Can Your Water Make You Sick?

Posted on April 28, 2014

Is your water making you sick?

Digestive upset, stomach cramps, diarrhea.  It’s maybe over just as quickly as it started.  Clinically, this is called acute gastrointestinal illness (AGI) and is caused by bacteria like E. coli and other microorganisms.  Typically  when this happens to you, your first thought is likely “must have been something I ate” not “must have been something I drank”.   The exception being if you happened to be on vacation, in say, Mexico at the time!

Last year the Drinking Water Research Foundation (DWRF) published a paper which would have you believing that something you drank – tap water in particular –  is becoming a more frequent cause of AGI.  The paper “Microbial Health Risks of Regulated Drinking Waters in the United States” points out that some 16 million cases of AGI are attributed to tap water each year and argues the many reasons that tap water is riskier than bottled water.  And I agree with them.  They lay out a litany of issues with public water systems in the US that make the possibility of getting sick from your tap water ever more likely.  With this I agree. They would suggest that bottled water is the solution. Here I beg to differ.  I would suggest that the solution is really about ownership – taking individual responsibility for the water you and your family consume.

If you are a private well owner that message about ownership gets repeated to you as often as the seasons change.  Only you are responsible for the quality and safety of that well water.  Test your water, at least annually, for total coliforms and nitrates.  And take appropriate redress.  In the case of coliforms, that would involve shock chlorination of the well and your household plumbing.  And more and more, applying continuous disinfection- like an ultraviolet (UV) water treatment system- to protect against the likelihood of recurrence.

That’s the case where the well is supplying a single family or fewer than 5 households.  However, the vast majority of Americans are served waterwater graph by the 51,000 community water system (CWS) ranging in size from those serving fewer than 1000 people to systems serving huge numbers of people like that of New York City.  Across that spectrum, the required number of tests for total coliforms – tests that confirm the microbial safety of the water – increases as the population served increases.  All this to ensure that the water produced is safe to consume.  Not to say that things can’t go wrong.  They can.  And they do.  And if there’s reason to believe any of the water has left the treatment facility it results in a BOIL WATER alert.

Each year, the EPA publishes a summary of what went wrong; how many times; and where.  The most recent “Fiscal Year 2011 Drinking Water and Groundwater Statistics” documents the number of events that might have resulted in a boil water alert  as violations of the Total Coliform Rule. Even at a glance, it is easy to see that the smaller water systems experience the most challenges.  This dynamic was even identified back in 2009 in a Yale Symposium stating “There continues to be chronic problems with small public systems that are associated with a high percentage of water-borne outbreaks in the US, Canada, and worldwide.”

coliform graph

Sometimes the violation is actually failing to conduct the requisite number of tests for total coliforms.  In which case one has to wonder how they know if they need to issue a boil water alert if they never did the test in the first place??!??!   Nevertheless,  a process exists to drive the appropriate level of testing to ensure public safety.  Likewise bottled water manufacturers are expected to conduct the appropriate number of coliform tests to guarantee the microbial safety of their product.

But now the water stories diverge.  Water bottlers place their product into a closed system (a bottle) which is delivered to retail where you, the consumer, ultimately take ownership of it until you break the seal and drink it.  For a CWS, the closed system for delivery is the vast network of underground distribution pipes that delivers water from the treatment plant to homes.  The lid or seal, is what is referred to as chlorine residual – a mandated level of chlorine that is expected to maintain the purity of the water in that closed system until you open the tap and drink it.  But can this system still be relied upon?  Is it truly a closed system?

In the US, that network of pipes spans more than 1 billion miles, much of which is nearing or is at the end of its’ useful life and estimates for fixing it run more than $500 Million USD over the next 25 years.  Experts have identified the infrastructure deficiencies that are most likely to risk a disease outbreak.  Among them, the most visible, is a water main break.  (Another reason community water systems would issue a boil water alert.)  More than 700 water mains break each and every day exposing the pipes and the water within to potential microbial contamination.  Just for a city like Philadelphia, the headlines shouted about water main breaks 5 times in the first 13 days of this year.  Are there more breaks in store?  Very likely.  When you consider that up to 25% of treated water is lost through leaks in the system, it is easy to imagine an increasing number of breaks.  In fact, the EPA has recognized the risk in the distribution system and with the advent of the Revised Total Coliform Rule, 2013, is attempting to monitor the distribution system as well.


public water supply graphClearly water infrastructure in the USA is in a precarious state.  Ignoring the enormous price tag and the question of who pays, can anyone afford to wait 25 years??!?!  Let’s look at the risks in the interim.  As the DWRF paper points out, data from the CDC’s passive drinking water surveillance system indicates the incidence of public water supply waterborne disease outbreaks has actually decreased since the 1980s.  This is likely the result of better water treatment protocols.  However, the number of outbreaks due to public water supply distribution system issues and failures has not decreased.  Meaning more and more, the finger is pointed at the distribution system.

According to the DWRF, as stated at the outset, your solution is bottled water.  Sure.  That is one form of ownership.  But not without its toll on your pocket book and the environment.  And you still pay for the water delivered to your home which means -- whether you drink it or not –as a utility customer, you will bear your share of the burden of infrastructure repair.

Now, what if you took ownership by installing a point-of-entry (POE) uv water treatment system?  You are now using the water you are paying for uv point of useand simply polishing it to account for factors or risks outside your control.  For example, a POE ultraviolet device would treat for microorganisms like E. coli and Cryptosporidium that can cause AGI.  Effectively, you have created a new closed system --your home.  Where you can feel good about the water your family consumes from every tap.

In market research, after presenting a concept or new information, we frequently follow with a question that explores intended action.  Regarding the facts above, the question would be “Now, knowing everything you know about water system performance and water infrastructure challenges, how likely would you be to install a POE uv water treatment system in your home?”  If I was answering this question, my answer might depend on where I was living…am I in a rural setting with a private well or am I in a large city centre?  Then again, if I wanted insurance that I would never have to wonder “was it the water?”, the answer would be “Sign me up".