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One-fourth of Americans drink water from systems that don’t meet standards (nationalgeographic.com)
118 points by prostoalex 10 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 59 comments





As someone who worked in this field for several years, and worked closely with EPA, the biggest problem is the politicization of funding for EPA. Year after year its funding gets slashed, or at the very least stays the same and so is eroded by inflation. A 2013 report on state drinking water resources [1] showed that state drinking water programs continually do more with less, and are barely able to maintain their infrastructure as they have to dig into their emergency funds to do routine maintenance, which leaves them in a bind when a true emergency does happen, such as the rupture of a water main.

The legislation in place is solid, scientifically-sound, and thoroughly vetted from a cost-benefit analysis side of things. The problem is lack of funding, and visibility into the issue. Apart from high-profile incidents of sickness and water main breaks, people just assume their tap generates clean drinking water and give no thought to where it comes from, or the work that is required to make it happen.

I wish people would think to what life must have been like in the 18th century, and how difficult it must've been to secure clean drinking water. The idea of having clean drinking water coming into your house via tap would've been a pipe dream (pun not intended), and a luxury only the most rich could afford. And now it's shunned in some crowds.

The bottled water crowd thinks they're immune to these issues around drinking water systems, but in fact the bottled water companies generally get their water from the same public drinking water systems we use, and their standards are in fact lower than those surrounding your tap water (as it's policed by the FDA, not the EPA).

All that said, we have amazing tap water in this country, and it is a testament to the people and agencies responsible for making that happen. I lived in Asia for over a year, and coming back to a country where I can drink what comes out of the tap, use it to brush my teeth, and not worry about getting it in my mouth while showering really puts things in perspective.

[1] (pdf) https://www.asdwa.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/SRNAP-Analy...


The biggest problem is that water is treated as a commercial good instead as a public good the government should take care of. In those parts of Europe where water has been privatized prices rose and quality went down.

Exactly the opposite of that is true. All these failing water systems are public, operated by municipal utilities and regulated by the EPA. Private water companies are extremely uncommon in the US; over 90% of Americans get their water from a public utility, while most of the rest are on private wells.

No, still not the opposite. If you only have public water systems than only public water systems can fail.

Private water companies don't even make sense, as they can only exist as monopolies with the only incentive of squeezing as much profit as possible forever, pushing boundaries on water and service quality to pocket more money, lobbying for weakening of quality standards, etc. It cannot possibly be cheaper and better than fixing regional quality problems through very competitive water filtering market individually (you do know how cheap filtering systems actually are today?).


> Private water companies don't even make sense, as they can only exist as monopolies with the only incentive of squeezing as much profit as possible forever, pushing boundaries on water and service quality to pocket more money, lobbying for weakening of quality standards, etc.

That's not true. Public water can be just as bad as private water, as you can get turf wars and projects motivated to spend money for the sake of spending money in the public sector more easily than in the public sector. A private water company can be more efficient in sharing backoffice tasks (such as billing) or achieving an economy of scale.

What really matters is not the distinction between public and private, but rather the quality and nature of the oversight.


How can an important public utility like water fail? You would think its the most important thing to be funded.

The US has a trillion dollar deficit and I sometimes wonder were the hell its all going to.


Military spending...

If you want to see how well privatized water infrastructure works, go to south america: bad water quality and ridiculously high prices. Please enlighten me in what way privatization helps in that area.

I don’t see how that’s responsive to my point. This is an article about failing water systems in the US, which are almost entirely public.

You'd think people would have woken up to this after Flint. Flint is what you get if a city keeps cutting corners on drinking water infrastructure. Clean drinking water should be considered a fundamental right in any country able to supply it, and it should be immune to political games.

(I'm glad to live in a country where this is not an issue; Amsterdam has the best drinking water in the world.)


Hi willj. I just wanted to thank you for making this comment. I found it informative and well written. I'm always looking for sources and topics for my wiki, and I added a page inspired by your comment: https://www.wikiclaim.org/index.php?title=U.S._state_drinkin...

I'll will continue to investigate some of your other statements for additions to the wiki.

Best, Devin


„The bottled water crowd thinks they're immune to these issues around drinking water systems, but in fact the bottled water companies generally get their water from the same public drinking water systems we use, and their standards are in fact lower than those surrounding your tap water (as it's policed by the FDA, not the EPA).„

Excuse my choice of words here, but wtf. I always thought water in bottled units is held to a higher standard.


If I may be blunt: turns out, well-off people aren't immune to BS marketing.

For bottled water that goes through reverse osmosis and carbon filtration, many of the common contaminants in tap water would be removed. Also the bottling might happen in areas with better quality water.

It's probably less important what might have happened, that what is required by law. If I recall correctly some bottled water is basically just bottling the municipal supply (i.e. no additional treatment or filtration).

