As it gushes from the taps of the developed world, it’s easy to take water for granted, and even easier to assume that the vital element is clean and pure.

While the safety of tap water was ensured mostly by states for decades, with standards varying across the country, the Safe Water Drinking Act of 1974 brought federal regulation to what are now more than 150,000 public water systems in the U.S.

Despite decades of conspiracy theories and whispered scare stories, those systems have been held to a high standard of safety for decades now. But over the last decade, cracks have been showing. A 2003 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council found the drinking water systems of 19 U.S. cities studied to be suffering from deteriorating plumbing and “delivering drinking water that might pose health risks to some residents.” Lead, germs, arsenic and the rocket fuel perchlorate were among the contaminants the NRDC reported finding repeatedly in drinking water supplies. Certain cities like San Francisco, Seattle, Denver and Boston got high marks for their drinking water safety, while Los Angeles, Fresno and San Diego were three California cities whose supplies were judged to be more susceptible to pollution.

In 2005, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group tested water in 42 states and found more than 250 contaminants in public drinking water, more than half of which were chemicals for which there is no established safety standard.

Does that mean it’s time to panic on municipal water. Absolutely not. The NRDC found that despite the problems faced by public water, “if you are an adult with no special health conditions, and you are not pregnant, then you can drink most cities’ tap water without having to worry.” The concentrations of contaminants were still too small to affect most people, they reported. But the authors of the NRDC report warned that without improvements, public water will only get worse.

So what about here in Santa Cruz? What are we drinking in our H20? How much filtration do we really need? And is bottle water really the “pure” alternative its marketers claim that it is?

Testing, Testing

Like all municipalities, the city of Santa Cruz conducts strenuous treatment and bi-weekly testing of its water, to make sure it meets the safety standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Organic matter—and, most importantly, bacteria such as E. coli and other coliform—are removed in a multi-level process before water is deemed safe for drinking. In a nutshell, the treatment process involves coagulation (adding chemical coagulants with a positive charge, such as aluminum sulphate), sedimentation, filtration and disinfection.

“Things have changed dramatically from decades ago when there weren’t as many rigorous requirements for testing,” says Hugh Dalton, Water Quality Manager for the City of Santa Cruz.

And while other chemicals, like alum, which has been used in water purification since the Roman times, are still utilized in water treatment today, the fundamental chemical in the equation is chlorine.

“We hit it hard in the beginning and then we add a chlorine residual at the end,” says Dalton.
Introduced to urban water supplies in the 1900s, water chlorination is one of the major disease prevention achievements of the 20th century, according to a report in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, effectively diminishing the bacteria that causes water-borne diseases like cholera, dysentery and typhoid fever.

Traces of this same chlorine, as you guessed, shows up in most municipal waters, and Santa Cruz is no exception. Between January and November of 2012, chlorine levels averaged around .91 mg/L, according to data provided by the Santa Cruz Municipal Utilities (SCMU) from a test zone on Locust Street in downtown Santa Cruz. Test results for chlorine in midtown were consistently a little bit higher, averaging around 1.17 mg/L for the same time period at a test zone on North Branciforte.

The chlorine levels in Santa Cruz’s drinking water are well below the EPA standard of 4.0 mg/L. But its use has been controversial.
A 1997 report in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute highlighted a study in which rats were given chlorinated water containing the chlorine by-product MX for two years, resulting in “carcinogenic effects at multiple sites in both sexes. In particular, there were high incidences of thyroid gland tumors and liver tumors in treated animals…These results suggest that organic byproducts of chlorination are the chemicals of greatest concern in assessment of the carcinogenic potential of chlorinated drinking water.”

And while stopping water chlorination in the absence of an equally effective disinfection program could have devastating results—a cholera epidemic involving 300,000 cases occurred in Peru following the abrupt stop of disinfection—the potential risks associated with drinking chlorinated water must be considered. A water filtration device, even if it’s a simple Brita, can help.

“The Brita is designed to remove some chlorine and some of the chlorine by-products,” says Dalton.

Filter Factor

And even while EPA standards are considered rigorous, municipalities are not required by the federal government to test for traces of pharmaceuticals in our water. Joseph Harrison, technical director for the Water Quality Association trade group, says reverse-osmosis devices with activated carbon can get “a lot” of pharmaceuticals out—but even then the only real way to tell is to test your water.

Uncertain or expensive filtration devices aren’t the only way to go: Kevin Muir, owner of The Water Store, says distillation is probably the best way to remove pharmaceutical residue from water, and it’s true that distilled water is stripped of almost everything, containing no more than 10 parts per million of anything but H20.

The Water Store sells Santa Cruz city water that has been pre-filtered five times, then evaporated and distilled, then after it’s collected, treated with ozonation and ultraviolet light. Muir, who hasn’t drunk tap or bottled water—only distilled—for almost three decades, sells it for 50 cents a gallon.

“When I first started there were companies saying you shouldn’t drink distilled water because of these reasons, but they were all selling something. All water is compared to distilled water, because all distilled water is pure,” says Muir.

One of the most common claims made against distilled water is that it’s void of minerals, and therefore leaches minerals from the body through osmosis. However, the consensus seems to be that this is highly unlikely as long as you’re getting sufficient minerals from your diet.

Bottle Scam

So is bottled water safer? In a word, no. Store-bought bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, not by the EPA, and according to the Natural Resources Defense Council there are “gaping holes in government bottled water regulation.”

The most obvious such hole is that bottled water which is both bottled and sold in the same state—an estimated 60 to 70 percent of bottles sold in the United States—is exempt from regulation, reports the NRDC. “Sparkling” water and seltzers are also exempt. Those that do qualify for regulations aren’t monitored very well.

When the NRDC undertook a four-year investigation of bottled water back in 1997, they conducted a snapshot testing of more than 1,000 bottles sold under 103 brands, and found that one third violated industry standards.

“The independent labs that conducted testing for NRDC found high levels of heterotrophic-plate-count bacteria in some samples, and in a few cases coliform bacteria,” reads the NRDC’s report. The lab also found some samples containing the carcinogen arsenic, elevated nitrate levels, and 12 bottles violated the state’s standard for the chlorine by-products trihalomethanes.

The International Bottled Water Association defends the safety of its products, arguing that arsenic is the  “20th most abundant element in the earth’s crust. As such, it occurs naturally in soil, foods, water and the human body.” None of the waters tested exceeded the FDA and EPA standard for arsenic in water of 50 parts per billion, which was set in 1942 and is 2,000 times higher than the level recommended for ambient surface water.

But whether or not the levels are safe or not obscures the true point: bottled water isn’t any more pure just because it costs about 1,000 times the cost of tap water.

Here, for instance, is a break down of the labeling: “Spring” and “Mountain Spring”—the only difference between the two is that Mountain Spring water is taken from a spring above the elevation of 2500 feet. Then there are the bottles labeled as “drinking” water, which simply means any potable water—which basically means tap water.

“Arrowhead, for example, could bottle Santa Cruz City Water and call it drinking water,” says Muir.

Nevertheless, marketing has succeeded in selling a perception of purity. According to statistics provided by the IBWA and Drop the Prop, Americans buy an average of 167 bottles annually per person, spending a total of $15 billion dollars on bottled water, much of which might as well be coming directly from the tap.