How do you know if your drinking water is safe?

If you visit Rome, you’ll see people lined up at old public water fountains to drink the water and fill their water bottles. Visitors are at first a little leery, but soon learn that they can thank the ancient Romans for a legacy of clean, delicious ice-cold free water. More than 2,500 fountains, both free-standing columns and decorative spigots on the sides of buildings, pump out gallons to residents and visitors alike.

Here in the U.S., most of us would be reluctant to drink from a standing fountain in a city square. We’re often a little worried about the quality of our tap water, particularly after watching the horror show in Flint, Michigan, where residents have logged more than 1200 days with undrinkable lead-contaminated tap water. Some Flint water is so polluted it is visible to the naked eye, but it was not always so obvious – many people became ill before the danger of the water was recognized.

So how how do you know if your water is more like Rome’s or Flint’s?

The first step in learning more about your water quality is learning the source. The Centers for Disease Control answers that in an FAQ on drinking water.

The drinking water that is supplied to our homes comes from either surface water or ground water. Surface water collects in streams, rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. Ground water is water located below the ground where it collects in pores and spaces within rocks and in underground aquifers. We obtain ground water by drilling wells and pumping it to the surface.

Public water systems provide water from surface and ground water for public use. Water treatment systems are either government or privately-held facilities. Surface water systems withdraw water from the source, treat it, and deliver it to our homes. Ground water systems also withdraw and deliver water, but they do not always treat it.

The FAQ explains that some contaminants like lead, radon and arsenic are naturally occurring and need to be monitored, while others come from local land use processes, such as manufacturing or livestock waste, fertilizers, pesticides, etc. Contaminants can also occur from unplanned events, such as when a sewer overflows or a water treatment center malfunctions. After floods, the water supply can sometimes be compromised for a period of time.

The Environmental Protection Agency is the federal authority that safeguards our water supply. In 1974, the Safe Drinking Water Act became law to regulate contaminants found in drinking water. Public water systems are required to produce an annual report called a CCR or Consumer Confidence Report. The easiest way to obtain a report is your water supplier.

The EPA offers several resources about water supply quality. You can call or submit email questions to their Safe Drinking Water Hotline for any questions you may have (but be aware that the EPA may be facing substantial cuts and it’s unclear if such services will be continued).

The EPA’s Water FAQs post some very useful information to learn more about water topics such as how to find out more about local water quality, how to decontaminate water by boiling and general information about bottled water and if/how it is regulated.

They also regulate bottled water. If you think switching from tap to bottled is healthier, read what they have to say about It:

Bottled water is not necessarily safer than your tap water. EPA sets standards for the drinking water provided by public water systems; the Food and Drug Administration sets bottled water standards based on EPA?s tap water standards. Bottled water and tap water are both safe to drink if they meet these standards, although people with severely compromised immune systems and children may have special needs. Some bottled water is treated more than tap water, while some is treated less or not treated at all. Bottled water costs much more than tap water on a per gallon basis. Bottled water is valuable in emergency situations (such as floods and earthquakes), and high quality bottled water may be a desirable option for people with weakened immune systems. Consumers who choose to purchase bottled water should carefully read its label to understand what they are buying, whether it is a better taste, or a certain method of treatment.

Your local tap water should be fine and under ordinary circumstances. It is cheaper and more environmentally friendly to get your water from a public supply, but if you want to learn more detail about the quality of water you drink, check out this podcast from  Everyday Einstein, who explains what contaminates our water, how it gets there, and what we can do to test it.

Check your water supplier first. If you have no luck, try your state authority. In some states, this drinking water quality information can be found under the Board of Health, in others under Environmental divisions. Here are links for the five New England states.

CT Department of Public Health

MA Department of Energy & Environmental Affairs

ME Division of Environmental Health

NH Department of Environmental Services

RI Department of Health Drinking Water Quality

VT Department of Environmental Conservation