I don't really use bottled water, being lucky in where I live (and filtering). Does anyone know how much enforced transparency there is on the industry? In other words, can I in practice find out what processes they have applied or not to particular water, especially if the company has multiple plants ?


> I always thought water in bottled units is held to a higher standard.

When I see people drinking bottled water I think 'enjoy your BPA dude'


Depends on where you live. If tap water is of poor quality, bottled water is most likely better, and there are still many countries in the world where tap water is not really suitable for drinking.

But in countries that prioritise clean tap water, it's considered a fundamental right and a public health issue, and tap water is often held to a higher standard than bottled water, which is more of a luxury product than an essential.


I'm starting to think that bottled drinking water is a simpler and more efficient method that getting people to drink tap water. It seems crazy that every drop from the tap is high quality water good enough to drink - when 99.9% of it is not used for drinking. Perhaps its more efficient just to deliver drinking water to everyone in office cooler type bottles, and lower our standards for the water system.

Have you ever been somewhere where the water coming from the tap isn’t clean enough to drink? It’s very dangerous, even if you drink bottled water. When we used visit family in Bangladesh in the 1990s, we’d bring along a ton of Evian. Not only would we drink it, but the kids would take sponge baths with it, because you definitely should not shower in water you wouldn’t drink. But every time one of the kids would still get sick, because it’s hard to avoid: washing your hands in tap water, eating from dishes washed in tap water, eating fruits or vegetables rinsed in tap water, etc.

The only household uses you could use a lower grade of tap water for would be toilets and clothes washing (and then only if you run the clothes on a hot cycle).


Do you want to wash yourself or the surfaces in your house with with water you wouldn’t drink?

Why not?

Especially in the case of my hands, whatever is on my hands is likely to end up in my mouth eventually. Doubly true for infants. If you’ve ever given an infant a bath, you know that a significant amount of water ends up in their mouth one way or another.

It has been pointed out that, while replacing the existing the existing water system is infeasible, building a new, downsized system for drinking water, with the existing option being used for non-potable water, may be an option:

https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2016/2/7/chipping-flint

Hong Kong, for example, has separate water infrastructure for salt water, which is used for flushing toilets and other non-drinking uses.


Disposable or in theory 'recycleable' plastic bottles are probably not the best option but yeah refillable 5 gallon drinking water bottles aren't a bad idea. We use them in order to get reverse osmosis filtered water from the grocery store because the water generally tastes better than tap. Even separate carbon based water filters are useful to clean tap water to a higher standard. Getting people better tasting water would probably also help people avoid drinking sugar-based soft drinks or single-user disposable water bottles.

> when 99.9% of it is not used for drinking

What is it used for? Cooking?


Showering, bathing, washing hands, flushing toilet, washing dishes, washing clothes, washing surfaces or floors (i.e. wetting and washing the rag/mop you use for wiping said surfaces), maybe watering lawns & washing cars, if I had to guess.

It's surprisingly easy and quick to run way more water than you could drink in a day just for some daily cleaning duties.

Come to think of it, I drink around 2 liters per day; that's six mugs of coffee plus maybe a couple glasses of water.

How much water do I spend when I flush the toilet once and then wash my hands? I do that quite a few times every day.


Some of those are handled more efficiently in Australia. Water tanks are required with new builds and they usually do rain collection. Those feed into toilets, lawn sprinklers, washing machine, etc. All car washes in the town also use some form of not drinkable water.

I'm not sure about the water used for cleaning though. If you want your hands to be clean before eating, why would you clean them in something your can't safely drink?


> maybe watering lawns & washing cars

Water usage is twice as high in summer as it is in winter. There's a reason why, when mandatory water restrictions go in effect, the first thing that's banned is watering lawns.


quick google found these. Not sure exactly what it is but drinking is a tiny part of what most people use.

https://www.statista.com/statistics/495373/household-water-c...

http://www.hamiltonproject.org/charts/domestic_water_use_per...



I’m curious where this 25% statistic comes from, and after a bit of googleing it seems to be a 2015 report from:

https://www.nrdc.org/resources/threats-tap-widespread-violat...

This does exlcude ~13 million private water systems (wells) which is good. On the link rhere’s a map you can click on and see what the health violations are.

[edited to move into commentary comment]


As I thought about this, it annoyed me a the way the information was presented, esepcially as I put my engineering/critical thinking hat on. Water systems are large ditributed systems, they require maintenance, have parts underground, are regulated and have testing.

If I click on San Mateo County, California for example, they have a water company “Ca Water Service - Bear Gulch” who reported 1 violation afecting 58,432 people for “Surface, Ground Water, and Filter Backwash rules.”

