Bridging the water divide: It's not only about taste

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By Carolyn Butler
Tuesday, May 18, 2010

For months now, my husband and I have been fighting about water.

Drinking water, that is. He thinks it's time to ditch our monthly bottle delivery service, because of both the expense and green guilt over all that plastic.

I concede these points but continue to play my trump card: concerns about the quality of local tap water and any potential impact on our family's health. The horrific headlines about dangerous lead levels in the District's water supply from earlier in the decade are still too fresh in my mind; it also doesn't help that lately, filling a glass from our faucet or drawing a bath smells like we're draining a swimming pool.

We had more or less come to a standstill in the water wars when I received an e-mail from the District's Water and Sewer Authority at the end of April, warning people in our neighborhood not to use the tap because of abnormally high amounts of chlorine at a local reservoir.

This type of "chlorine spike" is a concern because the disinfectant can react with organic matter in the water and produce higher levels of some disinfection byproducts that have been associated with an increased risk of cancer and DNA damage, said Nneka Leiba, a health research analyst at the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based environmental advocacy group. The April problem was isolated, however, and resolved within a few hours.

While it is comforting to know that our water is being monitored so closely and that this sort of glitch is almost immediately publicized, there are clearly some reasons to be wary of the tap, on both a national and local level. For example, a recent EWG analysis of nearly 20 million records from 45 states identified 316 pollutants found in the nation's tap water system since 2004. Of these contaminants, 114 are regulated and were found in concentrations above federal guideline level; the rest are currently unregulated. "That means these 202 contaminants" -- which include gasoline additives and rocket fuel -- "can be present in tap water at any level and it would be fine, because there are no safety standards," Leiba said.

This report didn't include the District because of a bureaucratic record-keeping issue, but Leiba said she worries about the high concentration of organic matter in the Potomac River, the District's source water, as well as the day-to-day levels of chemical byproducts and agricultural pollutants such as arsenic that end up in the tap.

WASA officials don't deny problems, past or present, but they say they're doing everything possible to keep drinking water safe. "In any system this large, you're going to have days where everything doesn't work as hoped, but our goal is to catch incidents quickly, take the necessary steps and report them to customers straight away, so they can be safe," said WASA general manager George Hawkins. He notes that in addition to some 60,000 federal aqueduct tests a year, WASA collects about 9,500 water samples and conducts 31,000 tests of its own, and then reports some monthly and all yearly monitoring data on its Web site. (According to this information, WASA was in compliance with all federal EPA guidelines for water quality and safety for 2009, and is for 2010 so far, as well.)

Since 2000, the city has regularly used chloramine instead of chlorine, specifically to reduce the levels of disinfection byproducts in the water. As for lead leaching in from old pipes, Hawkins admits that it has not yet been eliminated from all home taps, although it is currently well below the EPA action level for problems. "But any lead is cause for concern," he said. The agency recently stopped replacing water lines that are made of lead in all but a few cases, since research found that such replacements do not reduce the amount of lead coming into a house -- and might actually increase it for a time -- unless the lead pipe connecting the main to the house is also replaced. For people who can't afford such work, Hawkins recommends a simple water filter -- preferably one certified by NSF International -- which can significantly reduce the amount of metals and other pollutants in your tap water.

And how about that delightful chlorine odor and taste?

It's actually a preventive health measure -- the result of a temporary system-wide switch from chloramine back to the slightly stronger chlorine, intended to prevent bacteria buildup and make sure local water lines are clean. The substitution, which started in February, ends this week.

"We saw an uptick we didn't like and wanted to eliminate the issue before it became a problem -- to nip it in the bud," said Hawkins, who acknowledges that many people notice the change in smell and flavor. For those who simply can't stomach the District's finest tap vintage, either with or without seasonal additives, Hawkins again suggests using a water filter, along with running your cold water tap for five to 10 minutes and keeping water in an open pitcher in your fridge, to help eliminate the eau de swimming pool.

Given such issues, is it any surprise that bottled water sales skyrocketed in the past decade? But just because it comes in a pretty container and by various estimates costs up to 2,000 times more than tap water, that doesn't mean its quality is higher, say experts. In fact, a recent EWG report found that 10 brands of bottled water contained a range of pollutants, including disinfection byproducts, arsenic, caffeine and pharmaceuticals.

"Testing revealed that some -- not all -- brands look remarkably like tap water, with the same signature contaminants," according to EWG's Leiba, who said that despite labels touting clear mountain springs, various studies estimate that more than 40 percent of bottled waters are sourced from purified municipal public water. "Unlike municipalities, bottled water manufacturers aren't required to disclose any of this information on their labels or Web sites -- so most of the time you have no idea what you're getting."

Indeed, all water is not monitored equally: Bottled water is regulated as a food product by the Food and Drug Administration, while tap water falls under the jurisdiction of the EPA and the Safe Drinking Water Act. "These regulations, while similar, are not identical, and in most cases, tap water is better regulated -- it's monitored more carefully, the rules for bacteria and viruses, in particular, are stricter, and the reporting to the public is better," said Peter Gleick, author of "Bottled & Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession With Bottled Water."

In the course of researching his book, Gleick found more than 100 instances of bottled water contamination leading to recalls in this country alone, a full third of which were never made public. The toxins included mold, fecal bacteria, glass particles and even crickets. "I'm not arguing that bottled water is worse quality than tap water -- I'm arguing that we don't know because we're not looking, and that when we do look hard enough and test, we find problems," said Gleick.

So what's a warring couple to do in the meantime, when it seems like the famed poetic lament "Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink" has never been more relevant? The experts go with filters. High-quality carbon filters can get rid of contaminants such as asbestos, lead, mercury and disinfection byproducts, while more-expensive reverse osmosis filters will also remove inorganic pollutants including nitrates and perchlorate. But, said Leiba, "Even simple filters can make a big difference in quality."

That may be just the armistice we need.

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