Toxins in Tap Water: What You Should Know

Safe Solutions

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Robyn Lehr

Many parents who are skeptical of what's on tap turn to bottled water. But that's not always the answer, say experts. For bottled water that crosses state lines, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) uses similar safety standards as the EPA uses for public tap water. In fact, some brands are public tap water that is sometimes subject to additional treatment (and sometimes not). Water that's bottled and sold within state lines -- some grocery-store brands, for example -- is subject to FDA regulation, though the agency has never invoked its authority to enforce that.

In almost all cases, tap water is safe or can be made safe. Follow these guidelines to figure out when to order a test and what to do if your water has dangerous contaminants. Lead, arsenic, and some other toxins will typically leave a child's body within months after exposure stops, which may cut down substantially on long-term health risks.

If you have public water, read your annual report and make a call to your water provider before ordering a test. Your provider is legally obligated to send you a free consumer confidence report (CCR) in the mail by July 1 of every year. If you pitched your last report with the junk mail, go to epa.gov/safewater/ccr/whereyoulive.html. You'll see who supplies your water and where it originates, and get contact information for the provider or a link to a copy of the report. You might also call your water department and ask whether it replaces pipes that are nearing the 100-year mark. If you're not satisfied with the answers, keep up with your water report and test your water from the tap if necessary. Consider checking for lead (if you live in a house built prior to 1986 or a new house with lead-bearing brass valves), bacteria, and any high-level contaminants from your report. For help finding a state-certified lab near you, go to epa.gov/safewater/labs/index.html. Costs range from about $15 for a single contaminant to several hundred dollars, depending on how many contaminants you wish to test for.

If you have a well, test it yearly -- or more often. The AAP recommends that parents test wells for coliform bacteria and nitrates once a year, and possibly more frequently if you're pregnant or you have an infant younger than 1 -- even if you're breastfeeding. (Ask your local health department about the frequency.) If you've just moved to a home with a well and your region contains naturally occurring arsenic, radon, uranium, or perchlorate (a rocket-fuel additive that can affect fetal development and that has been linked to thyroid troubles in women), consider checking for those too. If you live close to current or former farmland or orchards, you should test for arsenic and pesticides. Also test for pesticides if you suspect that any homes in your area were ever treated for termites. Every two to three years, consider testing your well for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), chemicals found in gasoline and dry-cleaning solvents, among other sources. If you live less than a quarter mile from a gas station or a dry cleaner, you may want to test for VOCs annually, recommends Meg Harvey, an epidemiologist with the Connecticut Department of Public Health. Also check for lead if you live in an old home or a brand-new one that may contain lead-bearing brass valves that can leach, especially in the first five years of use.

If your test reveals hazardous contaminants, consider a filter. Prices range from about $9 for a bottle with a built-in filter, which can remove minor amounts of contaminants, to more than $14,000 for a whole-house reverse-osmosis filter, a relatively new technology that removes virtually all contaminants. Before you buy, you should check out the national Sanitation Foundation, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group that certifies in-home water filters (nsf.org/certified/dwtu). If you have a well with high bacteria counts, your local health department can tell you how to disinfect the well itself or provide contact information for companies that can help you.

If you must buy bottled water, look for a brand that has an NSF seal. The seal indicates that these brands have voluntarily undergone additional safety testing by the national Sanitation Foundation International (Arrowhead, Zephyr Hills, and Ozarka, all from Nestl?, are examples).

Despite the scare in Stamford, Michele Haiken-Fink has gotten rid of the watercooler in her kitchen and is once again filling her children's glasses at the faucet -- after learning the hard way that all tap water isn't created equal. "Even nice, clean towns like ours can run into problems," says Haiken-Fink. "So many of us work hard to keep our family healthy. It's worth it to make sure that your water is healthy too."

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