Most tap water is safe for
healthy adults and children.
The United States has one of the safest water supplies
in the world. Although drinking water often picks up low levels
of some contaminants as it flows in rivers and collects in aquifers,
these materials usually are not detected at harmful levels. Public
water suppliers must monitor their water to make sure it complies
with science-based public health standards. The United States Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) sets these maximum allowable levels of contaminants
in drinking water under the Safe Drinking Water Act. EPA has set
standards for 90 contaminants, seven of which are new standards
that will be enforceable before January 1, 2002. People at the federal,
tribal, state and local levels work together to protect public water
supplies. Federal standards do not include private wells (individual
wells serving fewer than 25 persons). Therefore, people receiving
water from private wells are responsible for making sure their own
drinking water is safe. Some states do set standards for private
wells, so well owners should check their state requirements. "Additional
Information for Private Well Owners" can help locate resources
for well owners.
Problems with drinking water
can, and do, occur.
Actual events of serious drinking water contamination
are infrequent and usually of short duration. However, treatment
problems or extreme weather events may allow contaminants to enter
water supplies. In most situations, contaminants are found at levels
that do not pose immediate threats to public health. Microbial contaminants
(such as bacteria and viruses) are of special concern because they
may cause immediate, or acute, reactions, such as vomiting or diarrhea.
Long-term exposure to some contaminants (such as pesticides, minerals,
and solvents) at levels above standards may cause gastrointestinal
problems, skin irritations, cancer, reproductive and developmental
problems, and other chronic health effects. If a public water system
obtains water from a highly contaminated river, lake, or ground
water well, it may have difficulty treating the water to meet current
safety standards. If contamination poses an immediate health threat,
water suppliers are required by law to notify customers right away.
Any violation of a drinking water standard requires public notice.
How drinking water standards
EPA's current drinking water standards are designed
to protect children and adults. The standards take into account
the potential effects of contaminants on segments of the population
that are most at risk. When EPA sets each standard, the agency conducts
a risk assessment, in which scientists evaluate whether fetuses,
infants, children, or other groups are more vulnerable to a contaminant
than the general population. The standard is set to protect the
most vulnerable group.
Often, children are not the most vulnerable
group. For example, even though children may be more vulnerable
to microbial contaminants than the general public, people with weakened
immune systems are even more at risk. People with weakened
immune systems include those who have undergone organ transplants,
people with HIV/AIDS or other immune system disorders, such as lupus
or Crohn's disease, or those under-going chemotherapy. (For more
information see the EPA/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's
joint guidance on the microbial pathogen, Cryptosporidium,
called "Guidance for People with Severely Weakened Immune Systems."
If EPA finds that children are the most vulnerable, their risk becomes
the most important factor considered in developing the standard.
Standards for lead, nitrates, and nitrites are specifically based
on risk to children because they are the most vulnerable to these
contaminants. If a group other than children is the most sensitive,
children are automatically protected.
For most drinking water contaminants EPA regulates,
there is little data to indicate whether children are more sensitive
than the general public. However, EPA is undertaking research to
address this important issue. Children, especially infants, drink
more fluid per pound of body weight than adults. Very young children's
immune systems are not yet fully developed, making them less able
than healthy adults to fight microbes in drinking water. These microbes
may induce diarrhea and vomiting, which may cause children to become
dehydrated more quickly than adults. Children may also be more susceptible
to chemical contaminants that affect learning, motor skills, and
sex hormones during important stages of growth.
Despite high confidence in existing standards, EPA
is conducting additional research regarding possible impacts of
various contaminants on children and other vulnerable populations,
and on new and emerging contaminants. For example, EPA is conducting
risk assessments that will consider infants' and children's sensitivity
and exposure to certain pesticides. EPA is committed to using the
best available, peer-reviewed science and data in developing new
standards and reevaluating existing ones. Also, EPA continues to
monitor localized health problems, including outbreaks caused by
microbial contaminants in drinking water and other health problems
that may be associated with other contaminants (e.g., solvents and
other industrial chemicals).
Contaminants to Which Children
May Be Particularly Sensitive
Children are particularly sensitive to the contaminants
in the following table (72 K PDF FILE, 2 pgs) .
EPA sets standards at levels that protect them. In most circumstances,
these contaminants do not present problems, because they do not
occur in the drinking water source or because they are reduced,
removed or rendered harmless during treatment. If you are concerned
about a particular contaminant in your tap water, you should first
ask your public water system about the concentration in your tap
water, check your annual water quality report (also called Consumer
Confidence Report), or have your well water tested. Health effects
discussed on this table are specific to children. General information
about the contaminants and their potential health effects is listed
and is available from the Safe Drinking Water Hotline, (800) 426-4791.
For personal health advice, you should contact your health care
Many layers of protection ensure
tap water quality.
Federal, state and tribal governments, in partnership
with public water systems, are continuously working to ensure tap
water safety. In fact, 1999 marks the 25th year of public health
protection under the Safe Drinking Water Act. This statute gives
EPA the authority to set enforceable drinking water standards for
public water systems. EPA has set standards for 90 chemical, microbiological,
radiological, and physical contaminants in drinking water. Public
water systems must monitor water according to specific schedules,
and deliver water that meets all standards. EPA is required by the
Safe Drinking Water Act to focus on the contaminants that pose the
greatest public health risk, in setting national standards. The
Agency must ensure the standards protect public health, are technically
feasible, and are cost-effective.
