woman looking at glass of water with concerned expression

There was a time when Americans took clean drinking water for granted. But decades of growing income inequality and infrastructure neglect coupled with environmental deregulation have made the question, “Is it safe to drink the water here?” as relevant to U.S. communities as it is to international travelers.

The United States is experiencing a water crisis that leaves 63 million individuals — nearly a fifth of the population — at risk of drinking contaminated water. Amazingly, almost 1.6 million Americans don’t have running water or indoor plumbing.

Who’s Affected

The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the U.S. a “D” grade for the quality of its drinking water systems based on an evaluation of their safety, condition, capacity, and other criteria. Of the 25 states with individual grades, none scored higher than a “C+.”

Contaminated water is both an urban and a rural problem in the U.S. It affects residents with well water as well as those with municipal water service. Minority and low income communities are disproportionately affected, due to a potentially fatal combination of limited local financial resources and political neglect.

Industrial Pollution

Industrial pollution is usually the first thing that comes to mind when people think of contaminated drinking water.

Agriculture is the industry most frequently responsible for water degradation, washing fertilizers, pesticides, animal waste, and soil into waterways with every rainfall. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates industrial discharges with emphasis on protecting sources of drinking water, and water treatment plants filter out many common contaminants. However, some EPA safe water standards may be too lenient. For example, the Environmental Working Group published a study indicating that nitrates in drinking water within legal limits may still be causing cancer.

The EPA also found more than 200 unregulated chemicals in drinking water across 45 states, many of which — like polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs — are known to harm human health.

Contaminated Wells

Thirteen percent of the U.S. population relies on wells for drinking water.

The EPA does not regulate private wells or provide water quality standards for individual wells. Wells can become contaminated from a number of sources. Contaminants can be naturally occurring, like radon; a result of industrial runoff, like nitrates in agricultural areas; or result from failing or inadequate septic systems.

Regardless of the source of contamination, it is estimated that nearly a quarter of U.S. wells contain contaminants at a level of potential health concern.

Declining Infrastructure

Declining municipal infrastructure is often the source of poor water quality. Absent, outdated, or underfunded water treatment facilities are common throughout the country. Small communities often lack the resources to build and maintain treatment facilities. Many large communities still operate facilities built more than 50 years ago.

Flint, Michigan, is probably the most famous case of unsafe water in the U.S., and perhaps for good reason. When it started using water pumped from the Flint River in 2014, Legionnaire’s Disease broke out. Water testing repeatedly revealed fecal coliform bacteria contamination. After switching back to the Detroit water system in 2015, elevated levels of lead and other toxins continued leaching from old pipes.

Lead pipes are a problem throughout the U.S. Most municipalities stopped building water lines with lead pipes by the 1920s. But many of those old systems are still in use. Furthermore, building codes allowed homes to be built with lead plumbing into the 1980s. You can easily test for lead pipes in your home with a magnet and a house key.

Testing the Water

The EPA requires all community water systems to deliver an annual water quality report called a Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) for their customers by July 1 of each year. Unfortunately, in violation of this requirement, thousands of small communities don’t test their water properly or report the results.

Many communities’ CCRs can be found on the EPA website, but the EPA list is not complete. If you don’t see your community’s report listed, contact your water utility to receive a copy of their latest report. Remind them of the legal requirement for CCRs if they don’t already have one.

For those whose water comes from a household well or other private water supply, check with your health department, or any nearby water utilities that use ground water, for information on contaminants of concern in your area. And have your well water tested for these contaminants regularly.

The health risks from contaminated water cannot be overstated. Never ignore potentially contaminated water. Make sure your water has been tested. If it has failed water quality testing, getting clean water into your home is your most pressing environmental issue.

Concerned about the quality of your drinking water? Get tips on testing your water quality in the following visual from ConsumerNotice.org.

Test your tap water: clean water hacks
Credit: ConsumerNotice.org

By Gemma Alexander

Gemma Alexander has an M.S. in urban horticulture and a backyard filled with native plants. After working in a genetics laboratory and at a landfill, she now writes about the environment, the arts and family. See more of her writing here.