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Water systems & safety worries

Martina Yach

In the United States, most people take it for granted that they will be able to go to the faucet, turn it on and get clean water. But in recent years, cases where something goes wrong with municipal water systems have made headlines and put the state of the nation’s water infrastructure under a microscope.

This week on “Take Care,” Richard Anderson, senior advisor to the U.S. Conference of Mayors Water Council, discusses how municipal water systems work, and the challenges communities face in delivering safe, clean water to residents. Anderson has held his position as advisor since 1999. 

So how does water get to your kitchen sink, anyway? It’s a convenience of modern society that many of us probably don’t think about much.

First, it depends on where you live. Anderson says your water source may be right under you, right next to you, or it could be as much as 500-1000 miles away. There are surface water supplies, ground water supplies, but whatever the source, communities have to pump it and pipe it to consumers.

Most Americans do get their water from this kind of public water system -- about 80 percent or more of the population is served by municipal water. But Anderson says private wells are still an important water source in this country.

But, regarding public water systems, Anderson says there are over 100,000 of them in the country. Pipes have been what Anderson called the “conveyance of choice” for water for over 100 years. There may be 2 million or more linear miles of pipe under ground.

The materials those pipes are made out of is very important when it comes to contamination of water. And there’s a variety of types of materials, says Anderson. The type is often determined by how old those pipes are.

Aging infrastructure is getting a lot of attention in this country these days -- and water infrastructure is a part of that conversation. Anderson says while some pipes may in fact be a hundred years old, most pipes that old are being changed out over time. And in some communities, the age of water plants and water treatment systems are a big concern as well.

That water treatment process can often be part of the concern when discussing water safety. What’s being added to the water? And is the water treatment system getting rid of worrisome contaminants?

Anderson points out that water treatment is a science. For municipal systems, water chemists examine the water for quality control at every step of the process – the source, as it’s coming through pipes to the treatment plant, at the treatment plant, then water in pipes going into homes, and finally what’s coming out of the tap.

There are primary drinking water standards that apply across the nation. Water is tested to find out if it’s safe, which means if the levels of things like organics, chemicals and metals are within acceptable standards.

Lead was the issue in Flint, Michigan. Lead was once a very common material in pipes -- used in pipe lining, joints and soldering. Lead can be found in municipal systems, in public buildings and in residential homes.

Anderson points out that in the post-World War II housing boom, lead pipes were used quite commonly. Anderson says the American Water Works Association did a study that showed there may be anywhere from 6-10 million homes in the U.S. that may have lead pipes.

Because ingested lead can cause developmental issues in children, Anderson says those lead pipes need to be changed out. The challenge, he says, is the cost. It can range from $2,000-8,000 per home. And while governments are responsible for municipal water systems, typically, homeowners are responsible for the pipe coming from the system into their home, and the pipes in their home.

Another common problem that causes water safety issues is broken pipes, says Anderson. Microorganism can be reintroduced via broken pipes.

In order to know if you have a problem with the water in your own home, you can test it. But to know the source of the problem, you have to test the water in several places, all along its route, so to speak.

Anderson points out that every modern system that’s regulated and permitted by states and the federal Environmental Protection Agency does have a tap sampling program. They don’t test every tap, but a consumer can test it themselves. Usually consumer tests are for one specific substance, like lead,

And municipalities do consumer confidence reports each year, which go over contaminants of concern.

So while problems with municipal water systems continue to make headlines around the country, Anderson says there are plenty of reasons to have confidence in our water infrastructure.

“We have probably the safest water in modern society in the world, in an industrialized society. It’s not always safe all the time. But on the other hand, we are employing nearly 300,000 people at the local government level to control water and sewer every year. And we’re spending $115 billion to provide the service and to make sure that it’s as safe as we can possibly get it.”