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Water  

Frequently Asked Questions About Drinking Water, Tap Water, Bottled Water and Your Health 

 

Additional Questions?

Click here to E-Mail a request directly to the EPA's Safe Drinking Water Hotline (800-426-4791).

 

 


Q: What contaminants does the EPA regulate in drinking water?

A: the EPA regulates over 80 contaminants in drinking water. Some states may choose to set stricter standards, however, all states must have standards at least as stringent as the EPA's. 


Q: Is my drinking water safe to drink?

A: The United States enjoys one of the best supplies of drinking water in the world. Sometimes water has an unpleasant smell or taste, because of certain treatment or local conditions; nonetheless, tap water that meets EPA and state standards is considered safe to drink. However, some water suppliers do not meet all applicable standards. To find out if your drinking water supplier complies with federal and state standards, contact your local water supplier. The number should be on your water bill, or in your local phone book. You can also check with your state drinking water agency. If you are concerned about a specific contaminant in your water supply, the EPA has prepared fact sheets for consumers on most of the contaminants which are regulated.

Click here for a list of available fact sheets or click here to find more information about your water supplier and your state drinking water agency.


Q: Where does my drinking water come from?

A: Drinking water sources vary even within communities. Nationwide, approximately 53 percent of all drinking water comes from ground water sources (wells), with the remaining 47 percent coming from surface water sources (rivers, lakes, and reservoirs).

Click here to Surf Your Watershed This EPA data system helps you find information about your local watershed.  


Q: My community has issued a boil water alert. What does that mean? How long will it last?

A: Under the provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act, water systems that serve more than 25 people are required to test their water regularly for a wide variety of contaminants. If your system has issued a boil water alert, it has likely discovered one or more microbiological contaminants at levels exceeding those allowed by the EPA. Even though there may be no danger, the boil water alert is a temporary advisory to protect your health. Your system must take appropriate corrective action, continue to monitor its water supply, and notify customers when it has remedied the problem. The length of the alert will depend on the nature of the problem. Your local utility can provide you with more details, or you can learn more yourself by checking the consumer fact sheets provided by the EPA to educate the public about possible drinking water contaminants.

Click here for a list of available fact sheets  


Q: What are total coliforms? What are fecal coliforms?

A: Total coliforms are common in the environment and are generally not harmful themselves. The presence of these bacteria in drinking water, however, generally is a result of a problem with water treatment or the pipes which distribute the water, and indicates that the water may be contaminated with organisms that can cause disease.

The presence of fecal coliforms in drinking water is serious because they are usually associated with sewage or animal wastes. The presence of these bacteria in drinking water is generally a result of a problem with water treatment or the pipes which distribute the water, and indicates that the water may be contaminated with organisms that can cause disease.

Your water system tests for these bacteria routinely. If the EPA's safety standards for these contaminants are exceeded, your system will take action to correct the deficiency and, in the interim, issue an alert with guidance on how to protect yourself and your family. 


Q: My water smells like chlorine. What do I do?

A: Each individual water system regulates its own use of chlorine to disinfect water. Especially after large rainstorms, your water system may add more chlorine to guarantee that your water is safe. If you dislike the taste or smell of chlorine in your water, you can make the water more palatable by allowing it to be exposed to the air for a few hours or by pouring it from one clean container to another. In addition, you may consider installing a home water treatment kit specifically designed to remove chlorine from your drinking water.

Click here to see NSF's information on water treatment units 
or the Water Quality Association's information for consumers 


Q: Where can I get my water tested? Will the EPA test my water?

A: The EPA does not test individual homes, and cannot recommend specific labs to test your drinking water. However, States are required to certify water testing labs. You may call your State Certification Officer to get a list of certified water testing labs in your state.

Click here for a list of State Certification Officers.  


Q: Should I install a home water treatment kit even if my water company already treats the water?

