If there's trouble at the tap
Do It Yourself
Consumers are embarking on their own efforts to ensure safe drinking water at home. But choices about testing water, filtering it, or switching to bottled are far from clear.
Testing. Many tests measure data that make no difference to health: hardness, acidity and alkalinity, and color. But given the health hazards, testing for lead and arsenic is probably worthwhile. Lead in drinking water often leaches from old pipes. "It's a national health tragedy, but people can empower themselves to address it," says Richard Maas of the University of North Carolina's Environmental Quality Institute. Usually, running the water for a minute before use eliminates lead. Maas's institute (www.leadtesting.org) does lead and arsenic testing for about $15 each.
Tests for other harmful contaminants like chlorine byproducts and pesticides usually are more expensive and may involve sending samples by overnight mail. The EPA (www.epa.gov/safewater/faq/sco.html) provides a list of state agencies to contact to find an approved laboratory. California's Silver Lake Research sells tests that give consumers immediate results. Its WaterSafe all-in-one package, which tests for lead, pesticides, and E. coli bacteria, costs $14.99. These yes-or-no tests can signal a problem but do not tell consumers contaminant levels.
Filters. As a rule, filters remove lead, chlorine, and many byproducts from tap water. Consumers should read labels to ensure that the models they choose--whether inserted into carafes, installed on faucets, or in refrigerator water systems--act on these contaminants. To guard against parasites such as cryptosporidium, look for filters that meet "NSF Standard 53 for cyst reduction." NSF International (www.nsf.org) tests and certifies water-treatment equipment. Regular replacement of filters, often costly, is crucial to prevent bacteria from colonizing. Beware the much-touted boiling of water. While cheap and effective at killing some contaminants, it can also release harmful chlorine byproducts into the air.
Bottled. U.S. consumers gulped down $6.5 billion in bottled water last year, up more than 50 percent from five years ago. The Food and Drug Administration prohibits firms from labeling as "spring water" anything not from an underground formation that flows naturally to the Earth's surface. In theory, bottled water must meet the same federal standards as public water, but there are exemptions. For example, the FDA does not regulate the plasticizer DEHP, despite evidence that water long stored in plastic bottles could exceed tap water limits.
Most bottled water is clean. But in 1999, a Natural Resources Defense Council study showed that four of 103 tested brands of bottled water violated federal standards for chemicals or coliform bacteria, while one quarter fell short of stricter California standards for other contaminants. The bottled-water industry maintains that its product is well regulated and clean.
Much bottled water is not from mountain springs but from city taps. Kansas City, Mo., bottles its own "City of Fountains" water, and Oak Creek, Wis., sells its "Claire Baie" brand. New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin wants to sell the product of his financially strapped water system as "Crescent City Clear."
But by far, the behemoths in this business are Pepsi and Coke, which in only five years have gained the top two spots in the market. Pepsi's No. 1 Aquafina is municipal water from spots like Wichita, Kan., while Coke's Dasani (with minerals added) is taken from the taps of Queens, N.Y., Jacksonville, Fla., and elsewhere. Both firms use high-tech reverse-osmosis filtering to obliterate all contaminants. A 1-liter bottle of Aquafina last month cost $1.09 in one suburban Washington, D.C., supermarket. That is 1,741 times the average U.S. public drinking water price of $17.70 per 1,000 cubic feet. Drink up!
This story appears in the August 12, 2002 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.