Almost 50 years later, this vital resource is still endangered, but the masses are beginning to pay attention -- especially to what's flowing from their faucets. A 2009 Gallup Poll found that 84 percent of Americans said they worried a "great deal" or a "fair amount" about pollution of drinking water.
There's certainly cause for concern. Our waterways may not be as thick with oil and sludge as they were before the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act were passed in the 1970s, but today's threats may be even more insidious, precisely because they're so invisible.
The chemical traces of modern-day consumption and convenience -- from pharmaceuticals and personal-care products to solvents, repellents, and more -- are now ubiquitous in our waterways. And with hundreds of new chemicals created every year, it's basically impossible to know exactly what impact this worrisome soup might have on our earth.
Last November, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released an analysis of nearly 20 million drinking water test results that identified more than 300 pollutants in tap water -- more than half of which aren't subject to any regulation.
Many have known health effects, like increasing the risk of cancer or learning disabilities. Eighty-seven of the regulated contaminants found had levels above health guidelines, including radioactive radium-226 and nitrate from fertilizer runoff.
Similarly, as an investigative report by The New York Times called "Toxic Waters" stated, "More than 62 million Americans have been exposed since 2004 to drinking water that did not meet at least one commonly used government health guideline intended to help protect people from cancer or serious disease."
With news like this, it's understandable that people are concerned. But it's important to realize that part of the reason we're finding such high levels of contaminants is because technology has improved.
"Today, we can detect contaminants at smaller levels than ever before," says Greg Kail of the American Water Works Association, an international nonprofit scientific and educational society dedicated to the improvement of drinking-water quality.
Before you swear off water completely, rest assured the U.S. still has some of the safest drinking water in the industrialized world. And filtration systems can help get the "uh-oh" out of your H2O. Water is the most important fluid you can give your body -- so it's worth paying attention to what's on tap.
Following years of lobbying by environmental organizations, Congress is weighing legislation that would clean up our water. For example, current bills under consideration include the Clean Water Restoration Act, which would expand the federal government's ability to protect the nation's waters, and an overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act, which would help prevent the use and release of chemicals that pose health risks. The Obama administration's 2011 budget includes funds to increase investment in water research and infrastructure.
The EPA's Office of Water emphasizes that the quality of drinking water varies from place to place, depending on the condition of its source and the treatment it receives. Every tap releases a distinct glass of water, and you can -- and should -- find out how healthy yours is.
What You Can Do
Get water wise. If you drink tap water, visit the EPA's Safewater site to see if your community's Consumer Confidence Report is available. The CCR indicates what tests have been done to local water and what contaminants have been found. You can also visit the EWG's Tap Water Database and enter your zip code to see what's been found in your water.
If you have a private well, you'll have to individually determine what risks you face and what you should test for. To do that, call your local health department, which can tell you the sources that could contaminate your groundwater and recommend a professional to test it. (A do-it-yourself kit might suffice.) Private well owners should test their water at least annually.
Take a peek at your plumbing. Lead, a potent neurotoxic substance, used to be a mainstay of plumbing pipes until a national ban was enacted in 1986. Even if you have newer plumbing, the pipes connecting your home to the main municipal lines, the solder used on copper pipes, and faucet fixtures may contain lead. The only way to know for sure what your water's contaminated with is by using a drinking water test kit, which you can get at a hardware store.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers advice for dealing with lead in drinking water. Before drinking or cooking it, let the water run for one to two minutes if the faucet hasn't been turned on in six hours. Use cold water for cooking; hot water is more likely to contain higher levels of lead leached from the pipes. Boiling water does not reduce lead levels and can actually increase the concentration of metals.
Skip bottled water. Bottled water is not necessarily any safer than the tap variety. In fact, it's estimated by the EWG that 25 percent of bottled water is tap water (sometimes treated, sometimes not). Not only is bottled water subject to fewer regulations than tap water, the manufacturing and disposal of those billions of plastic bottles also creates considerable pollution that contaminates drinking water even more.
Find a filter. Two of the most common filter types rely on carbon ( which is positively charged and highly absorbent) or reverse osmosis (through a semipermeable membrane that separates impurities from the water). Check out our recommendations or use the EWG's water filter buying guide to find exactly what suits your needs and budget.
Do your part. Never flush medications or other substances that could contaminate water, like toxic cleaning agents, pesticides, and automotive products, down the toilet or sink. Our bodies are about 60 percent water, and 70 percent of our world is covered by this important resource. Isn't it time we took care of it?
First consider testing your water so you know what you need to eliminate.
Note: Product recommendations are not endorsements. Check with manufacturers for details on what contaminants are addressed and to what degree. Product prices may vary.
PUR CR-6000C 2-Stage Water Pitcher
A basic carbon filtration pitcher; reduces copper, lead, mercury, microbes, and some pharmaceuticals.
Aquasana AQ-4000 Complete Countertop Filtration System
A carbon countertop filtration system reduces the same contaminants as above and can be easily installed on any standard kitchen faucet.
Instapure F8(C) Ultra Tap Water Filter System
This carbon-filter faucet system includes a light that flashes when the filter needs to be replaced.
Watts Premier WP-5 Reverse Osmosis System
The reverse osmosis under-sink system filters some contaminants that carbon doesn't get, like arsenic and nitrates.
Pelican PC600 Premium Whole House Water Filter
A carbon filter for the whole house means that all your water is filtered, including showers, tubs, and sinks.