A: Some people may wish the additional protection of home water treatment. If your water company has already treated the water, there is generally no need for you to further treat it, except perhaps if your water company or local health organization tells you that a health level has been exceeded or if your water has taste or odor problems. If you do purchase a home water treatment unit, be certain to follow the manufacturer's instructions for operation and maintenance, especially changing the filter on a regular basis.

People with compromised immune systems may have special needs, click here to see the EPA's guidance for people with severely compromised immune systems  


Q: How do I know if my home water treatment kit is a quality product?

A:The EPA does not regulate water treatment kits and cannot recommend one brand over another. No one unit takes out every kind of drinking water contaminant; you must decide which type best meets your needs. For help in picking a unit, you may call two independent, non-profit organizations for more information: NSF International (800-673-8010) tests and certifies home water treatment units, and the Water Quality Association (708-505-0160) classifies units according to the contaminants they remove as well as listing units that have earned its approval. In addition, you may read the EPA's pamphlet Home Water Treatment Units: Filtering Fact From Fiction. For more information on how to obtain EPA pamphlets and brochures, see the end of this document.

Click here to see NSF's information on water treatment units 
or the Water Quality Association's information for consumers 
 


Q: Why is there an EPA registration number on some home water treatment units? Doesn't this mean it is EPA approved?

A: The number on some units is actually a pesticide registration number, required by the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. Because some units make claims of killing bacteria or other microbes, they must receive approval from the EPA that they pose no health risk to the consumer. The registration number is not an endorsement of the product. 


Q: What do I do in an emergency to disinfect my drinking water?

A: When the home water supply system is interrupted by natural or other forms of disaster, you can obtain limited amounts of water by draining your hot water tank or by melting ice cubes. In addition, there are two effective home methods of disinfecting your drinking water: boiling and chemical treatments. Vigorous boiling of water for one minute will kill any disease-causing organisms that may be present in the water. The flat taste of boiled water can be improved by pouring it from one container into another, by allowing it to stand for a few hours, or by adding a pinch of salt. When emergency chemical disinfection is necessary, examine the physical condition of the water. You will need to add more disinfectants to water that is cloudy or turbid. You must store disinfected water in clean, tightly-covered containers not subject to corrosion. Keep water covered and refrigerated after disinfecting. In times of extreme crisis, local health departments may urge consumers to use more caution or to follow additional measures. If local public health department information differs from this advice, the local information should prevail.

Click here for more information on emergency disinfection of drinking water


Q: I want the safest possible water. Is bottled water safer than tap water?

A: Bottled water is not necessarily any safer than your local drinking water. The EPA regulates public water systems to ensure that they are in compliance with national standards; bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration as a food product. Both agencies use equivalent health standards to ensure safety. If you want the safest water possible, then boil your water for one minute, whether it is tap water or bottled water. NSF International, an independent non-profit organization , certifies some brands of bottled drinking water. To find out which brands it certifies, call NSF at 1-800-673-8010.

Click here for information on bottled water from NSF 


Q: What about distilled water? Is it safe?

A: The EPA does not regulate distilled water. It is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a food product. For more information call FDA (800-532-4440), NSF International (800-673-8010), or your local physician.

Click here for information on distilled water from FDA's home page 
or NSF 


Q: My house has a well. How do I know if my well water is safe to drink?

A: Private water supplies should be tested annually for nitrate and coliform bacteria to detect contamination problems early. Test more frequently and for more potential contaminants, such as radon or pesticides, if you suspect a problem. Call your state certification officer for a list of certified testing labs in your state. In addition, you can help protect your water supply by carefully managing activities near the water source. The organization Farm*A*Syst/Home*A*Syst provides fact sheets and worksheets to help farmers and rural residents assess pollution risks and develop management plans geared towards their circumstances.

Click here for a list of State Certification Officers, or here to see the Farm*A*Syst/Home*A*Syst's home page


Q: How will I know if there is lead in my water? Am I at risk?

