The U.S. has some of the safest drinking water in the world. But it’s not perfect. Almost $10 billion in federal funding has been earmarked in the last two years to protect the nation’s waters, including almost doubling the size of the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2010 Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, targeted to smaller public water systems. "Most health-based violations occur in these smaller systems," says Steve Heare, director of the agency’s Drinking Water Protection Division. Either they don’t have enough trained operators or they lack the rate base to keep their facilities up to speed, he explains.
Large public water systems aren’t immune, but they tend to have more resources to fix problems. Violations occur when water contains too much of one or more of the 91 contaminants, or groups of contaminants, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Water systems don’t test for many other substances, including pharmaceuticals and some petrochemicals, because they’re not covered by the act.
Some states have used the authority given to them by the act to enact tougher laws. California and New York, for example, both regulate MTBE, a fuel additive and potential human carcinogen. The EPA has added MTBE to its contaminant-candidate list, but its risk assessment of MTBE has been unusually difficult. Still, critics point out that no new contaminants have been added to the Safe Drinking Water Act since a 1996 provision called for a continuous five- to six-year review. The EPA stands behind the process. "There are a host of concerns out there," says Eric Burneson, chief of targeting and analysis for the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water. "Some of them we have a handle on and some we’re still pulling the science together to understand what constitutes a real public health threat."
The EPA can impose hefty fines on water systems that are significantly out of compliance. But given the financial strain some systems face, the agency appears more willing to dangle a carrot than brandish a stick. "As a practical matter, many systems are already struggling to meet the regulations," Heare says. "There’s a cost to treatment and monitoring."
Even if the water coming out of the treatment plant is clean, contaminants could get into water after it leaves the facility. That’s because millions of miles of distribution pipe are nearing their end of life. And household plumbing remains a main cause of lead contamination in homes built before 1986.
The bottom line? A point-of-use filter makes sense if you’re worried about contaminants. And even if you’re not, a filter can improve taste, odor, and clarity.