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Your Tap Water: Fit or Failing

A recent report from the Natural Resources Defense Council graded the municipal drinking-water supplies of 19 major U.S. cities, and they were found to be lacking. While none of the cities failed outright, only Chicago earned a rating of excellent, and that was in only one of three categories tested.

The report, "What's on Tap? Grading Drinking Water in U.S. Cities," rated three problem areas: water quality and compliance, source-water protection, and right-to-know compliance. The scale ranged from excellent to good, fair, poor and failing for the years 2000 and 2001. Researchers found apparent or confirmed violations of enforceable tap-water rules in five cities over those two years (Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Fresno and Phoenix) and violations of nonenforceable "action levels" or "health advisories" in many other cities.

The NRDC cites the use of pre-World War I-era water-delivery systems and treatment technology as the main culprit for these shortcomings. Aging, cracked or broken pipes can leach contaminants into the water and breed bacteria, while old-fashioned treatments simply can't filter modern contaminants, such as pesticides, industrial chemicals and arsenic. Researchers found an array of contaminants in the tap water of these various cities, but a handful showed up repeatedly: lead from pipe corrosion and plumbing fixtures; by-products of chlorine treatment, such as trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids; as well as arsenic, radon, perchlorate (rocket fuel) and numerous pathogens (germs).

The report states that few cities are in outright violation of drinking-water standards, "But this is more a result of weak standards than it is of low contaminant levels. For example -- arsenic is currently present in the drinking water of 22 million Americans at average levels of 5 ppb (parts per billion), well below a new EPA standard for arsenic of 10 ppb that will go into effect in 2006. Yet, scientists now know that there is no safe level of arsenic in drinking water." For the full report, as well as detailed summaries, answers to frequently asked questions, suggestions for solutions, and links to federal, state and regional drinking-water agencies, go to http://nrdc.org/water/drinking/uscities/contents.asp.