Paranoia about what comes from the tap runs long and deep. Ironically, much of the bottled water consumers buy to avoid tap water comes from the tap too. So, which city has the best tap water, and how do you find out if yours is good?
For New Yorkers, water quality is a point of pride, while San Franciscans claim that its Hetch Hetchy’s water wins the purity test. They’re not bad, but the best tap water of the U.S.’s big cities (more than 250,000 residents) flows from Arlington, Texas, according to Nneka Leiba, an analyst with the Environmental Working Group. The nonprofit’s study, which aims to educate consumers about water pollutants, safety, and regulation, is a user-friendly field guide to consuming H20 in 48,000 communities across the United States.
Not a Lone Star? You can still take back the tap wherever you live. Good water depends on three criteria: a clean source (in the U.S., these are mostly from rivers and groundwater), utilities that test extensively for both regulated and unregulated contaminants, and infrastructure that safely transports water to consumers.
Otherwise some bad stuff could be lurking in your pipes, and you wouldn’t even know what. Says Leiba, “It’s hard to rank which contaminant is the worst, and some top contaminants of concern are not tested for,” mostly due to differences of opinion between the government and utilities regarding water policy. There are unregulated chemicals that count as contaminants but that the EPA doesn’t require utility companies to test for, according to EWG senior scientist Olga Naidenko.
Overall, the more problematic contaminants we know about include disinfection by-products (used to treat poor-quality source water), nitrates from unrestrained agricultural run-off, arsenic, pesticides and herbicides in heavy agricultural watersheds, and industrial chemicals from manufacturing and disposal sites.
Think your tap water tastes fine? It very well could be, but funny smells and tastes can be indicators of problems with what’s in your water, such as other people’s prescription meds and copepods, a tiny, shrimplike creature.
Now the good news: The fix is easy. A simple carbon filter could be a big help, though Leiba advocates a more advanced, reverse-osmosis filter if it’s in your budget — cost runs about $45 to $200. To plunge into the subject, check out the EWG filtration guide.
Jessica Hilberman is a Yahoo! editor and a die-hard generalist. In her former freelance life, she edited and wrote for an eclectic assortment of publications, including Wired, Sunset, Self, Teen People, DailyCandy, America.gov, and even Poultry magazine.