After the recent chemical spill in West Virginia, which contaminated the water supply for at least 300,000 residents, many people are asking whether we can really have confidence in the US tap water supply.
At first, it may seem like a preposterous question. The United States is widely considered to be the world’s leading superpower. While that may be true in terms of GDP or military strength, there are many aspects of America’s healthcare, education and infrastructure that fall behind many other countries. So while this incident in West Virginia is alarming, it is in some ways unsurprising.
But the question, “is it safe to drink tap water in America” is a ways off from an alternate question, “is it possible at some point there will be an incident with the water supply?” An affirmative answer to the latter question is reasonable. No system is perfect, after all.
But let’s forget about major incidents for a minute and just talk about the day-in, day-out safety of the tap water supply.
Some areas in the US have safer tap water than others and it’s likely to stay that way
The simple fact is that certain areas are more at risk than others. For example, the area around Washington D.C. suffers from multiple converging water sources, many of which are carrying large amounts of pollution. Pollutants often reach a critical mass around Washington D.C. and this helps to explain why the water is particularly chlorinated.
Some areas may be particularly exposed to bacteria. Others to lead, or halo-acetic acids (these are linked to cancer). And this is to say nothing of the threat that is posed by substances that are not closely monitored, such as trace amounts of pharmaceuticals.
What is particularly scary about some of these things allowed in the water supply is that we simply don’t know what the long-term effects are. Sure, exposure to small amounts of a pharmaceutical drug may not have any effect on you in one small dose, but what about over time — months and years? We don’t know how this will play out.
So if you ask us if the tap water is safe to drink, we are obliged to say no. To us, safe tap water doesn’t just mean that it won’t make you ill on the spot. It means that the water is contributing to the degradation of your health over the long term as well. This is an important distinction and one that many people overlook. Yes, we need to be on guard for major incidents that could severely contaminate the water supply. But we also need to pay more attention to the chemicals and substances that seem to slip by in greater and greater quantities.
For more on drinking water in America, we suggest reading this article from National Geographic.