What’s in Your Water?

Fear the Faucet? Where to Get Water Quality Reports and the Surprising Truth about Bottled Water

By Christian Paullin

Environmental Journalist

Travelers to developing countries have long been admonished to avoid tap water, to stick with bottled water, even to brush their teeth. But in recent decades, even in our own highly developed country, residents have been giving their home taps the side-eye and stocking up on plastic bottles of water. Is this wise?

Water filtration and boiled water date back to prehistoric times. The first recorded community water filtration can be traced back to 19th century Scotland. It wasn’t until 1908 in New Jersey, though, that community water was treated in order to make it safe to drink, in this case with chlorine. According to a report on infectious diseases in the United States by the CDC, the occurrence of typhoid and cholera dropped dramatically after the introduction of treated water. Between the years of 1900 and 1920, typhoid fever incidents dropped by 67% across the US. The decrease in both diseases has been directly credited to water treatment.

Clearly the large, rapid reduction in water-borne diseases after the introduction of treated water means that water treatment is essential to the health of a community. But

according to a survey performed in 2020, only 60% of Americans trust tap water enough to drink it. Why the distrust? For one, there have been incidents of contaminated tap water sources across the U.S. in the last 70 years. The U.S. is a heavily industrialized country, and during World War II, we began using chemicals, petrochemicals, and other industrial processes that wreaked havoc on ground water, lakes, streams, rivers in places across the country. Take the Erin Brokovich story of hexavalent chromium in water sources for Hinkley, Calif., or the high lead contents of water in Flint, Michigan, or the discolored, foul smelling water of Sativa Water District in Compton, Calif., in our own county.

It’s hard to blame 40% of our country for distrusting tap water with incidents like this happening close to us; however, communities have increased transparency in water quality and legislation to improve fresh water across our country. The Clean Water Act improved water sources; introduction of water districts and water boards created higher levels of water quality and quantity monitoring, and there has been significant improvement in testing. As a consumer of water, you legally have the right to request a water quality report from your specific water purveyor; some even include it in each bill. Testing is more stringent every year and testing methods are also improving in speed and accuracy.

Ironically, bottled water, which many turn to hoping for a safer alternative, has less stringent water quality testing requirements. Typically the Environmental Protection Agency monitors water quality for all water sources that ultimately end up in our taps. However, bottled water falls into the Food and Drug Administration’s realm. And a loophole allows bottle water producers to get away without a water quality test. Essentially, if a bottled water is bottled and sold in the same state, the water does not need to be tested for quality. Unfortunately, about 70% of all bottled water sold in the U.S. falls into that category, which means the majority of bottled water, which is stored in plastic bottles made up of various chemicals that can leach into the water before you drink it, is untested. Therefore, not only is bottled water definitively worse for our environment, it may also be contaminated.

If you are unsure or concerned about your tap water, look into filtering your tap before switching to bottles. Basic carbon filters are known to be highly effective at removing chemicals, sediment, and other contaminants from water. You can purchase carbon filters that attach directly to your tap and do not require a plumber. There are more high tech filters than can be installed under a sink as well. Consider a filter before bottled water. Research where your city’s water comes from and check the water quality reports. 

If you are concerned with the smell or appearance of your tap water, please immediately file a complaint. Instructions provided by California Water Boards, https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/drinking_water/certlic/labs/documents/elap_how_to_file_complaint.pdf#

Find out where your water comes from.

The Angeles Chapter Sierra Club is in the midst of creating a water quality grade for LA and OC’s drinking water.




Bottled Water Quality Investigation | Environmental Working Group (ewg.org)

Brief history of clean drinking water

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