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  Back to the Tap
The Boston Globe Magazine, July 12, 2009
A few weeks ago, I had dinner in the sort of fancy-schmancy restaurant where, once upon a time, I'd have been offered my choice of sparkling or still water. Instead, the waiter asked if he could interest me in some "Cambridge tap." For a minute, I thought he was talking about some hip artisanal beer. Then reality set in. "Tap is fine," I replied.

Thanks to the recession and growing concern about plastic water bottles in landfills, tap water is suddenly chic -- more chic than it's been since the first little green Perrier bottles landed in North America in 1976. Sure, by some estimates, Americans spent more than $11 billion on bottled water in 2008, but that figure represents a slight decline in sales, the first drop in more than a decade. The US Conference of Mayors last year adopted a resolution urging cities to phase out government purchases of bottled water. Consumer advocates have forced bottlers to admit that some packaged water comes from the same source as tap, never mind all those snowy peaks on the labels.

It makes financial and environmental sense to use the public water supply: Cut down on plastic bottles, stop paying $1.29 for what comes from the tap for a fraction of a cent, and put the extra money toward water's infrastructure needs or (on a personal level) that cute new pair of shoes. It also makes sense to stop using the terms "bottled" and "tap" as if they denote different substances. But the more we acknowledge that drinking water is drinking water (no matter its delivery system), the more important becomes the question: How safe is it? Should a pocketbook-conscious, tree-loving consumer feel confident returning to the tap?

It's a question that's surprisingly difficult to answer on a statewide level. To paraphrase a quote often attributed to P.T. Barnum: All the water in Massachusetts is safe most of the time, and most of the water is safe all of the time. But for individual consumers seeking a watery peace of mind, here are three issues to investigate: how the levels of regulated contaminants in your local water compare with standards set by the US Environmental Protection Agency; how the pipes in your home affect the water; and whether unregulated contaminants like pharmaceuticals are a factor in the stuff you drink.

To tackle the first issue, determine where you get your water. David Terry runs the drinking water program for the state Department of Environmental Protection. (Along with the Department of Public Health, his agency oversees water quality in Massachusetts.) "There isn't one template," says Terry. "The first thing a homeowner should do is figure out where your water comes from and who is in charge."

If you have a private well, you're in charge, and the place to begin is with a water quality test. But most homeowners, especially in Greater Boston, rely either on the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, which serves about 2.2 million people with water from the Quabbin Reservoir in Central Massachusetts, or on a smaller municipal department. The water authority and local departments collect samples weekly and, in many places, daily and test for contaminants and bacteria.

According to the EPA, Massachusetts is on a par with the rest of the country as far as the safety of our water. Some 91.7 percent of state residents who drank from a public supply drank from one with no health-based violations in 2008. The accompanying list (at right) shows the other 8.3 percent. If yours is on that list, ask your local water department the nature of the problem and how it's being addressed. Terry is quick to point out that a health-based violation does not mean anyone got sick. He mentions Revere as an example: It was cited with a violation in 2007 because it failed to meet its goal in replacing lead lines.

Let's say your system didn't have violations, but you still have concerns -- or just a passion for knowing more about algae and the precise levels of minerals in your water. Terry suggests you ask your local water department for a copy of its annual Consumer Confidence Report. But be warned: The reports can be overwhelming to a non-scientist. It took three phone calls to the Cambridge Water Department before I began to grasp mine. (The city's water comes from the Fresh Pond Reservoir.) The officials couldn't have been nicer, but there was a language barrier. I spoke English; they spoke Science. "So, how's the water?" I kept asking. In response, I'd hear something like, "Well, you'll see that if you look at the chart, the contaminant levels are below the EPA's maximum allowable limit, except in cases where the EPA has yet to provide regulations." I wanted words like "good" and "safe"; they kept talking about manganese. I looked at a lot of other communities' reports and was similarly puzzled by most of them.

Sam Corda, managing director for Cambridge's water department, says it's a challenge to present a Consumer Confidence Report in a way that adheres to the EPA's guidelines while also making sense to people without advanced degrees in geology. "There's very specific language we have to include," he says, a bit apologetically. "But we are thinking about adding a little narrative. We haven't gotten to it yet."

Improving consumer reports may feel less important than maintaining pipes and water pressure, but if mayors and consumer advocates want people returning to tap water, the communication about it needs to be more layperson-friendly.

Here's an example of user-friendly communication: I took a sample of a friend's water in Arlington (which is served by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority) and sent it to Envirotech Laboratory in Sandwich for what's known as an "overall water quality test." The process took eight days and cost $55. In return, I received a report with a chart showing levels of contaminants similar to the ones listed on the water department's consumer report. But it also had three concise bullet points: The water met all EPA standards; the sodium was higher than average but not dangerous; the pH was too high and needed to be corrected. My homeowner pal got peace of mind and one specific recommendation. The lab suggested he contact his local water department; the Arlington water department suggested he contact the water authority.