This appears to be a leak, maybe some ground water got in and mixed with city water. You don’t want ground water mixing into drinking water since it carries a higher change of bacteria, etc. (aka you don’t want a bird pooping on a roof, then dripping into a water resevoir)

But:

1. This is a transient problem, 54,000 people don’t have bad water. The company reported a leak/problem and presumably fixed it.

2. This is why we chlorinate water, it kills off bacteria that might somehow get in.

3. This problem may not have even reached consumers. Aka, this is a system working as designed to provide safe water.

The other way of looking at this is, the systems were tested, violations were found reported, and it looks like in most cases resoled without formal enforcement action. (seems about 6-10% of cases went to formal enforcement)


EPA standards are a joke, designed primarily to avoid panic in the masses and allow the polluters to continue doing their thing.

Go ahead, get your "just fine" tap water tested by a lab, it only costs a couple hundred bucks to do a full array.

Then, consider how misleading the "parts per million" metric is, considering Avogadro's number.

Just because all this shit does not lead to immediate and perceptible illness doesn't mean that it is not putting a strain on our immune systems and causing DNA damage left and right.

Each of those ppm requires an immune cell (or multiple) to bond with it, sacrificing itself, and transport it into the kidneys or liver, where it sits around also causing damage, and so on, until it is broken down into more hazardous substances, or finally leaves the body, if ever.

If you are not frantically getting filters installed in all your loved ones' homes, I think are just not paying attention. And I'm not talking about Brita either.


> Each of those ppm requires an immune cell (or multiple) to bond with it, sacrificing itself, and transport it into the kidneys or liver, where it sits around also causing damage, and so on, until it is broken down into more hazardous substances, or finally leaves the body, if ever.

This is wrong on so many levels.

First off, your body is topologically closer to a donut than a sphere: your digestive tract is outside of your body for the most part. To actually ingest a compound requires it to pass through an acid (and bacteriological) bath and then diffuse through your intestines to your blood. This process is actually quite dependent on what else is simultaneously in your food at the time (which is why we talk of vitamins being fat- and water-soluble), and there is a deal of selectivity in the process. Note that this is why radioactive isotopes of iodine are more dangerous for you than uranium: your body will happily pick up the iodine but the uranium will largely end up in your feces instead.

As a second matter, immune cells attack living organisms and viruses, not organic and inorganic compounds. These compounds are generally delivered diffused in blood plasma (perhaps in coordination with proteins floating free in plasma), and transport is largely effected by the proteins on the cellular membrane. Naturally, there is an osmotic effect on the movement of constituents of blood plasma.

I will also point out that the EPA does not regulate biological substances on a ppm basis. The regulate it on the basis of "did you find a sample of water with E. coli in it?", even if there was a single specimen in the sample.


> Then, consider how misleading the "parts per million" metric is, considering Avogadro's number.

What about Avogadro's number make a PPM metric (i.e. a ratio) misleading??? Because there are a lot of millions in Avogadro's number? How is that relevant to a ratio?


It’s hand waving, and possibly orthorexia: https://www.eatright.org/health/diseases-and-conditions/eati.... Remember, the human immune system was designed to drink water out there in the world, which has animals pissing and shitting in it. Heavy metal pollution likewise occurs naturally. (Bangladesh, where I’m from, naturally has dangerously high levels of arsenic in the water.) Your immune system is designed to handle the “strain” of dealing with all that. We’re drinking the cleanest water humanity has ever drank (and have the highest life expectancies in human history).

I'm not sure if you really mean "designed". Some people literally believe that to be true. If that's what you meant, then my useful contribution to the conversation will end here :-). If not, and you mean "evolved", then evolution does not necessarily select for a global maximum. It's very likely that instead of "best", you will get "good enough". If it's enough to cause you not to die, then that's fine, generally.

Here's an example. If you get some baker's yeast an put it in sugar water and then add a little bit of salt, most of the yeast will not die. However, it will struggle. If you maintain that yeast, in your lifetime it will likely not adapt to the salt, but neither will it grow well. There are yeasts that are adapted to salt, so if they happen to get in there, they will take over. However, if they are not around, the baker's yeast that is struggling there may never adapt to the salt. The mutations that would provide salt adaptation are not guaranteed. It may continue to struggle for aeons. It would be silly to say that it's OK to add salt to the yeast simply because it has lived for a long time in a salty environment. The salt is still bad for it.

Just to be clear, just because we evolved in an environment that contains something does not mean that our bodies evolved to handle that problem efficiently. It just wasn't bad enough to kill us off. Similarly (because I see this with diet conversations all the time), the fact that our diet was one way a long time ago, does not in itself suggest that this is a healthy diet. It just means that it wasn't bad enough to kill us off.


