What if the water's not safe to drink?
Drinking water supplies in the United States are among the safest in the world. In most places, the tap water we drink is rigorously regulated and tested and must comply with government standards. Therefore, for most Americans the quality of their tap water is not at all an issue, and is often of higher quality than bottled water, and surely cheaper and more environmentally-friendly than bottled water.
But, while national, state, or even local statistics will most likely tell you that water in your area is safe to drink, it is more complicated to know for sure how safe the water is at your particular school. This is because water quality varies depending on the source of the water and the pipes and fixtures through which the water flows.
Factors to consider include the following:
If your water comes from a local utility, chances are your water meets all federal and state guidelines. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), municipal utilities met standards more than 92% of the time.1
For more detailed information, you can request a copy of the Annual Water Quality Report, also known as the Consumer Confidence Report. Current law requires that local utilities annually publish these reports with information about contaminant violations. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also posts many of these results here: www.epa.gov/safewater/dwinfo/index.html.2
Click here for a useful guide that can help you understand these reports: www.ewg.org/tap-water/whats-in-yourwater
The EWG also has data on your region's water here: www.ewg.org/tap-water/whats-in-yourwater
If your school has its own water source, such as a well or groundwater, it is most likely subject to the provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA)3. As such, it must regularly test its water and report these findings. If a school has unsafe water, it is likely due to contaminated well or groundwater (or contamination from pipes or other infrastructure, described below). A school's geography might place it at higher risk for ground or well water contamination. Schools with unsafe water must either fix these problems, perhaps through filtration or other means, or notify students, teachers, and others that the water is unsafe for consumption. Such schools may be required to purchase clean water from outside sources.
What's the water quality of the area where your school is?
Some regions of the country are known to have poorer quality water for a variety of reasons, including agricultural regions, industrial areas (or places where industry used to be), and areas with naturally
occurring water contaminants. While all schools in these areas may not have poor quality water and schools outside of these areas may have poor quality water, this is a useful starting place in learning about your school's water quality. Local health or water departments would likely know about the water quality in your area.
What's the state of the pipes and fixtures in your school?
Even if your water source is clean, the pipes and fixtures that carry the water to the tap and into your cup might contribute contaminants, such as copper, lead, or arsenic, to the drinking water supply. Schools must comply with relevant rules for testing and monitoring for these contaminants. If they are found in the water, schools can remedy the problems through a number of options, including low-cost solutions such as flushing pipes or filtration. Case studies from two schools are available below.
Guidance from EPA on water quality in schools is available here: www.epa.gov/safewater/schools/index.html
Case studies from two schools are available here: www.epa.gov/safewater/arsenic/casestudies/mi_schools.html and here: www.epa.gov/safewater/arsenic/casestudies/wa_seattle.html
So, what if the tap water in my school is unsafe to drink?
If tests reveal that your school's tap water is unsafe, there are a number of solutions. In the short-term, schools can install filtration systems, or, for certain contaminants, flushing pipes can solve the problem. If such simple short-term steps are insufficient, purchasing (or getting donated) bottled water may be a last resort. This option is potentially costly and has environmental concerns associated with plastic bottle waste and the emissions of transporting bottled water.
While long-term solutions would involve ensuring clean groundwater, improving municipal utilities, or replacing old, potentially hazardous plumbing and fixtures, these are also potentially costly and time consuming. State and federal funding may exist for such projects through the federal Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and, for example in California, the state department of water resources.
For More Information:
Community Water Center - The Community Water Center works with low-income communities in California to ensure that all communities have access to safe, clean, and affordable water. The CWC website has a number of resources for communities with problems related to unsafe water supplies. Click here to view their Guide to Community Drinking Water Advocacy, a practical tool for learning how public water systems are tested for safety and what can be done if your water supply is unsafe
Food and Water Watch advocates for public control of water resources and services, strong conservation measures, and support tough regulation of toxic emissions into water. The policies we promote will result in safe and affordable drinking water for everyone, rather than reliance on bottled water.
- Main Water Page
- Why the Country Needs Federal Funding for Water Infrastructure
- "Take Back the Tap" Campaign
Environmental Working Group: What's in Your Water?
Environmental Protection Agency: Drinking Water in Schools and Child Care Facilities