How clean is your city's drinking water?

It hasn’t been a great few weeks for water. Not long ago, I wrote about the trace amounts of medications found in drinking water supplies around the country. Not long after, a chemical spill in West Virginia led to a water ban for 300,000 people in the state, sickening hundreds of residents and leaving countless more wary of using their tap water.

The latest water woes focus on New York City, home to no less than 8.3 million people. A recent investigation by The New York Times revealed that the water towers sitting atop tens of thousands of buildings around the city - providing tenants with the water they use for drinking, bathing, cooking, and more - are laden with bacteria like E. coli and coliform. Their analysis found these microbes even in towers that are well-maintained; that is, if a building's owner bothers to maintain its water tower at all. According to the Times, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene does not routinely enforce the regulations governing water tank cleaning and inspection.

The contents of the Times report goes from bad to worse to run for the hills. As they note, E. coli is a microbe carried in the feces of mammals and birds, which almost certainly means birds, squirrels, and other animals are invading city water towers. When a tower’s holes are actually discovered and plugged, the epoxy commonly used to caulk them, called Sea Goin’ Poxy Putty, is not approved for use in drinking water, and is made with bisphenol-A (BPA). As a reminder, BPA is a toxic chemical found in many food and beverage containers. It has been linked to childhood obesity, heart disease, prostate and breast cancer, asthma, headaches and more.

Naturally, officials insist drinking water in New York City is safe, because otherwise there would be a large outbreak of illness that could be directly traced to a particular building’s water supply. But, as the Times notes, with 60 percent of building owners failing to comply with water tank inspection and testing requirements most tenants would have a hard time proving a connection between illness and poor water quality in the first place.

As with so many other issues, water safety appears to be held captive by bureaucracy. A 2009 attempt to require the New York City health department to track water tank inspections through a database was deemed “unnecessary” and “too expensive,” according to the Times. You know what’s also expensive? Providing health care to people who become sick after being exposed to E.coli and other bacteria. And nothing is more necessary to human existence than water – its availability, purity, and safe delivery to anyone who wants it, at any time, for any reason.

The United States Congress passed The Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974 in an attempt to protect public health by regulating the nation’s public drinking water supply. The problem, at least in the case of New York City, is that once the water leaves well-protected reservoirs upstate, it is no longer under the purview of the federal – or even the state – government. As the water crosses city lines, it is up to building owners to make sure their towers are cleaned, inspected and tested annually. Unfortunately, lax enforcement of such regulations by local authorities provides little impetus for building owners or superintendents to adhere to standards, strict or not.

In the New York Times article, a city health official claims there is no evidence that neglecting a building’s water tank could have negative health consequences. But there is plenty of evidence that exposure to E. coli causes severe abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea, and vomiting, as The Mayo Clinic notes on its website. Other health problems that can result from drinking contaminated water include reproductive problems, neurological disorders, and gastrointestinal illnesses like salmonella and Hepatitis A, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The very young and very old are particularly vulnerable to such health problems.

Aside from boiling water before each use, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself from impure water, no matter where you live. A home water filtration system can help, and the CDC lists on its website the various filter choices, and how each affects the water it treats. EWG’s water filter buying guide is also helpful.

Find out the condition of the water where you live by visiting the EPA’s website. If you don’t like what you see, or suspect a problem in your home or apartment building, contact your local health department, and then contact elected officials. Let as many people as possible know you’re unhappy with the system that is delivering you this most vital of elements.

Note: Information provided herein is not intended to treat or diagnose any health condition. As always, consult your healthcare provider with any questions or health concerns.