Safe to Drink Tap Water?
Is it safe to drink tap water through a pandemic? The short answer, is yes. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that drinking water sanitation treatments are effective at killing viruses and bacteria. This applies to treatments currently given to tap water.
But it is still a good idea to be well-informed about your local drinking water. This can include knowledge of your water sources, how to find potential contaminants, and keeping up-to-date on tap water safety. With this knowledge, you will know if it is safe to drink tap water, especially through a pandemic.
Pandemic or not, it is a good idea to know the source of your drinking water. This can include:
- tap water,
- bottled water,
- rainwater, or
- other sources like lakes, rivers, or streams.
For the latter two sources, check out our articles about collecting rainwater, sterilizing water, and using the LifeStraw.
In the United States, bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). You will want a gallon of water per person per day in case of disasters, for at least three days, up to two weeks. See the FDA and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) sites for information about using bottled water in emergencies.
In a pandemic, you may wonder if it is still safe to drink tap water. But where exactly does your tap water come from?
It turns out that tap water — even within the same state — can come from a variety of sources. These include:
- Surface water sources (lakes, rivers, streams),
- Groundwater sources (aquifers and water brought up via wells), and
- A combination of ground and surface sources (i.e. springs and spring runoff).
In Texas, for example, rural areas, Lubbock, and San Antonio mostly get their tap water from groundwater sources. In the city of Austin, tap water comes from the Colorado River-based surface water reservoirs of Lake Travis and Lake Austin. Houston’s tap water uses a combination of surface and groundwater sources.
A good way of determining your watershed, or area of land which water has flowed to a common point (i.e. to a reservoir) is to use the Watershed Index Online (WIO) of the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
In addition to this, your tap water may come from a public or a private supplier. There are over 85 private water suppliers in the state of Pennsylvania alone. Check with your state to see if you have a public or private supplier.
Finding out where your drinking water comes from is the first step in seeing whether it is safe to drink tap water during a pandemic. But what do you look for, exactly?
How to Find Potential Contaminants
You can’t see bacteria and viruses in your drinking water without a microscope. But you can use your eyes to see if it is safe to drink tap water in other regards. Here are some things to “look out” for:
- Cloudy water – may mean chemicals or harmful microorganisms are in your water.
- Yellow water – can be a sign of copper, lead, chromium-6, manganese, or iron.
- Brown water – could be soil, iron, or manganese.
- Ruddy or Orange water – could have rust or rust-dwelling bacteria within.
- Blue or Green water – could be a sign of excess copper.
Copper overdoses can cause kidney and liver problems, gastrointestinal diseases, and anemia. Iron overdoses can cause stomach hemorrhages and death. Excess amounts of chromium-6 can cause skin burns and stomach cancers.
If your water smells a certain way, it could mean a few things:
- Bleach-smelling – could mean your water has excess chlorine.
- Sulfur-smelling – could be evidence of the colorless gas hydrogen sulfide.
- Fish or Fishy-smelling – could be signs of cadmium or barium.
Chlorine is added to most tap waters in certain amounts. Too much chlorine can make organic byproducts that can cause kidney problems and cancers. Not enough chlorine can allow parasitic Giardia to grow in the water — if ingested, this can cause diarrhea, gas, dehydration, and cramps.
Sulfates and hydrogen sulfide can cause dehydration and diarrhea. Excess barium can cause skeletal problems, vomiting, increased blood pressure, and heart damage. Excess cadmium can cause liver damage and bone damage.
Finally, taste your tap water. If it tastes metallic or salty, it could be a sign of iron, lead, copper, zinc, or manganese. This may be because the pipes are rusty or deteriorated.
To remedy these contaminant problems, look for products that soften water and otherwise filter or kill bacteria in your tap water.
Keeping Up-to-Date on Tap Water Safety
If you still want to know if it is safe to drink tap water through a pandemic, you will want to check with your government’s websites for up-to-date information.
In addition, the EPA sets national protections for drinking water from natural and artificial contaminants via the Safe Water Drinking Act (SDWA). The SWDA lists over 83 contaminants, including biological, chemical, disinfectant, and radioactive materials, that are regulated on a national level.
Federally regulated water-borne microorganisms include:
- Cryptosporidium – which can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and cramps,
- Giardia lamblia – which cause similar gastrointestinal diseases,
- Legionella – which cause Legionnaire’s Disease (a kind of pneumonia),
- E. coli – a bacteria found in human and animal intestines. Can react to contaminated foods and produce toxins, and
- Gastroenteric viruses – that cause cramps and diarrhea.
Finally, the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has generated guidelines for general water-borne diseases and pandemic preparedness. In these ways you will be prepared to safely drink tap water, even in a pandemic.