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Exposure to Chemicals in Water

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Research has shown that the water you drink -- whether it's from your home faucet or bottled water from a store -- may not always be as safe as it could be.

Everyone has a role in protecting the water supply. Before you throw away unused medicines, birth control pills, paint, motor oil, pesticides, cleaners, and other chemical-based products, talk to your local health or hazardous waste departments about how to safely dispose of these products. You also can visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for more tips.

Steps you can take

In general, filtered tap (municipal) water is as safe as or safer than bottled water from the store, because bottled water is less regulated.

You may want to consider the following tips to ensure your water is the safest it can be:

  • If you get your water from a private or small community well, you may want to have your tap water tested. Well water can become contaminated with bacteria, pharmaceuticals, and other toxins. City water supplies and municipal wells that serve large numbers of people are regularly tested for contamination. Private and small community wells are not tested, unless you arrange to have it done. If you don't get a water bill, you most likely have a private or small community well. To find a state-certified water testing lab, contact your local state health or environmental department.
  • Install a filter on the taps in your house or store drinking water in a pitcher with a filter. Check the box label to make sure you're buying a filter that removes E. coli and Cryptosporidium bacteria, as well as pharmaceuticals. Both Brita and Proctor & Gamble (maker of PUR filters) say their filter pitchers remove both E. coli and Cryptosporidium, as well as more than 96% of pharmaceutical contaminants. These companies also claim that their plastic pitchers are made without bisphenol A. Change the filter at the recommended times. The National Sanitation Foundation website has information on how to choose water filters for your home.
  • Reverse osmosis systems and ion exchange pour-through filters can remove contaminants that tap filters can't. Certain contaminants, such as hexavalent chromium, a metal used in metal processing, steel and pulp mills, and the tanning industry, aren't removed by standard tap filters. Hexavalent chromium in drinking water has been linked to certain stomach cancers. In December 2010, the Environmental Working Group released a report that found hexavalent chromium in the tap water of 31 of 35 U.S. cities tested. Hexavalent chromium can be removed from drinking water by using reverse osmosis systems and ion exchange pour-through filters. Still, these systems are much more expensive than installing a tap filter. If you suspect the water in your area is contaminated with hexavalent chromium or other heavy metals, you may want to consider taking a tap water sample to a lab for specific heavy metal testing before you invest in a reverse osmosis or ion exchange pour-through filter system.
  • Boil your water if you think it might be contaminated with bacteria. Bring water to a rolling boil for 1 minute before using it. Boiling kills bacteria and other organisms, but doesn't remove pharmaceutical residues.
  • Read bottled water labels carefully. Water with labels that say "well water," "artesian well water," or "spring water" may not be any different than your tap water -- or it may be less pure than your tap water. Use of these terms isn't regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Choose water with a label that says either:
    • reverse osmosis treated
    • filtered through an absolute 1 micron or smaller filter (a 1 micron filter is small enough to trap bacteria and other organisms)
    If you're unsure whether your brand of water has been treated by one of these processes, call the Bottled Water Association at 1-800-WATER-11 and ask.
  • Choose bottled water in a glass or BPA-free plastic container. Most bottled water comes in a plastic bottle with a recycling symbol 1 on it, which doesn't contain bisphenol A (BPA). BPA is a chemical used to make many polycarbonate plastics, including water bottles and other food packaging, baby bottles, and food can linings. BPA can leach into food and beverages from the packaging. If you're concerned about BPA exposure:
    • Avoid plastic containers with the number 7 recycling symbol on the bottom. This type of plastic is most likely to contain BPA.
    • Opt for filtered tap water instead of bottled water.
    • Carry your own water with you in a BPA-free plastic or stainless steel container. Many companies, such as Nalgene and Klean Kanteen, offer BPA-free water bottles. Make sure the label says "BPA-free," and don't buy older plastic water bottles that don't have this label. 
  • Stay clear of public swimming places (beaches or pools) that may have high bacteria counts, especially children's pools. When you swim, you end up drinking tiny amounts of water.

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