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Water Quality

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The United States has one of the safest water supplies in the world. However, national statistics don't tell you specifically about the quality and safety of the water coming out of your tap. That's because drinking water quality varies from place to place, depending on the condition of the source water from which it is drawn and the treatment it receives.

Now you have a new way to find information about your drinking water, if it comes from a public water supplier. (EPA doesn't regulate private wells, but does have recommendations for their owners.) Every community water supplier must provide an annual report (sometimes called a consumer confidence report) to its customers. The report provides information on your local drinking water quality, including the water's source, the contaminants found in the water, and how consumers can get involved in protecting drinking water. If you have been looking for specific information about your drinking water, this annual report will provide you with the information you need to begin your investigation.

These annual reports will by necessity be short documents. You may want more information, or have more questions. One place you can go is to your water supplier, who is best equipped to answer questions about your specific water supply. This page will help you find other sources of information.

Tap Into Prevention: Drinking Water Information for Health Care Providers: This continuing education video explains potential health risks from exposure to microbial and chemical contaminants in drinking water and demonstrates actions health care providers can take in their practices. It's available in DVD and VHS formats.

For an overview of drinking water issues, read Water on Tap: What You Need To Know. You may wish to consult EPA's drinking water glossary if you find unfamiliar terms in the following pages. For other assistance, please contact the Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 1-800-426-4791.

Most Americans get their drinking water from large-scale municipal water systems that rely on surface water sources such as rivers, lakes and reservoirs. However, millions of Americans depend on private water sources such as wells and aquifers. In either case, the United States enjoys one of the cleanest drinking water supplies in the world. The EPA regulates the quality of the nation's drinking water by issuing and enforcing safe drinking water standards. EPA also protects the nation's drinking water by safeguarding our watersheds and regulating the release of pollutants into the environment. In partnership with local authorities and community groups, the Agency encourages water conservation. EPA also works with these partners to develop contingency plans for source contamination and other water emergencies.

Each year by July 1 you should receive in the mail a short report (consumer confidence report) from your water supplier that tells where your water comes from and what's in it -- see if your report is posted on-line or read a fact sheet about these new reports.

What Law Keeps My Drinking Water Safe?

Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) in 1974 to protect public health by regulating the nation's public drinking water supply and protecting sources of drinking water. SDWA is administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its state partners.

Highlights of the Safe Drinking Water Act
  • Authorizes EPA to set enforceable health standards for contaminants in drinking water
  • Requires public notification of water systems violations and annual reports (Consumer Confidence Reports) to customers on contaminants found in their drinking water - www.epa.gov/safewater/ccr
  • Establishes a federal-state partnership for regulation enforcement
  • Includes provisions specifically designed to protect underground sources of drinking water - www.epa.gov/safewater/uic
  • Requires disinfection of surface water supplies, except those with pristine, protected sources
  • Establishes a multi-billion-dollar state revolving loan fund for water system upgrades - www.epa.gov/safewater/dwsrf
  • Requires an assessment of the vulnerability of all drinking water sources to contamination - www.epa.gov/safewater/protect - Drinking Water: Past, Present, and Future EPA-816-F-00-002
What Is A Public Water System?

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) defines a public water system (PWS) as one that serves piped water to at least 25 persons or 15 service connections for at least 60 days each year. There are approximately 161,000 public water systems in the United States.1 Such systems may be publicly or privately owned. Community water systems (CWSs) are public water systems that serve people year-round in their homes. Most people in the U.S. (268 million) get their water from a community water system. EPA also regulates other kinds of public water systems, such as those at schools, campgrounds, factories, and restaurants. Private water supplies, such as household wells that serve one or a few homes, are not regulated by EPA.

Public Water Systems

Community Water System (54,000 systems)- A public water system that serves the same people year-round. Most residences are served by Community Water Systems. Non-Community Water System (approximately 108,000 systems)-A public water system that does not serve the same people year-round. There are two types of non-community systems:

  • Non-Transient Non-Community Water System (almost 19,000 systems) - A noncommunity water system that serves the same people more than six months of the year, but not year-round. For example, a school with its own water supply is considered a non-transient system.
  • Transient Non-Community Water System (more than 89,000 systems) - A noncommunity water system that serves the public but not the same individuals for more than six months. For example, a rest area or a campground may be considered a transient system.
Where Can I Find Information About My Local Water System?

