In January 2016, Flint, Michigan, declared a state of emergency after tests showed elevated lead levels in the blood of local children. Elevated lead levels can cause health problems in adults, but the problem is critical for children, who can develop learning difficulties and long-term brain damage. The issue started two years ago after Flint switched from Detroit’s water system, drawn from Lake Huron, to the Flint River in order to cut costs. The new water source wasn’t properly treated and
ended up corroding Flint’s pipes and fixtures, causing lead to leach into the water. Now, even though the city has switched back to using Detroit’s water system, the damage to the pipes and fixtures remains. More recently, NBC News raised questions about how lead testing is done in Philadelphia, causing concern that there might exist nationwide testing failures.
So how do you know if your water is safe? The bottom line is the only way to know for sure is to have it tested. Here’s how it works: The Safe Drinking Water Act authorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate tap water from public water systems across the country by setting legal limits for 100 contaminants in drinking water. The EPA also regulates water testing schedules and testing methods. By law, every water supplier is required to publish a yearly report detailing contaminants or violations of water quality standards, and to alert the public of any potential health risks. (To find information on your water system, visit EPA’s water systems directory.) However, EPA testing gives a system-wide picture; it can’t tell you about any problems that may be occurring in your home.
If you decide to test, contact your local health department for help determining which contaminants to test for based on what’s going on in your area (for example, heavy metals underground, a nearby gas station, farming). If you have young children, are pregnant, or are planning to become pregnant, test for lead, too. If contaminants are found, take steps to remove what’s possible, such as installing a filtration system – either one that works at point of entry (before the water goes throughout the house) or one that works at point of use (units that work under the sink, are attached to your faucet, countertop models, or filter pitchers, ideally certified by the National Sanitation Foundation). To find out more about testing your water, contact the Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791 or visit www.epa.gov/safewater/labs.