A: Lead is found almost everywhere: in food, paint, dust, soil, air and even drinking water. Lead is rarely in drinking water when it leaves the treatment plant. Instead, it leaches into the water from some plumbing in buildings, especially older buildings that still have lead pipes. (Lead will no longer be allowed as a component of pipes and plumbing fixtures after August 1998.) Children and pregnant women are most susceptible to health risks from lead in drinking water. The EPA recommends that all homes should be tested. To have your water tested, the EPA recommends you find an independent state certified laboratory using EPA approved methods. To find out what certified labs are in your area, call your state certification officer.

Click here for a list of State Certification Officers or here to see a fact sheet on lead in drinking water.


Q: How can I reduce my exposure to lead in drinking water?

A: There are several actions you can take to reduce the amount of lead in your drinking water.

- "Flush" the cold water faucet by allowing the water to become cold before using it.

- Never cook with or consume water from the hot water tap (hot water dissolves lead more quickly than cold water).

- Purchase a certified home treatment unit to remove lead from your water.

- Purchase lead-free bottled water for drinking and cooking.

- Replace the faucets in your home with ones that do not contain lead.

- DO NOT BOIL THE WATER: boiling will only increase the concentration of lead in the water.

Click here to see a fact sheet on lead in drinking water


Q: If my water is blue-green, does that mean I have lead in my water?

A: Lead cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted. However, blue-green water may be an indicator of high copper levels. Have your water tested by a state certified laboratory to see if the copper concentration may pose a health risk.


Q: What are the health effects of copper in drinking water? How can I remove copper from drinking water?

A: The health effects of copper are stomach and intestinal distress, liver and kidney damage, and anemia. Persons with Wilson's disease may be at higher risk of health effects due to copper than the general public. Removal of copper involves the following steps:

- "Flush" the cold water faucet by allowing the water to run until you can feel that the water has become cold.

- Never cook with or consume water from the hot-water tap. Hot water dissolves copper more quickly than cold water.

- If you are served by a water system, contact it and ask whether or not the water is corrosive. If it is corrosive, ask what steps the system is taking to deal with the problem of copper contamination.

- Purchase a home water treatment unit that is designed to remove lead and copper from drinking water.

- Use bottled water that is lead and copper-free for drinking and cooking.

Click here to see a fact sheet on copper in drinking water


Q: What is radon? Should I be worried about radon in my drinking water?

A: Radon is a gas that has no color, odor, or taste and comes from the natural radioactive breakdown of uranium in the ground. You can be exposed to radon by two main sources: (1) radon in the air in your home (frequently called radon in indoor air) and (2) radon in drinking water. Radon gas can dissolve and accumulate in water from underground sources (called ground water), such as wells. When water that contains radon is used in the home for showering, washing dishes, and cooking, radon gas escapes from the water and goes into the air. Some radon also stays in the water. Breathing radon in indoor air can cause lung cancer. Drinking water containing radon also presents a risk of developing internal organ cancers, primarily stomach cancer. However this risk is smaller than the risk of developing lung cancer from radon released to air from tap water. the EPA has recently proposed a regulation for radon in drinking water. You can get more information by reading the EPA's fact sheet.

Click here for a list of State Certification Officers.


Q: What is Cryptosporidium and does my water system test for it?

A: Cryptosporidium is a parasite commonly found in lakes and rivers. It enters water supplies through sewage and animal waste. It causes cryptosporidiosis, a gastrointestinal disease. The largest water systems in the country are currently participating in a testing program in which they check their source water for Cryptosporidium each month for 18 months.


Q: What are the symptoms of cryptosporidiosis?

A: The most common symptom of cryptosporidiosis is watery, non-bloody diarrhea lasting 7-20 days. The diarrhea is often accompanied by abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, fever, headache, and/or loss of appetite. These symptoms are not specific to cryptosporidiosis and may be symptoms of other diseases. Generally, the disease is mild and people recover within one to three weeks. However, the disease can be severe, chronic, and even fatal for people with severely weakened immune systems, such as those with HIV/AIDS and cancer and transplant patients taking immunosuppressive drugs. If you have a severely weakened immune system, or your water system or local health authority has given you notice that a water treatment problem exists, then you may wish to boil your water vigorously for one minute before using it. Alternatively, you may wish to purchase bottled water or use a home treatment unit that is designed to remove Cryptosporidium.

