Toxins in Tap Water: What You Should Know

What's flowing into your home and your child's school may not be as pure as you think. Learn how to find out whether contaminants are lurking, and what you can do about it.
bathroom sink

Robyn Lehr

Like many moms these days, Michele Haiken-Fink found herself wary of the ingredients in seemingly everything from crackers to baby shampoo. So she decided to shop for more "natural" products whenever she could. Inspired by her preschooler and the fact that she had a baby on the way, Haiken-Fink, who lives in Stamford, Connecticut, started buying organic milk, stocked up on "green" household cleaners, and even joined a community-supported agriculture group that would supply her with locally grown produce throughout the year.

Then one spring afternoon in 2008, an official from the state branch of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) knocked on her door and asked permission to test her well water. The EPA was responding to a concern that area soil samples had tested positive for dangerous toxins. Haiken-Fink was all for getting her water tested -- but she was also worried. "We'd had our well water screened for bacteria and radon when we moved in years before, but we didn't think to test for anything else," she says.

She bought a watercooler for her family to drink from while she waited for the results. About a month later, she learned her water was safe. But over the next two years, further tests found that residential wells for eight homes on Haiken-Fink's block, and about 80 others in Stamford, were contaminated with one or both of the pesticides dieldrin and chlordane, chemicals used to kill termites before being banned in the 1980s.

Research has linked long-term exposure to chlordane to nervous-system and liver damage, while the EPA has classified dieldrin as a probable human carcinogen based on animal studies. City officials have yet to determine the source of the pesticides, though decades-ago residential termite extermination and agricultural use are two theories. The city has capped many of the contaminated wells, given filters to homeowners to treat all the water entering their house, and connected homes on affected streets, including Haiken-Fink's, to the local public water supply. But fears linger. "Some people have talked about moving out of town," says Haiken-Fink. "There are families who have been drinking, bathing, and swimming in pools of this water for years." A blood test can measure concentrations of dieldrin and chlordane in the human body, but there are no established levels at which a child is considered at risk for future health problems.

Most of us will never have to face water worries like these. "The United States has among the safest drinking water in the world," says Jerome Paulson, M.D., director of the Mid- Atlantic Center for Children's Health and the Environment at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C. Still, recent reports by analysts for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), national institutes of Health, and the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) show that unhealthy amounts of microorganisms, chemicals, and metals can crop up in tap water -- especially in homes that are serviced by small public utilities, which sometimes lack the resources to test and purify their water, or from private wells, like Haiken-Fink's, which the EPA doesn't regulate at all.

When drinking water is suspect, kids are most at risk. For one thing, they typically drink more water per pound of body weight than we do. And babies younger than 1 who are fed formula made with tap water drink three to four times the estimated amount of tap water.

There's no hard data showing the number of American children who become sick as a direct result of drinking toxins from the tap. But the EPA estimates that in 2007, some 5.8 million kids drank from public water systems that either failed to adequately test and filter water, or delivered water that had unsafe levels of at least one contaminant.

Thankfully, there are more ways than ever to find out exactly what you're pouring into your kids' bottles, sippy cups, and sports jugs. There is also a dizzying array of tools to fix a problem if you find one. The first step is to understand how your water gets from its source to your spigot.

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