How Clean Is Your Drinking Water?

October 29, 2010 · 3 comments

This is a guest post by Greg Hayes.

The subject of clean drinking water is of paramount importance in today’s world. Necessary for life and health, all one must do is look around at the influence of drinking water on our daily lives, and it becomes apparent. An estimated 1-in-8 people from around the world have no access to clean water. Closer to home, the recently completed Hoover Dam Bridge was constructed to protect Hoover Dam, which supplies water (and electricity) to much of the Southwest U.S., and recent reports of falling aquifer levels in Texas and Oklahoma have sparked concerns about potential water shortages. Water was even the subject of the 2010 Blog Action Day project.

Defining what makes drinking water clean enough for human consumption is a subject of much debate, and governments really don’t agree on either standards, or how to manage them. Even the cleanest water may have trace contaminants, particularly when those contaminants are being measured at the part per million, part per billion, and even part per trillion levels. The unfortunate reality is that water qualities standards around the world diverge widely when attempting to define what is “clean enough” to be safe for human consumption.

The majority of concerns about water safety center around contact with human sewage. Beyond that, a quick comparison of different water quality standards shows that while the subject engenders many common themes, there are also some dramatic differences. For instance, Canada does not have a central regulating authority responsible for water quality, but instead has simply guidelines, while the Environmental Protection Agency stringently regulates U.S. water quality. The following list highlights some of the differences between the recommendations of the World Health Organization, the United States, and European Union.

  • Acrylamide, a known carcinogen, is not specifically regulated in the U.S., while the WHO and EU require testing, but adipates and certain phthalate plasticizers are regulated in the U.S., while no standards exist in the E.U.
  • The WHO recommends testing for the following industrial chemicals: chlorates, chlorites, chlorotoluron, dichloromethane, 1,4-dioxane, trichloroacetate, and EDTA. Yet, no specific standards exist for either the U.S. or the E.U.
  • The WHO sets standards for the pesticides DDT, chloropyrifos, and permethrin, while there are no standards specifically addressing these chemicals in the U.S.
  • The E.U. regulates total pesticide levels, rather than individual compounds.
  • On the subject of metals, the E.U. ignores barium and beryllium, but regulates iron and sodium. The exact opposite is true in the U.S.
  • The E.U. has a standard for pH, while there is only a “suggested” pH in the U.S., and no there is no WHO standard.

The above highlights just a handful of differences as to what experts define as “clean” drinking water. Recent findings in the U.S. about low levels of pharmaceuticals in tap water has renewed the debate about water quality, and drink manufacturers have capitalized, with bottled water sales soaring to over $6 billion, with sales of bottled water making up for the stagnating soda market.

The world will grapple with the question of how to supply pure drinking water to people around the world for some time to come. Projects like the Millennium Development Goal are working to address this, but the quandary of simply agreeing on what defines “clean water” will likely continue to plague us, as our understanding of contaminants in water supplies continues to evolve.

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John's Weight Loss Blog October 29, 2010 at 8:47 pm

I know I take for granted the cleanliness of the water I drink, whether from our home faucet, the drinking fountain down by the lake or a store-bought bottle of water.

Greg October 30, 2010 at 5:38 am

I’ve spent a fair bit of time reading about water over the last few weeks, and the importance of clean drinking water to our overall health can’t be understated, yet its something I don’t usually give a second thought. But even in the western part of the U.S., there are arguments over water and water rights.

Just curious. When you traveled overseas, did you drink the water there or buy bottled only?

John's Weight Loss Blog October 30, 2010 at 5:59 am

In Mexico we definitely only drank water from bottles, although that’s kind of silly because we also drank lots of Margaritas and I’m sure they weren’t using bottled water to make their mixes. Everywhere else, in Japan and across Europe I never gave a second thought of drinking from fountains or from the hotels, although as a matter of convenience we usually had bottled water as well.

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