Is US tap water safe to drink? Do you need a water filter in the US?
Before deep-diving into this topic, the general answer is that the tap water is safe to drink with some caveats.
Most tap water quality provided by local municipalities 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. In addition to this there are many local issues including well publicized problems with lead in Michigan and Newark.
There is a also much related to the health impact of tap water that we don’t know yet. It’s unclear what the impact of microplastics, low doses of nitrates, lead and THMs are in the long term. Therefore it’s a cheap insurance to use an affordable water filter in the US.
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% of 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 dangerously contaminated tap water in their homes
- All 50 states have water systems that violate the Environmental 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.
More recently the most discussed issue is PFAS which may effect as much as 100 million Americans. A high quality activated carbon filter will generally filter PFAS sufficiently.
How do I know if my local tap water in the US is safe to drink?
The non-profit organization Environmental Working Group (EWG) has taken all this data and made it easily available to search by zipcode here.
EWG provides a detailed report about contaminants in the local tap water per zipcode. 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.
TAPP Water also provides information for many US cities including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Miami, Atlanta, Boston, San Diego, Newark, Denver, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, Philadelphia and more.
Here are two summary examples of how you can read the EWG reports for a specific city and what you can do to ensure your tap water is safe.
New York is famous for its 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 an active carbon filter such as TAPP which removes 5 out of the 6 contaminants (THMs and HAA) entirely.
Read our full analysis of New York tap water.
According to EWGs report it has 5 contaminants above health guidelines whereof 2 are THMs, Chromium is less than 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.
Read our full report on LA tap water.
What about bottled water in the US?
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 organizations have done extensive testing of bottled water and the fact is that bottled water is not safer than tap water.
A four-year review of the bottled water industry in the U.S. and the safety standards that govern it, including independent testing of over 1,000 bottles of water, found that there is no assurance that just because water comes out of a bottle it is any cleaner or safer than water from the tap. In fact, tap water is tested more frequently than bottled water. In the United States, 24 percent of bottled water sold is either Pepsi’s Aquafina (13 percent of the market) or Coke’s Dasani (11 percent). Both brands are simply bottled, purified municipal water.
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 microplastics. Only 23% of plastic bottles get recycled in the US.
Rather than bottled water get a water filter such as TAPP and a nice refillable bottle. 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.
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 refillable 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 or find the closest fountain next to you using the MyTAPP app.
What is the best water filter for the US?
This is a complicated question as it depends on your circumstances. For 90% of US households a high quality faucet water filter is a simple and affordable solution. Read more about how water filters work and how to select the best one for you.
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 wastewater 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:
- Check the local water quality report and EWGs summary of possible contaminants (see links above)
- If you don’t like the taste of US tap water or you suspect the water may be contaminated, get an affordable water filter such as TAPP 2 or one that addresses your specific needs)
- 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
- All information in this blog is collected from EPA, EWA, NFS, NRDC and other public sources backed up by research.
- THMs: Trihalomethane
- HAAs: Haloacetic Acids
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.
Updated 21 October 2020.