Tap Water Quality and Safety
Questions and answers based on NRDC's report grading the quality of drinking water in U.S. cities.
- You reported that my tap water is not very good. Should I stop drinking it?
- I live in a city you haven't reported on. How can I find out about the quality of the water?
- A few years ago, you told us some bottled water is bad. Now you're saying the same thing about tap water. Which is true and which should I drink?
- What filter will best protect my family from getting sick?
- What can I do to protect the drinking water in my town?
1. You reported that my tap water is not very good. Should I stop drinking it?
In the short term, if you are an adult with no special health conditions, and you are not pregnant, then you can drink most cities' tap water without having to worry. However, pregnant women, very young children, the elderly, people with chronic illnesses, and people living with weakened immune systems (because they have HIV/AIDS, had an organ transplant, or are on chemotherapy), can be especially vulnerable to the risks posed by contaminated water. If you fit in one of these groups, review NRDC's findings for your city as well as your city's annual water quality report (see the next question), and then consult with your health care provider. You may also want to check the Physicians for Social Responsibility website for fact sheets that can help you and your health care provider make decisions about your drinking water. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) website has advice for people with weak immune systems about drinking city tap water and about bottled water and filters.
In the long term, we all have reason to be concerned about pollution in tap water. The water in many cities contains pollutants that are carcinogens and that, over time, could cause cancer. That's why we all should try to get cities to clean these contaminants out of tap water as soon as possible.
2. I live in a city you haven't reported on. How can I find out about the quality of the water?
To find out about your city's water quality, you should ask your water utility (the one that sends water bills to people in your community) for a copy of its annual water quality report, which is sometimes called a right-to-know report or consumer confidence report. Then get the brochure called "Making Sense of Your Right to Know Report," (see www.safe-drinking-water.org/rtk.html) to help you understand the report. Read your report carefully and contact your health care provider if you have questions.
3. A few years ago, you told us some bottled water is bad. Now you're saying the same thing about tap water. Which is true and which should I drink?
In 1999, NRDC conducted 1,000 separate tests of more than 100 brands of bottled water and concluded that bottled water is not necessarily any purer or any safer than city tap water. Some bottled water is of very high quality and is very pure; other brands of bottled water contain elevated levels of arsenic, bacteria, or other contaminants. Also, bottled water costs hundreds or thousands of times more per gallon than tap water. So while drinking bottled water of verified quality may be an interim solution if you live in an area with a known tap water contamination problem or if you have serious immune system problems, bottled water is not a long-term solution to tap water problems. Instead of relying on bottled water we need to make sure our tap water is clean and safe. (See the FAQ based on our drinking water study for more information on bottled water.)
4. What filter will best protect my family from getting sick?
Filters are no better a long-term solution than bottled water -- in the end we need to make tap water safe for everyone. But if you are thinking about getting a filter for your home, there are several things to consider. First, make sure you get a filter that removes the contaminants of concern in your tap water. (See your city's annual water quality report for information, or NRDC's report if you live in a city we've studied.) Second, be sure the filter is independently certified by NSF (or a similar independent organization) to remove the contaminants of concern in your tap water. Third, maintain the filter at least as often as the manufacturer recommends, or hire a maintenance company to maintain it for you. If you have a weakened immune system, check the CDC website and consult with your health care provider for advice about filters. Also, remember that a "point of use" filter on your sink will not remove all contaminants. For example, you can be exposed to trihalomethanes in the shower. Only a "point of entry" device that cleans all the water in your house will take care of all your water taps.
5. What can I do to protect the drinking water in my town?
You can support measures to protect your watershed and to improve drinking water protection and treatment in your area. To find groups working on these efforts in your area, check the list of member groups on the Clean Water Network website. And sign up for NRDC's action bulletins -- we'll send you an email when you can take action on decisions being made at the national level and in California.
Based on What's on Tap?: Grading Drinking Water in U.S. Cities, a June 2003 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
last revised 1/9/2006
Sign up for NRDC's online newsletter
Water on Switchboard
NRDC experts write about water efficiency, green infrastructure and climate on the NRDC blog.
Recent Water Posts
- The Clean Water Act -- 42 Birthday Candles and Half a Million Americans Who Support It
- posted by Jon Devine, 10/22/14
- Groundwater experts, water law experts, and conservation groups tell the Forest Service to do more to protect groundwater
- posted by Marcus Griswold, 10/14/14
- New Jersey Water Infrastructure Funds: An Opportunity to Make Communities More Resilient
- posted by Ben Chou, 10/9/14
NRDC Gets Top Ratings from the Charity Watchdogs
- Charity Navigator awards NRDC its 4-star top rating.
- Worth magazine named NRDC one of America's 100 best charities.
- NRDC meets the highest standards of the Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau.