Econundrum: Is Your Tap Water Too Dirty to Drink?

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I’ve long been a proud drinker of tap water. Here in the Bay Area, most of our water comes from the famously pristine Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, surrounded by 500 square miles of wilderness in Yosemite National Park. What impurities could possibly make it into such a remote place?

Plenty, turns out. The Environmental Working Group recently tested the water in 45 states and found 316 contaminants. Nearly two thirds of those contaminants are not regulated by the EPA—meaning local water authorities aren’t required to filter them or even monitor their levels. I looked up San Francisco’s water in the EWG database and learned that my tap water contains eight pollutants. Relatively speaking, that’s actually not too bad: In other cities (Pensacola, Florida, Riverside, California, and Las Vegas, Nevada, topped the dirty water list), researchers found high levels of unregulated chemicals like perchlorate, a key ingredient in rocket fuel shown to be toxic to the thyroid gland, and MTBE, a gasoline additive that can cause kidney and liver damage.

So what’s the solution? Not bottled water, says EWG researcher Nneka Leiba. “Often it’s just tap water in a bottle. And then there’s the price.” (EWG researchers found 38 contaminants in 10 popular brands.) Another problem: the environmental impact of manufacturing, shipping, and disposing of all those bottles. (Check out Mother Jones‘ exposé of Fiji Water’s ecologically and socially questionable practices here.)

Your best bet is a good filter. Carbon models—the kind in the popular Brita filters—are fairly affordable (you can get a refrigerator pitcher filter for about $10), and they remove most contaminants (though not perchlorate, MTBE, or arsenic). Reverse osmosis filters, which hook up to your faucet, are pricier (around $200), but they’ll keep almost all contaminants out of your tap water.
 

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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