Click here to see guidance for people with severely compromised immune systems, or click here to see NSF's information on water treatment units 
or the Water Quality Association's information for consumers 


Q: How can I help protect the drinking water in my community?

A: There are several things you can do to protect drinking water in your community. Drinking water protection should be a community-wide effort, beginning with protecting the source of your local water supply, and including education, funding, awareness, and conservation. Many communities have already established source water protection programs. Call your local water supplier to find out if your community participates. You can also support efforts to improve operation, maintenance, and construction of water treatment processes.

Click here to see more information on how you can help protect ground water and other sources of drinking water


Q: Where can I get more information?

A: For more information, call the Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 1-800-426-4791, explore the rest of the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water's home page, or order publications from the EPA on various topics from source water protection to home well use. The EPA has also prepared a general source of information for consumers called "Water on Tap" that can provide further information and will be on-line soon. In addition, you may wish to call your state drinking water office (the EPA's Safe Drinking Water Hotline can provide you with the proper phone number).

Click here to see a list of publications or click here to find out what's going on in your State 


Isn't bottled water safer than tap water?

No, not necessarily. NRDC conducted a four-year review of the bottled water industry and the safety standards that govern it, including a comparison of national bottled water rules with national tap water rules, and independent testing of over 1,000 bottles of water. Our conclusion is that there is no assurance that just because water comes out of a bottle it is any cleaner or safer than water from the tap. And in fact, an estimated 25 percent or more of bottled water is really just tap water in a bottle -- sometimes further treated, sometimes not.


Is bottled water actually unsafe?

Most bottled water appears to be safe. Of the bottles we tested, the majority proved to be high quality and relatively free of contaminants. The quality of some brands was spotty, however, and such products may pose a health risk, primarily for people with weakened immune systems (such as the frail elderly, some infants, transplant and cancer patients, or people with HIV/AIDS). About 22 percent of the brands we tested contained, in at least one sample, chemical contaminants at levels above strict state health limits. If consumed over a long period of time, some of these contaminants could cause cancer or other health problems.


How can I find out where my bottled water comes from?

A few state bottled water programs (e.g., Massachusetts and New York) maintain lists of the sources of bottled water, but many do not. Try calling or writing the bottler to ask what the source is, or call the bottled water program in your state or the state in which the water was bottled to see if they have a record of the source (your state's health or agriculture department is most likely to run the bottled water program). If you choose to buy bottled water and are concerned about its safety, buy brands with a known protected source and ones that make readily available testing and treatment information that shows high water quality.


How can I determine if bottled water is really just tap water?

Often it's not easy. First, carefully check the bottle label and even the cap -- if it says "from a municipal source" or "from a community water system" this means it's derived from tap water. Again, you can call the bottler, or the bottled water program in your state or the state where it was packaged.


What actions can I take to improve bottled water safety?

Write to your members of Congress, the FDA, and your governor (see below for contact information) and urge them to adopt strict requirements for bottled water safety, labeling, and public disclosure. Specifically, point out to these officials that they should:

  • set strict limits for contaminants of concern in bottled water, including arsenic, heterotrophic-plate-count bacteria, E. coli and other parasites and pathogens, and synthetic organic chemicals such as "phthalates";
  • apply the rules to all bottled water whether carbonated or not and whether sold intrastate or interstate; and
  • require bottlers to display information on their labels about the levels of contaminants of concern found in the water, the water's exact source, how it's been treated, and whether it meets health criteria set by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control for killing parasites like cryptosporidium.

Members of Congress and governors should also pass legislation providing the resources for the FDA and state regulators to actually enforce the law.

To take further action, you can encourage your bottlers and the International Bottled Water Association (a trade organization that includes about 85 percent of water bottlers) to voluntarily make labeling disclosures such as those above.

