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
Credit: 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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pouring water into glass
Credit: Robyn Lehr

Small Systems, Big Problems

If you pay a water bill, your house is linked up to a community water system. These utilities or companies typically collect water from a lake, a river, a reservoir, or an underground aquifer and then treat it -- through the use of filters and chemical disinfectants -- before shipping it back out to customers through a network of pipes. Under the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, these systems must regularly monitor water for contaminants and reduce them to safe levels determined by the EPA. They must also notify consumers quickly when there is a serious problem with water quality and must distribute an annual report on the water's source and quality. In 2009, 92 percent of people served by community systems received water with no violations above EPA limits.

Sounds good -- unless your family fell into that unlucky 8 percent. What are some clues that your own water system should be checked out? One is its source: "if your provider draws from a surface water source, like a lake or a river, you might have cause for more concern than if it draws from, say, an underground aquifer," says Sonya Lunder, Ph.D., an analyst from the EWG. Why? Surface water is more likely to have been exposed to human pollution and industry before it's treated, explains Dr. Lunder. That often causes providers to treat it more rigorously, which can lead to an excess of disinfection by-products in your water.

Also a red flag: your provider isn't serving many households. Almost all health-based violations occur at systems serving fewer than 10,000 people, and those serving fewer than 500 are especially at risk. Whereas larger water suppliers can usually afford highly trained staff and sophisticated equipment to meet government standards, small providers sometimes lack the resources to keep up with changing regulations.

Another sign of potential problems is if your water system is more than 100 years old -- and you never see or hear of crews replacing water mains, storage tanks, and other pieces of equipment. This may be especially important in regions with sandy soil, since the sand can erode the outside of the pipes that deliver water to your house. "Many water systems are passing the century mark, and infrastructure failure rates are rising, which can allow contaminants to seep into treated water," says Jeffrey K. Griffiths, M.D., chair of the EPA's Science Advisory Board's Drinking Water Committee.

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Problems In Your Own Backyard

If your water comes from a well on your property, you need to be even more aware about what's coming from your tap because, from a legal standpoint, no one else is required to be. Unprotected by the Safe Drinking Water Act, well water must be tested and, if necessary, treated by the people who use it. In 2009, the AAP issued new recommendations that well owners test their water annually for coliform bacteria as well as nitrates, which can cause methemoglobinemia, a rare but serious blood disorder in children who ingest high concentrations over years. "Unfortunately, many families test once for bacteria when they move into a house with a well, and that's it," says Bruce Stanton, Ph.D., director of the Center for Environmental Health Sciences at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, New Hampshire. He's leading a campaign across New England to make families more aware of the quality of their well water. "Often these people live in a rural environment that looks pristine, and they assume that their well water is going to be too." But many of these homes abut farms or private septic systems that can produce a runoff of fecal bacteria, pesticides, or nitrates, or are surrounded by rock formations that can leach toxins like arsenic, which can cause learning disabilities in concentrations as low as 50 parts per billion -- a level that's not uncommon in wells, says Dr. Stanton.

Sometimes, private or public water can be clean right up until it reaches your house. However, if you have lead in the pipes leading to your faucet, water can pick up bits of the metal, which can cause decreased IQ, attention deficits, and increased aggression in kids. Because a 1986 provision to the Safe Drinking Water Act required that plumbing materials have no more than minimal quantities of lead, problems are mainly found in older residences, says Marc Edwards, Ph.D., professor of engineering at Virginia Tech University, in Blacksburg. "But we're finding many brand-new homes have brass pipes and valves containing lead levels that fall within government limits yet still leach the metal," he adds.

Credit: Robyn Lehr

Safe Solutions

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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Fountains of Trouble

Another place to do some drinking- water detective work? Schools. In 2008, the Los Angeles Unified School District discovered lead-contaminated water flowing from fountains in 92 percent of its buildings; in 2007, an investigation by officials in Washington, D.C., revealed that 10 percent of the city's schools were serving children water with lead that exceeded 700 parts per billion. "There's no reason to believe this isn't a problem in all 50 states," says Dr. Marc Edwards. "Lead contamination tends to worsen when water sits for a long time in a pipe, and schools are places where water can sit and sit -- during summer vacation, spring break, even long weekends."

The EPA is trying to curb these problems by alerting local officials to a program called the "3 Ts," which helps train staffers to identify problems, test for issues, and tell authorities and parents about results. Ask the principal whether your school follows the 3Ts. If it doesn't, get information about the program from the EPA's website and give it to school officials.

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Matt Damon in Ethiopia
Credit: Courtesy of Water.org

Families Without Clean Water

Millions of people around the world have no choice but to drink brown, filthy liquid virtually guaranteed to make them sick. That's why actor Matt Damon and entrepreneur Gary White formed Water.org, whose mission is to provide clean drinking water for everyone. Damon talked to Parents about his cause.

What shocks you most about the global water crisis? One in eight people don't have access to clean water. Diarrhea, caused by unsafe drinking water, is the second-leading cause of child death. These deaths are completely preventable with simple, affordable solutions that are readily available today.

What have you witnessed that disturbed you the most? I'll never forget my first visit with Gary to Tigray, in rural Ethiopia. I wish everyone had the opportunity to take a trip like that -- I think we could solve the water crisis in a year! In the community of Anaham, hundreds of people were gathered around a hand-dug well, which is shared by about 6,000 people. Some were standing inside the well, while others were throwing tin cans tied with ropes into the hole. The water they worked so hard to collect was clearly not safe to drink. I spoke with a group of students in school uniforms -- they had made a four-hour water journey before school. As the kids held up the plastic bottles of brown water to show me what they'd have to drink at school, I knew that some of them would probably be sick before the day was over. I can hardly bear to think of my own children being subjected to that.

How can people help? The most direct way is to donate. For just $25, Water.org can bring someone clean water for life. Learning more about the water crisis is another way to help. You have to know the problem exists before you want to do something about it. Tell others about the global water crisis and how they can help. If you're a parent or a teacher, we have lesson plans for elementary through high school [water.org/lessonplan].

You can stay in the loop by joining water.org's online conversation at twitter.com/water and facebook.com/ water. Or sign up to receive monthly updates at water.org/signup.

Originally published in the April 2011 issue of Parents magazine.

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