Smarter Living: Water & Air

While it is true the United States has some of the best drinking water in the world, a disturbing new report conducted by the New York Times revealed that one in ten Americans have been exposed to drinking water that contains dangerous chemicals, including carcinogens in the tap water of major American cities and unsafe chemicals in drinking water wells in more rural areas. The primary reason, according to the report: the laws intended to protect our water supplies, the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, are not being enforced. In fact, researchers found, barely 3 percent of violations resulted in fines or other significant penalties by state officials responsible for enforcing the law.

Is Your Water Safe?

Whether you water is safe or contaminated depends on several factors: its source, what if any treatment it receives; and the quality of the pipes in your home. Follow these simple steps to check out the quality of your water:

* Find out about your water system. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates the community water systems that supply drinking water to most Americans. Every water system is required to publish a yearly “consumer confidence report” detailing contaminants or violations of water quality standards. You can see the report for your water system by contacting the system directly. To find your water system, visit EPA's water systems directory.

* Have water from your own well tested. Wells, which are not typically regulated by the SDWA, are more likely to contain contaminants than municipal water systems. The E.P.A. advises that you test well water annually, especially if you see signs of trouble like corroded pipes, strange odors or stained laundry.

* Check to see if there are free or low cost testing services available. Your municipality, county or state health department may offer free or low-cost testing services; otherwise, you can use a laboratory certified in your state. The E.P.A. has a list of certified labs. For further information on well water quality, the E.P.A. suggests consulting nonprofit groups like the American Ground Water Trust.

* Decide which contaminants to test for. Ask for guidance from the lab or your local health department on which contaminants to test for. Find out whether radon or heavy metals like arsenic are present in underground rocks or soils in your area. Tell the laboratory if you live near a farm, an industrial cattle-feeding operation, a gas station, a mine, a factory, a dump or any kind of operation that might produce contaminants that can find their way into ground water.

NRDC recommends that you test your tap water for lead contamination, particularly if you have young kids, are pregnant, or thinking about becoming pregnant, since lead is especially dangerous and levels can vary enormously from house to house. A lead test costs about $25 (see, for example, University of North Carolina's low-cost testing information).

What Should You Do If Your Water is Contaminated?

Once you have identified the problem, you can take the appropriate steps to fix it.

* If the problem is corroded pipes in your home, consider replacing them.

* If your well is contaminated by bacteria, you can have it disinfected or you can drill a deeper well.

* If your water contains other contaminants - heavy metals, pesticides, volatile organic chemicals, minerals, parasites or bacteria - you should consider installing a filtration system. Consult our "Checkout Counter: Select the Right Filter" for help selecting the filter that best meets your needs.

last revised 8/12/2011

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