When setting new drinking water standards, EPA does
extensive peer-reviewed research and analysis to ensure the standards
will protect public health. States can either adopt and enforce
these standards or set and enforce even stricter ones. EPA also
establishes guidance, which some states chose to adopt and enforce,
to control contaminants that may cause cosmetic effects (such as
skin or tooth discoloration) or aesthetic effects (such as taste,
odor, or color) in drinking water. Public water systems are responsible
for controlling the level of contaminants in drinking water to meet
Drinking water standards are part of a "multiple
barriers" approach to drinking water safety. This includes:
protecting drinking water sources to prevent contamination; controlling
the discharge of contaminants underground through injection wells
(not used for drinking) or shallow disposal systems; treating water
to make sure it meets standards; making sure water systems are run
by qualified operators; ensuring distribution systems are functioning
properly; and making information available to the public on the
quality of drinking water. These protections work together to help
ensure tap water in the United States is safe.
New requirements ensure protection
to children will increase.
In 1997, President Clinton issued an executive
order that specifies that each federal agency "shall make it a high priority to identify and assess environmental health and safety risks that may disproportionately affect children," and "shall ensure that its policies, programs, activities, and standards address disproportionate risks to children that result from environmental health risks or safety risks."
Even before the 1997 executive order, children were
a priority for EPA's drinking water program. The 1996 amendments
to the Safe Drinking Water Act require EPA to strengthen protection
of children by considering the risk to the most vulnerable populations
when setting standards. The amendments call for better science,
including an analysis of the health effects of vulnerable populations,
to use when making regulatory decisions. To address these requirements,
EPA considers the special needs of children when identifying new
contaminants to regulate, includes children in risk assessments
to determine public health goal, and conducts research on children's
exposure to contaminants. The 1996 amendments also require EPA to
reassess all drinking water standards every six years and consider
new data, and thus ensure that standards continue to protect public
health, including children.
Meeting new challenges is costly
and can require technological improvements.
As new standards are set to reinforce public health
protection, public water systems sometimes must install new equipment,
improve or replace infrastructure, or make improvements in the way
they operate water systems. To help with these costs, EPA provides
grants to states, which in turn provide low-interest loans to public
water systems to help them comply with new standards. There are
also significant costs associated with conducting necessary research
and protecting drinking water sources.
Protecting drinking water sources.
EPA emphasizes protecting sources of drinking water
from contamination. It is more desirable, effective and economical
to prevent contamination of drinking water supplies than to pay
for treatment, or to clean up an already-polluted source. States
are currently assessing all the drinking water sources within their
boundaries. These assessments map the rivers, lakes and ground water
wells that supply public drinking water and identify principal threats
to water quality. States can also utilize millions of federal dollars
to take actions to protect source waters. To learn more about protecting
drinking water sources, see www.epa.gov/safewater/protect.html,
or call the Safe Drinking Water Hotline.
Once informed about the sources and quality of your
local drinking water, you can make the best
possible choices about the water you and your children drink.
for Private Well Owners
Private water supplies are not regulated by
EPA, although some states and municipalities have standards
that apply to these wells. If you have a private well, you
are responsible for testing your water to make sure it is
safe. This is especially important in areas where homes and
nearby businesses are on septic systems. Since many contaminants
are colorless and odorless, testing is the only way to determine
whether your well water is safe to drink. EPA drinking water
standards and health information are good guidelines for you
in protecting your own drinking water.
Wells should be tested annually for nitrate
and coliform bacteria to detect contamination problems early.
Test more frequently and for more potential contaminants,
such as radon, pesticides or industrial chemicals if you suspect
a problem. Contact your state laboratory certification office
for a listing of certified drinking water laboratories in
your state. In addition, you can help protect your water supply
by carefully managing activities near the water source. The
organization, Farm*A*Syst/ Home*A*Syst, (608) 262-0024, provides
fact sheets and worksheets to help farmers and rural residents
assess pollution risks and develop management plans geared
towards their circumstances.
The Safe Drinking Water Hotline, (800) 426-4791,
can provide you with the phone numbers for these organizations.
Resources are also available on the Internet:
YOU can do to make sure tap water is safe for the children of today
. . . and tomorrow
Water is an essential nutrient -- necessary for maintaining
body temperature, transporting nutrients throughout the body, keeping
joints moist, digesting food, ridding the body of waste products,
and cooling the body. The American Medical Association recommends
that adults should consume about 2-1/2 quarts of water a day; children
about half this much. While the best way to consume this amount
is by drinking plain water, food and beverages made with water,
such as soup and juice, count for part of this amount. It is important
to know how to protect this essential nutrient and vital resource.
Learn about your local drinking water: Start by reading
your Consumer Confidence Report to learn whether your water system
meets all drinking water standards. This report is available from
your water supplier, and may be online at http://www.epa.gov/safewater/dwinfo.htm.
Understand how your local water supplier is working to provide your
community with safe drinking water. Don't be afraid to ask questions.
Your water supplier and EPA's Safe Drinking Water Hotline (800)
426-4791 are there to help.
Consider the source: Get to know the source of your
drinking water, and get involved in activities to protect it. Drinking
water source protection is a low-cost means to providing a vital
resource. Here are a few simple things you can do to help keep pollution
out of the river, lake, stream or aquifer that is your drinking
Take used motor oil to a recycling center. If
you let it drain into a storm sewer or bury it in the trash,
it can leak into lakes, rivers and wells. Just one pint of used
motor oil can expand over great distances and cause adverse
effects to human health and the environment.
Properly dispose of toxic household trash. For
example, batteries contain lead and mercury. Some household
cleaners also contain substances that contaminate water. Many
communities have special collection sites for these items.
Do not dispose of chemicals into septic systems,
dry wells, stormwater drainage wells or other shallow disposal
systems that discharge to ground water.
Find out what your community is doing to protect
your water source and get involved. Work with schools, civic
groups and others to start a protection program.
Drinking Water Safety, Sources, and Prevention
Other Environmental Issues Affecting Children,
Such as Asthma, Sun Exposure, and Safety Measures in the Home