What about pollutants that have only existed for the last 50 years?

Humans were only "designed" to live until they reproduce and the human lifespan was far, far shorter until the last few hundred years. Just because it's possible to live till 25 and drink arsenic laced water, it doesn't mean it's good to do so.

You have kidneys, a liver, and a lymphatic system that all work wonders against small invaders in small quantities, perfect for the situation described with the "PPM" metric. We all love buying into these "it's xyz killing me!" stories but whats most likely causing you to feel terrible or potentially killing you is your lack of (quality) sleep, excess of stress, poor diet or potentially a combination of all three.

And if I may throw my two cents in, humans were "designed" to live right around somewhere in the 60-70 range. This has been true since we kept track of humans, at least.


The human lifespan was only “far, far shorter” because of infant mortality and childhood disease. The overwhelming increase in lifespan gains in this time frame have to do with infants making it to adulthood, not adults becoming elderly.

Citation for "designed to handle the strain" of heavy metals?

It is misleading because "parts per million" is perceived like a very small number by the average human, while in reality one part per million is a rather substantial amount of a substance in the water.

It's exactly 0.0001% of the water no matter how much water there is. Context of what the substance is and its mechanism of action would determine whether or not that "is a rather substantial amount".

What consumer products are available for us to be able to filter our water?

There are lots of tech available. But depending on what the issue is with the water you have access to, you need to pick tech. It can be expensive to go overboard.

My understanding is water in US is generally very safe. I've been drinking tap my whole life. My understanding is human body can filter out or otherwise deal with small amounts of metals and other stuff, and that most city water systems are sufficient. I don't use a water filter at home, and drink from the faucet, and I seem to still be alive. I'll remain in the control group. But just my one data point.

"The Environmental Protection Agency regulates more than 90 contaminants—but a hundred more that are tracked are so far unregulated."

But are we supposed to worry about these other "contaminants"?


I'd be careful with the assumption that just because you're doing fine now, means you will continue to when you're 50+.

Watch this, if you haven't already:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=84glf6F3b-Y

"The Devil We Know". It's a documentary about the Ohio river valley polution by 3M and Dupont in the production of Teflon. There are many amazing parts in this documentary but one of the most eye opening, is the fact that Dupont understood the risks of dumping C8 into the water. Yet the continued to do it, because, profits.

Who can say what companies are around you, polluting the ground water? Just be careful with assumptions that its always safe, is all I'm saying. I'm sure people in the Ohio River Valley thought the same.


These guys like 3M and Dupont and Monsanto are doing worse things than tech to destroy our society - why aren't we hearing calls to break them up or take them over or stopping their operations in our society? (ie. Are you listening Elizabeth Warren?)

Not sure I see the link between the two and one doesn't preclude the other. Since you bring up Elizabeth Warren, she has brought up Monsanto a few times [0].

[0] ://www.motherjones.com/environment/2017/12/elizabeth-warren-just-let-loose-on-trump-and-monsanto/


Dupont, Monsanto et al. have been the target of leftist rhetoric for many decades.

This is phrased as if it's supposed to be damning, and I'm not sure why. Both companies have been less than supportive of moves to determine if their practices and products are safe. As a business decision: yes, sound, but unfortunately, it's conceivable that their interests could encroach on what's necessary for the public good. Considering the breadth of their holdings and influence, it's important to be vigilant for even accidental missteps on their part.

I'm only damning MrTonyD's ignorance of politics, you're preaching to the choir.

The linked article just said the that 1/4 of the population drink water that doesn’t meet standards. So your first assertion is wrong.

> Our analysis showed that 82 percent of public schools in New York had one or more taps that exceeded the state’s lead action level

The above is just one example of what is going on.


That stat has nothing to do with the water supply; it's due to crappy plumbing in school construction there.

> My understanding is human body can filter out or otherwise deal with small amounts of metals

Your body certainly struggles to filter heavy metals. Studies have shown that any amount of e.g. lead is harmful.


> I don't use a water filter at home, and drink from the faucet, and I seem to still be alive.

A few years ago I tried out Brita water filters. The water tasted weird and a single glass of water didn't leave me feeling as hydrated as straight from the tap did.


Convenient that "doing nothing and not worrying about it" is both what you believe after doing exactly 0 research, AND the correct response to drinking tap water! What are the odds?

Depends on where you live.

Chicago water is notoriously shitty and has been found to have a large amount of lead in it.

Your body cannot filter out lead or other heavy metals, and it will build up in your system and lead to brain damage. I know it is macho to "not worry about those contaminants like some weak manlet" but you should actually know what is going into your body before making unilateral decisions.


And allowing a small percentage of Americans to own unlimited wealth (which they also use to disproportionately influence politics to maintain the status quo) is morally justifiable how?



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