How to Find Out if Your Water is Really Safe

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September 03, 2003 | 24,980 views

By Brian Cronin, Director of AquaMD

In the spring of 1993, a microscopic, single-cell organism brought the city of Milwaukee to its knees. For 403,000 residents, it began with a widespread outbreak of nausea vomiting, abdominal cramps, fever and acute diarrhea, resulting in the hospitalization of 4,400 victims. For over one hundred of their friends, family members, co-workers and neighbors, it ended in death.

What happened? The Greater Milwaukee Area was served by a municipal water supply system that filtered and treated its drinking water much like any other city. So, how is it possible that a public water utility transported harmful, contaminated water to the homes, schools and businesses within the community?

Investigators determined that the problem began in Lake Michigan, the source of Milwaukee’s public water supply. Experts believe that lake was contaminated with excessive quantities of human sewage or run-off from nearby cattle farms and slaughterhouses. A chain of events was unleashed that resulted in a massive Cryptosporidium infection of the city and surrounding suburbs of the Wisconsin town.

Regardless of typical bureaucratic squirming and finger-pointing in the aftermath, the undeniable truth was that these deadly pathogens were not only present in the water source, but they were able to get through the very water treatment system designed to stop them. These Cryptosporidium cysts then traveled through the entire distribution system, entering the homes and bodies of hundreds of thousands of residents. The incredible thing is that this terrible incident took place despite even though the Milwaukee Water Utility was in total compliance with all state and federal water distribution regulations.

In the United States, public water providers employ a multi-barrier methodology to ensure the quality of our drinking water. This approach incorporates the obvious tactics, like screening, filtration, chemical treatment, disinfection, as well as water source protection and distribution system (pipes & pumps) maintenance.

As no single barrier is capable of doing the job of protecting the public’s water alone, the multi-barrier system requires each component to play a vital role. And as the Milwaukee incident illustrates, if even one of these barriers is compromised, it can result in a complete breakdown.

Another reason for concern is the age and condition of much of our public water supply infrastructure. A good example of this critical issue can be illustrated by a phenomenon called "Unaccounted-For Water". It has been reported that up to 30% of the total water transported through some public systems is unaccounted-for each year. The Environmental Protection Agency claims that in California alone, 81 billion gallons of water is leaking from the municipal water system each year.

A June 2003 study by the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) also reported that "we are relying on pipes that are, on average, a century old. The water systems in many cities -- including Atlanta, Boston, and Washington, D.C. -- were built toward the end of the 19th century." 1 The fact that over 200,000 water main breaks were reported nationally in 2002 appears to validate this claim. NRDC also added that aging equipment and infrastructure may be inadequate to handle today's contaminant loads or spills.

We are very lucky to live in the United States. Compared to most of the world, our quality of life in unmatched. As a result, we tend to take many things for granted... including the air we breath... the food we eat... and the water we drink.

Although the problems in Milwaukee occurred ten years ago, not much has changed with the U.S. water distribution system in the last 30-50 years. Water companies do very little testing on the actual water that comes out of your tap, as they typically conduct most of their water testing immediately after treatment. Water testing of the end product -- water that is transported through the old pipes, interacts with organic and inorganic material on the way into your home -- is minimal.

These old pipes can easily leach contaminants like lead, iron, copper, vinyl chloride residue and other Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) into our drinking water. Leaking pipes can provide an ideal breeding ground for bacteria and other potentially harmful microorganisms. The water quality in the 15 million private wells in this country are basically unchecked even today... despite an ever greater health threat from contamination.

A proactive approach to monitoring your home’s water quality isn’t just smart -- it’s basic common sense. As water quality is in a constant state of flux, many experts strongly advise that you test your home’s water at least once a year. It is the only way to determine what’s in your water. We cannot rely on our sense of taste, smell or sight to detect contaminated water.

The residents of Milwaukee ’93 can testify to this fact. Only sophisticated laboratory equipment can diagnose dangerous levels of harmful contaminants. Testing also enables you to determine what specific home treatment options make the most sense. As no filter can remove everything, it is important to know exactly what is in your water so you can treat it properly. Clean water is an obvious must for maintaining good health... to drink, cook, wash, bathe or clean with anything less is like playing Russian Roulette with your family’s safety.

Note: In next month’s article, we will talk about how public water providers prepare your drinking water, including the chemicals and methods used in the process.

The NRDC’s report can be found o their website at:

Please don't fool yourself into thinking that you can tell your water is safe by the way it looks, tastes, or smells.

Some contaminants in water are so harmful that they are measured in "parts per million" or "parts per billion." In other words, just a drop of these poisons added to gallons and gallons of water can be very harmful.

Just installing a filter to purify your drinking water may not be enough. You could still be exposed to contaminated water when you:

  1. Shower or bathe
  2. Wash your hands
  3. Wash laundry
  4. Rinse fruits and vegetables
  5. Wash dishes, glasses, and other utensils