Water fountain

How clean is the tap water in your town? If you’re a Texan, I hope you live in Arlington and not Houston. Out of 100 utilities serving big cities, Arlington has the cleanest tap water, according to a drinking water quality analysis conducted by the eco-nonprofit Environmental Working Group or EWG. Houston, on the other hand, has one of the 10 lowest rated water utilities!

But Houstonites — before you run out to buy bottled water, remember that bottled water is less regulated than tap water, and thus not guaranteed to be any safer — which is one of the many reasons eco-minded and health conscious people opt against one-use, disposable water bottles. That said, obviously tap water isn’t perfect, regardless of whether your water concern is a simple matter of taste or a deeper concern about safety and health.

Those issues are what EWG is trying to bring to light. While local water suppliers meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s water quality standards 92 percent of the time, these standards are outdated and not stringent enough. EWG analyzed the results of almost 20 million drinking water tests from water utilities conducted since 2004 — to find 316 pollutants, more than half of which aren’t even regulated.

How concerned should you be? Well, first check to see what’s in your city’s drinking water by consulting these ratings. That will show you at a glance what the major pollutant levels are for the water you’re drinking. Los Angeles, for example, ranks an embarrassing 83 — which means my city’s got the 17th dirtiest water of the 100 ranked city utilities. My water contains a worrisome amount of byproducts from disinfectants — and contains a not-insignificant amount of arsenic (2.6 parts per billion)!

Then, look into filters. EWG’s kindly put together a useful tip sheet for selecting a filter that works for you, so you’ll be able to pick based on what you want your filter to do, whether it’s to create better-tasting water or to take out a particular contaminant. This guide to safe drinking water (PDF) will also show you at a glance some simple steps you can take to stay hydrated and safe.

The bigger issue, of course, is making our tap water cleaner to begin with instead of trying to get out the chemicals once it’s already in our homes. While EWG recommends that the EPA tighten regulations and make water quality info more easily accessible, the nonprofit points at the bigger problem of water pollution that’s contaminating our water to begin with:

By failing to clean up rivers and reservoirs that provide drinking water for hundreds of millions of Americans, EPA and the Congress force water utilities to spend heavily to make contaminated water drinkable. According to industry market studies, drinking water utilities spend more than $4 billion a year on water treatment chemicals alone. Less than one-20th of that amount is invested in source water protection and pollution prevention, an average of $207 million per year (data for 1997-2008).
Since it’s easier and cheaper to not pollute in the first place than to clean up water that has been polluted, you can help clean up our tap water by supporting policies — whether local or national — concerned with water protection and pollution prevention.

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Photo: crazzie97

How clean is your city's tap water?
A new water quality database lets you see how clean -- or chemically polluted -- your city's tap water is.