Because private water quality tests duplicate the tests the water authority already runs, they are valuable mostly for consumers with private wells or who have concerns about Water Variable No. 2: how the pipes in your house affect the end product. Piping is, of course, the biggest factor working against the tap-water campaign. Bottled water may indeed come from the same sources as tap, but it usually hasn't traveled through pipes that may be 100 years old or may contain or be coated with lead.

So if your consumer report says anything about lead pipes in your community, you may want to get a lead test done. The Department of Environmental Protection's website has a list of state-certified laboratories that will run the tests (

The lead test costs $25 at Envirotech, but some cities and towns will test your water for lead at no charge. In the course of reporting this piece, I learned that the water line going into my Cambridge building is lead-coated and hasn't been updated since 1926. (Panic ensued briefly.) Then, at water manager Sam Corda's suggestion, I got a free lead test done and found out my water has .003 milligrams of lead per liter, about one-fifth of the EPA limit. That's first thing in the morning, when the water has been sitting overnight. My second water sample, taken after running the tap for four minutes, had only .001 milligrams.

Running the tap will often get rid of most traces of lead. But if it doesn't -- or you're over the EPA limit to begin with -- the DEP's David Terry suggests asking your doctor whether lead poses a particular threat to your family. If it does, you may need to overhaul the plumbing. While some home filtration systems claim to remove lead, the state's environmental protection department warns that the devices may have limited effectiveness and says the water should be tested often to see if the lead is indeed being removed.

I was feeling pretty good about tap water after my lead test, once I'd managed to absorb the results of my consumer report, and because, at the end of the day, my water is pretty yummy when it's chilled -- and the authority's water, which serves my workplace, is tasty as well. But there is a new quality concern on the horizon that is the elephant in the room among water people, and it's Water Variable No. 3: pharmaceuticals. Traces of drugs, everything from ibuprofen to Prozac, are showing up in water supplies across the country. Cambridge found some drug traces in 2008. The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (which does not send treated waste water back into its reservoir system) so far has not. Health and environmental officials are still figuring out how these trace drugs may affect us and how they should regulate them.

"They get into the water supply because we take those medications," says Suzanne Condon, who manages the environmental health bureau of the state Department of Public Health. "The population is growing, life expectancy has increased dramatically, and the older we get, the more we need various medications. We're taking those medications and we're excreting them." Traces of the excreted drugs are believed to remain in sewer water that is treated and then returned to a water supply -- the challenge is developing a treatment process that will eradicate them.

As yet, there are no published standards for these emerging contaminants, and your water department may not be testing for them. Condon says the amounts are extremely small. But the research is sparse into what, if any, effects the traces will have on water drinkers. "In my 30 years of working in this field, this is one of the most difficult challenges for us," says Condon. It's an issue both of drug disposal (people flushing unused medications down the toilet) but also, and more challenging, of increased prescription use making its way out of our bodies and into the water. That issue and fears of a future water scarcity seem to be the concerns that keep water experts up at night.

That said, Condon is still drinking the water. So is Sam Corda, who oversees the water in my city. So is Betsy Reilley, who manages water quality for the water authority. "I believe in tap water like I believe in the public schools," says Reilley.

Convenience is another important factor that must be addressed if we're to rely on tap water. Patti Lynn is campaigns director of Corporate Accountability International, a key player in the "pro-tap" movement. She acknowledges that 74 percent of Americans drink some bottled water, and not just because they're scared of tap. Most of us don't spend all day near our kitchen sink -- and there aren't a lot of options when you're out and about.

"Everyone we talk to who grew up 25 or 30 years ago, you went to the water fountain," says Lynn. "Now the availability in parks and playgrounds and schools, it's nowhere near what it used to be." Though she does not have data on the number of fountains today versus 30 years ago, her group is encouraging municipalities to invest in them.

I conducted a weeklong, totally unscientific study of water fountains in Greater Boston, and here's what I found: There aren't many, and lots of them are marginally functional. There's a great one in Boston City Hall, just outside the mayor's office. My least favorite fountains were at Logan Airport -- warm, low pressure, and vaguely metallic -- which is especially disappointing considering the sort of trouble you can get into there if you bring your own water.

There are water issues Massachusetts can't solve without further scientific research, but the availability of decent fountains isn't one of them. The Commonwealth was recently awarded $185 million in federal-stimulus funds for water infrastructure, and 20 percent of the money needs to go to "green" drinking-water projects. What's greener than building new fountains -- or, for the germ-phobic, at least some sort of public spout where people can fill up a recycled politically correct water receptacle of their choice?

The challenge is partly about giving people good reasons and enough information to come back to the tap. It's also about bringing the tap back to the consumers.


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Copyright 2009 by Alison Lobron