Since 1999, water suppliers have been required to provide annual Consumer Confidence Reports to their customers. These reports are due by July 1 each year, and contain information on contaminants found in the drinking water, possible health effects, and the water's source. Some Consumer Confidence Reports are available at www.epa.gov/safewater/dwinfo.htm. Water suppliers must promptly inform you if your water has become contaminated by something that can cause immediate illness. Water suppliers have 24 hours to inform their customers of violations of EPA standards "that have the potential to have serious adverse effects on human health as a result of short-term exposure." If such a violation occurs, the water system will announce it through the media, and must provide information about the potential adverse effects on human health, steps the system is taking to correct the violation, and the need to use alternative water supplies (such as boiled or bottled water) until the problem is corrected.

Systems will inform customers about violations of less immediate concern in the first water bill sent after the violation, in a Consumer Confidence Report, or by mail within a year. In 1998, states began compiling information on individual systems, so you can evaluate the overall quality of drinking water in your state. Additionally, EPA must compile and summarize the state reports into an annual report on the condition of the nation's drinking water. To view the most recent annual report, see www.epa.gov/safewater/annual.

How Often Is My Water Supply Tested?

EPA has established pollutant-specific minimum testing schedules for public water systems. To find out how frequently your drinking water is tested, contact your water system or the agency in your state in charge of drinking water. If a problem is detected, immediate retesting requirements go into effect along with strict instructions about how the system informs the public. Until the system can reliably demonstrate that it is free of problems, the retesting is continued. In 2001, one out of every four community water systems did not conduct testing or report the results for all of the monitoring required to verify the safety of their drinking water. Although failure to monitor does not necessarily suggest safety problems, conducting the required reporting is crucial to ensure that problems will be detected. Consumers can help make sure certain monitoring and reporting requirements are met by first contacting their state drinking water agency to determine if their water supplier is in compliance. If the water system is not meeting the requirements, consumers can work with local and state officials and the water supplier to make sure the required monitoring and reporting occurs.

A network of government agencies monitor tap water suppliers and enforce drinking water standards to ensure the safety of public water supplies. These agencies include EPA, state departments of health and environment, and local public health departments.

Common Sources of Pollution

Naturally Occurring: microorganisms (wildlife and soils), radionuclides (underlying rock), nitrates and nitrites (nitrogen compounds in the soil), heavy metals (underground rocks containing arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, and selenium), fluoride.

Human Activities: bacteria and nitrates (human and animal wastes-septic tanks and large farms), heavy metals (mining construction, older fruit orchards), fertilizers and pesticides (used by you and others (anywhere crops or lawns are maintained)), industrial products and wastes (local factories, industrial plants, gas stations, dry cleaners, leaking underground storage tanks, landfills, and waste dumps), household wastes (cleaning solvents, used motor oil, paint, paint thinner), lead and copper (household plumbing materials), water treatment chemicals (wastewater treatment plants).

What Problems Can Occur?

Actual events of drinking water contamination are rare, and typically do not occur at levels likely to pose health concerns. However, as development in our modern society increases, there are growing numbers of activities that can contaminate our drinking water. Improperly disposed-of chemicals, animal and human wastes, wastes injected underground, and naturally occurring substances have the potential to contaminate drinking water. Likewise, drinking water that is not properly treated or disinfected, or that travels through an improperly maintained distribution system, may also pose a health risk. Greater vigilance by you, your water supplier, and your government can help prevent such events in your water supply. Contaminants can enter water supplies either as a result of human and animal activities, or because they occur naturally in the environment. Threats to your drinking water may exist in your neighborhood, or may occur many miles away. For more information on drinking water threats, see http://www.epa.gov/safewater/publicoutreach/pdfs/poster_landscape_11x17version.pdf. Some typical examples are microbial contamination, chemical contamination from fertilizers, and lead contamination.

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