20 is under regulation by the FDA, which has different guidelines and more of a focus on labeling.  

Further, research has shown that PET and BPA from the plastic can contaminate the water in warm conditions. Also, what you get in bottles is often just repackaged from municipal lines. In many cases, bottled water companies sell you a product that you could access for free in your own home.

A better option is filtered water. Filters can remove much of the contaminants from your tap, and it is an economically more efficient alternative to bottled. It's better for the environment, too! Depending on the filter you buy, you can eliminate up to 99.999% of particles. 

Bottom Line

In summary, drinking tap water in the U.S. is safe to do, but this doesn't mean that it's a perfect source. Clean, untainted, and mineral-rich water is key to a healthy life. Drinking from the tap undoubtedly exposes us to chemicals and contaminants, and regulation of it only attends to relative safety markers. 

A filtration system for your home is an excellent option if you want to use tap water but remove the remaining contaminants. You have a lot of options for this type of filtration system. Plus, if you worry that the filter will remove all the useful minerals, some systems will add essential minerals. 

Clean water is an essential requirement for proper bodily function, and it's ultimately up to you to decide which option best meets your needs and health goals. 


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