Americans have grown suspicious of tap water quality, yet it’s doubtful many could name a single contaminant they imagine spewing from Santa Monica faucets. Blind faith once placed in the public water supply is being transferred to bottled water, even though the average citizen probably knows equally little about pollutants that might lurk there too.

Thanks to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) for creating a national drinking water-quality database, most Americans can read now about the levels and health risks of specific pollutants found in their tap water.

EWG’s database covers 48,000 communities in 45 states and catalogues millions of water quality tests performed by water utilities between 2005 and 2009.

Altogether, 315 different pollutants were detected in U.S. water utilities over five years. Forty-nine of these were measured in one place or another at levels exceeding federally-set health guidelines. Particularly worrisome is that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set enforceable standards for only 114 of them. The rest are exempt from any health or safety regulations and are legally allowed in any amount.

The list of unregulated pollutants includes the rocket fuel ingredient perchlorate which has been linked to thyroid toxicity, the gasoline additive known as MTBE and associated with liver and kidney damage, the plastic plasticizer di-n-butylphthalate linked to birth defects and reproductive toxicity, and the radioactive gas radon.

Among all California’s water utilities, 182 contaminants were detected, and 47 of these exceeded legal limits. Agricultural pollutants, industrial chemicals from factory discharges, and urban storm water runoff were major contributors as were, ironically, chemical residues from water treatment plants.

Santa Monica’s water quality fell a tad below the national average: Twelve different pollutants were detected (national average was eight), 10 of which exceeded established health guidelines (national average was 4.5). The top two offenders were industrial chemicals — trichloroethylene, used in metal degreasing and rubber processing, and 1,4-dioxane, a probable human carcinogen used in solvents and plastics manufacturing.

Water quality in several other Southern California cities fared worse. Riverside, for example, tested positive for 30 pollutants and was ranked among the nation’s worst three. Los Angeles, Anaheim, Santa Ana and San Diego all rated in the lower half of the nation’s 100 most-populous cities, with the number of pollutants ranging from 22 to 28.

To review the detailed results of any water utility’s tests, go to www.ewg.org/tap-water/home and type in the zip code or water utility company name.

Bottled water’s not the solution

Despite the bad news reflected in EWG’s database, it’s hard to come up with a good reason to substitute bottled for tap water. If the price tag doesn’t dissuade — bottled water can cost 1,000 times more — maybe knowing that tap water quality is more closely monitored than bottled water will.

Tap water is regulated by the EPA which mandates that water utilities provide customers with regular water-quality reports detailing water sources, contaminant levels, and compliance with federal, state and local regulations — the very data compiled into EWG’s database. Bottled water is regulated instead by the FDA which can’t require bottlers to divulge test results, even if contaminants exceed established standards, leaving bottlers to police themselves.

Previous studies conducted by Consumer Reports and the National Resources Defense Council concluded that bottled water is not necessarily safer than municipal water. More recently, EWG actually warned against trusting the purity of bottled water after discovering 38 contaminants among 10 brands of bottled water in 2008.

Moreover, no matter what idyllic water source is depicted on the label, at least one-quarter of bottled water is just reprocessed tap water, including top-sellers Dasani and Aquafina made by The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo, respectively. Even bottled water’s promise of better taste can be misleading: In hundreds of taste tests pitting popular brands against local tap water conducted by the nonprofit organization Corporate Accountability International, most tasters could not tell which was which, according to spokesperson Christina Rossi.

What’s more, bottle labels are not required to list contaminants or additives. While it’s certainly true that consumers are free to contact the manufacturer listed on the label to ask about contaminants, that’s of little help to the average shopper. When I phoned customer services at PepsiCo, verbal assurances were offered about Aquafina’s purity but formal documentation of water quality was not made available to me. The Coca-Cola Company, however, did provide an undated “example” analysis of Dasani listing three contaminants out of 25 tested substances.

Environmental impacts also tarnish the allure of bottled water. The Pacific Institute calculated that the U.S. manufacture of water bottles in 2006 required about one million tons of PET plastic, the energy equivalent of over 17 million barrels of oil. Only about one in four PET bottles gets recycled. And, it takes three liters of water to produce one liter of bottled water!

Quench thirst safely with home filtration

The EPA estimates that nearly 40 percent of the nation’s waters (e.g. lakes, rivers) are impaired, and the nation’s drinking water infrastructure earned a D- grade in 2009 from the American Society of Civil Engineers. By not insuring public access to clean drinking water, the government is shirking its most fundamental responsibility of protecting the public welfare, leaving Americans to fend for themselves.

EWG recommends installing home water filters and offers an online tool that walks you through the steps to find the right one for your needs: www.ewg.org/tap-water/getawaterfilter. Once you’ve settled on a price range and filter style (e.g. pitcher, faucet-mounted) and determined from the database the pollutants you want to remove, you can link directly to websites that sell filters able to remove those pollutants.

Visit www.BoogieGreen.com to read other environmental articles by Sarah Mosko.

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