Contact information:

FDA
Jane E. Henney, M.D.
Commissioner, U.S. Food and Drug Administration
5600 Fishers Lane
Rockville, MD 20857

Congress/State Legislators
Go to NDRC's action center to find contact information for your members of Congress and state legislators.


If I drink tap water should I use a filter and what types of filters are most effective?

The real long-term solution is to make tap water safe for everyone. However, if you know you have a tap water quality or taste problem, or want to take extra precautions, you should purchase filters certified by NSF International (800 NSF-MARK). These filters remove the contaminants of special concern such as cryptosporidium. Such certification is not necessarily a safety guarantee, but it is better than no certification at all. It is critically important that all filters be maintained and replaced at least as often as recommended by the manufacturer, or they might make the problem worse.


How can I obtain test results on my tap water?

Under new "right-to-know" provisions in the drinking water law, all tap water suppliers must provide annual water quality reports to their customers.  Because of water's different sources and the different ways in which water is treated, the taste and quality of drinking water varies from place to place. Over 90 percent of water systems meet EPA's standards for tap water quality. The best source of specific information about your drinking water is your water supplier. Water suppliers that serve the same people year-round are required to send their customers an annual water quality report (sometimes called a consumer confidence report). Contact your water supplier to get a copy or see if your report is posted on-line. For additional information, visit EPA's web site's on local drinking water (provides links to state and local sources of water quality information) and drinking water and health (provides information on drinking water contaminants and their health effects).

You also can test your water yourself, though this can be expensive. There are state-certified drinking water laboratories in virtually every state that can test your water. Call your state drinking water program or the EPA Safe Drinking Water Hotline (800 426-4791) for a list of contacts. Standard consumer test packages are available through large commercial labs at a relatively reasonable price.


Shelf Life of Bottled Water

How long is a bottle of water good if it remains sealed?
  
In the United States bottled water's shelf life is date stamped for two years. It should be stored in a dark, cool, dry area away from any solvents or chemicals. I have tasted a bottle of Mountain Valley that was bottled several decades ago and the seal (in this case a metal cap) was still intact. The water was excellent, and except for some mineral crystals at the bottom on the glass, was identical to a fresh bottle of Mountain Valley.

The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) further adds:

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates the quality and safety of bottled water, has neither set nor suggested any limitation to the shelf life of bottled water.You may notice that most bottled water containers sold at retail bear a two-year expiration date. This acts as a lot number and is for stock rotation purposes. It does not mean the product is substandard after that date. Thus, bottled water purchased in bulk is good indefinitely if stored appropriately. Appropriately means unopened in a cool, dry place away from odors and toxic substances.For those yearning for a more technical explanation, it is thus: Bottled water is considered to be of virtually no significant nutritional value. Therefore, unlike milk, fish or poultry, bottled water is not an adequate substrate for pathogens responsible for the majority of food-borne illnesses. In that regard, IBWA's general position is that as long as bottled water is packaged in accordance with FDA processing and good manufacturing practices, 21 CFR, Part 129, and meets the FDA quality standard provisions as outlined in 21 CFR, Part 165, the product's shelf life should remain intact for an indefinite period provided that product storage and other post-packaging and handling practices do not adulterate or deleteriously affect the finished product. Whew!

By the way, the size of the container is irrelevant. Bottled water is a federally regulated pure food product packaged and distributed in individually coded discrete sanitary containers. It adheres to a strict regimen of testing and analysis. IBWA members must also adhere to standards tougher than the FDA requirements and must also submit to annual surprise inspections by an independent third party inspection organization (National Sanitation Foundation/NSF International). For a list of bottled water regulations and IBWA members, www.ehso.com/ehso3.php?URL=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.bottledwater.org" target="_self">visit IBWA's web site


Plastic Taste in Bottled Water

Do plastic bottles cause a taste in bottled water?


Certain lower grade plastics such as HDPE (high-density polyethylene), which is used in the milk industry, can give a plastic taste to water. Many water bottlers have switched to high-grade, (and more expensive) PET (polyethylene terephthalate), which does not pass on any plastic taste to water.

 

 

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