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Water and Sanitation

How to Determine What’s in Your Drinking Water

Photo: Courtesy of Jonathan Chng

Forty years ago, America’s drinking water was in a much different state than it is today. Sewage, chemicals and trash were frequently dumped into our rivers, lakes and oceans, polluting our sources of drinking water. We lacked the authority, science, technology and funding to properly address the problems.

Where we’ve come from

The 1962 drinking water standards regulated 28 substances. But by 1969 only 60 percent of the systems delivered water that met those standards. Additionally, over half of the treatment facilities had major deficiencies involving disinfection, clarification or pressure in the distribution system.

We have made great progress since then. Through implementation of the Safe Drinking Water Act, we’ve improved public health protection from bacteria, arsenic, lead, disinfectants and disinfection byproducts. Today, we have more than 90 national drinking water standards and over 91 percent of all drinking water systems across the U.S. meet all of the health-based standards all of the time.

Assessing your water

If you get your drinking water from a public water system, you can contact your local water supplier and ask for a copy of your Consumer Confidence Report, also known as an Annual Water Quality Report. This report lists what regulated chemicals, microbes and bacteria may be in your drinking water and whether the system meets state and EPA drinking water standards. Your water system sends the report to you annually, but if you missed it, you can get another copy by contacting your drinking water utility.

Private well owners should test their well regularly. You should check for nitrates, total coliforms (e.g. bacteria) and for any specific types of contamination that may be found in your watershed. Many Americans have had concerns this year about lead in drinking water. Lead isn’t generally found in the lakes, rivers, streams or wells, which your water system may use as source water.

Risks for lead

However, plumbing materials including the pipes that connect homes to water mains and the solder, pipes and fittings in homes can be a source of lead in drinking water. If your home has a lead service line, be sure to contact your water supplier to learn more and determine if you should have your water tested. Also don’t forget that lead in homes can come from sources other than water. If you live in a home built before 1978, you may want to have your paint tested for lead. You should contact your doctor to have your children tested if you are concerned about lead exposure.

Each of us has a role to play in protecting the sources that supply our drinking water, including properly applying fertilizer and pesticides on lawns and gardens and carefully disposing of harmful materials; these could be the oil from your car, leftover weed spray and paint. Or cleaning up local streams: Chemicals that we put on the ground can travel through the soil and get into our water. You can find out who supplies your drinking water or if there are potential sources of pollution near your drinking water source by using our mapping tool, DWMAPS.

While there are many challenges that we face, we want to ensure that you have the tools that you need so you know what’s in your water. We encourage you to learn more and take action.

Joel Beauvais, Associate Administrator for the Office of Water, Environmental Protection Agency, [email protected]

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