Is US tap water - Safe to drink?
Before deep-diving in to this topic the general answer is yes.
Most tap water quality provided by local municipaltiies in the United States is of high international standard and healthy and safe to drink. In rural areas and houses with private wells there are a lot more challenges.
There is a lot about the health impact of tap water that we simply don’t know yet. What we do know though is that bottled water is not the solution. There is no evidence that bottled water is healthier than tap water and the plastic waste from bottles is unsustainable.
The best solution in case the water doesn’t taste great and to reduce risk from contaminants is a point of use water filter. TAPP 2 for example is available for as little as $69 per year.
Below we will cover these topics in more detail and attempt to give a scientific unbiased view so that you can decide for yourself.
Is US tap water safe to drink?
For 85% or the the US population yes. However, according to a recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) 15% or more than 70 million people may be affected by health-based contamination, including THMs, HHAs, lead, copper, arsenic and other contaminants.
Here’s a summary from the NRDC report:
- 15% of people in the United States may have dangerous contaminated tap water in their homes
- All 50 states have water systems that violate the Enviromental Protection Agency’s Safe Drinking Water Act
- In 2015, there were 80,000 safety violations affecting 77 million people, and few had enforcement action
- The most at-risk for having a contaminated water supply system are those in small rural areas
Note: The report states "may be at risk". Water suppliers are obliged to do frequent testing and provide an annual water quality report to consumers with measures versus legal limits and guidelines by EPA.
The non-profit organisation Environmental Working Group (EWG) has taken all this data and made it easily available to search by post code here.
EWG provides a detailed report about contaminants in the local tap water per zip code. But understanding these reports can be complicated and cause more worry than what they should. Also, EWG guidelines are based on a very cautionary view. Rather than EPA or WHO guidelines, EWG uses the lowest available recommendation as “health guideline” which in some cases such as Chromium is less than 1/1000 vs EPA or WHO.
Here are two examples of how you can read the EWG reports and what you can do.
New York is famous for it’s tap water (13th best in the US) but EWA reports 6 contaminants detected above health guidelines. These 6 can be grouped as 3 are THMs, 2 are HAAs and last is Chromium. The Chromium level is about 0.04 ppb vs the guideline of 0.02 ppb used by EWA. However, the official federal legal limit is 100 ppb so the level in NYC water is probably very safe.
In summary the tap water in NY is still safe according to international standard but to be on the safe side use a active carbon filter such as TAPP which removes 5 out of the 6 contaminants (THMs and HAA) entirely.
According to EWGs report it has 5 contaminants above health guidelines where of 2 are THMs, Chromium is less that 1/100 and Arsenic less than 1/10 of EPA legal limits and radiological contaminants are detected but without any measure.
In summary the tap water in LA is still safe to drink but to be safer an active carbon filter such as TAPP can be used which removes he THMs and reduces Chromium and Arsenic by 40-70%. To remove Chromium and Arsenic almost entirely then activated carbon should be combined with a reverse osmosis or Ion Exchange filter.
If the EWA report states that the tap water is within the guideline and the local water supplier says the water is safe to drink then it probably is. But to be absolutely sure or if you have your own well then sending a water sample to a state approved water lab can be a good idea. This will cost anywhere between $50-100 but is well worth it for peace of mind.
What about bottled water?
Water is now the number one bottled drink in the United States and almost half of it is purified US tap water. EWA and other organisations have done extensive testing of bottled water and the fact is that bottled water is not safer than tap water. In fact 93% of bottled water was found to contain microplastics.
And even if bottled water was healthier we should do whatever we can to avoid it because plastic from single use bottles is mostly ending up in landfills and polluting our groundwater, rivers, lakes and oceans with micro plastics. Only 23% of plastic bottles get recycled in the US.
Rather than bottled water get a nice refillable bottle such as ReTap or a bottle of your choice. Fill it up wherever you have access to clean tap water and bring it along to the gym, in the car, to the park or whatever your plan might be. Save money, the environment and stay hydrated!
So in summary, always avoid bottled water if you can. Tap water or bottled tap water is a much better option.
US tap water: What about public places and restaurants?
Thankfully most restaurants in the US serve tap water on the table. They wouldn’t do this if they thought it was unsafe. And even if it would contain more contaminants than your filtered water at home it’s unlikely to harm you with a couple of glasses.
Some people prefer sparkling water with a meal. From an environmental perspective choose a local brand served on glass bottles if you can.
Many public places also provide water fountains and just like with restaurants you can safely drink the water if the water is generally safe in the city. Read more about the importance of public water fountains.
US tap water: Summary
Although trust in public tap water is at its lowest in 100 years tap water has most likely gotten much safer. Pollution from industries and other waste water has bee drastically reduced, water quality testing frequency has improved, regulation and guidelines have become much stricter and filter technologies have improved.
Unfortunately incidents still happen with contaminated tap and bottled water so therefore it’s important to understand the basics about drinking water:
- Read about your city/region in our "Can I drink the tap water section"
- Check the local water quality report and EWGs summary of possible contaminants (see links above)
- Buy a refillable water bottle to carry tap water wherever you go
- Drink tap water in restaurants and other public places. Even if it’s not as safe as your tap water at home it won’t hurt you in smaller amounts.
Notes / sources:
All information in this blog is collected from EPA, EWA, NFS, NRDC and other public sources backed up by research.
Final note: There are a lot of uncertainties about the health impact of tap water content just like there are with food and nutrition. Therefore we have to be cautious about headlines around health impact from hormones, pharma, low levels of chromium or nitrates. The fact is that we really don’t know.