After the water crisis in Flint, Mich., more people wonder about the quality of their tap water. That curiosity could be seen in the high interest in a recent News & Observer story that reported on a database focused on the quality of municipal water systems. You can check your local water by entering your zip code.
For users of the Raleigh water system the results were enough to make you put down that glass of tap water. The database showed Raleigh’s water had nine contaminants that exceeded “health guidelines.” But that finding is highly misleading and does a disservice to one of the nation’s best municipal water systems. Raleigh’s tap water is perfectly safe to drink and, according to the North Carolina American Water Works Association, one of the “best tasting” in North Carolina.
The database was compiled by the Environmental Working Group, an organization specializing in research and advocacy related to toxic chemicals, agriculture subsidies, public land and corporate accountability, consists of data drawn from millions of federal, state and local records. The large collection provides a broad national sweep, but it inevitably includes reporting errors.
The larger problem with the database is that the so-called “health protective guidelines” violated by Raleigh and other systems are speculative and unofficial. For instance, the EWG guideline used for one contaminant, Trihalomethane, a disinfection byproduct, is 8 parts per billion based on a recommendation in a draft California environmental report. The EPA standard is 80 parts per billion. It’s also the standard California adopted.
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The Raleigh water system serving 570,000 customers meets or exceeds all official state and federal standards for water quality.
“Public utilities are essentially compliance machines. That’s what we do,” said Edward Buchan, environmental coordinator for Raleigh’s Department of Public Utilities. He added that Raleigh’s water is “not just safe by EPA standards. We’re trying to go above and beyond.” Raleigh is a member of the Partnership for Safe Water, which promotes stricter water standards than the EPA.
Municipal water systems do need scrutiny beyond government testing and EWG’s database may expose small systems where compliance is lax. But this database unfairly inflates the risks. It’s notable that EWG is also promoting the sale of water filters with EWG receiving small donations for filter purchases made on Amazon. The data for the EWG data base is obtained through the Water Quality Association, which its website describes as “an organization created in 1974 from the merger of two trade associations, Water Conditioning Association International (representing water treatment equipment dealers) and the Water Conditioning Foundation (representing water treatment equipment manufacturers and suppliers).”
Flint happened because standard safety procedures were ignored to save money or out of incompetence. But generally the high quality of tap water across the United States is a remarkable feat. For most of human history safe water was hard to find, and it still is in much of the world. Now it’s as close as the tap.