It turns out that public drinking water is not as well inspected as we may have imagined. As NPR reports, when scientists run tests on water to check for the presence of chemicals, they’re looking for specific kinds. Unfortunately, with tens of thousands of kinds of chemicals in existence, only a tiny fraction are being looked for at any given point, meaning that an array of other chemicals could easily go undetected for long periods of time.
Let’s not break into mass hysteria, though. Just because chemicals could be hiding in our water doesn’t mean that it’s common. Most drinking water is perfectly safe. However, this vulnerability in the testing system does indicate that Americans should rethink how we handle and test water that has been potentially compromised.
This tragic flaw was put on display this month after chemicals got in West Virginia’s water supply. Although officials were concerned about one specific chemical, it was only much later that a second chemical was discovered present in the water, as well. Had that second chemical continued to have gone undetected, dangerous water could have been declared “safe” prematurely. (To be honest, it seems like they might have done that anyway.)
Brent Fewell, a vice president at United Waters, explains that the laboratories were probably so caught up in looking for the known chemical in the water that it didn’t bother to see if any other contaminants could be found.
Though Fewell acknowledges that laboratories could theoretically do blanket tests for every known chemical, it isn’t feasible practice from a financial standpoint. “To expect a water company to monitor for thousands of chemicals, it just is not practical and it would be cost-prohibitive,” he said.
Ultimately it raises the question: if even extreme cases of tainted water aren’t being examined carefully, when exactly is this technology being used?
As for the cost factor, it’s probably worth exploring whether it’s actually not affordable, or if companies just don’t want to have to pay for it. After all, corporate America has a history of trying to skirt safety issues in order to maximize every ounce of profit. Cutting corners may be the “free market” approach, but when it leaves communities vulnerable, it’s time to consider stricter regulations.
If corporations, the main culprits of leaking chemicals into the water/environment, were held more accountable for their practices, there would be less of a need to regularly test the water for thousands of chemicals in the first place. Thus far, there have been few consequences for West Virginia’s chemical leaker, Freedom Industries, which certainly doesn’t motivate similar companies to step up their games.
One thing is certain, though: bottled water is not the solution. While it may be scary to think about potential chemicals in tap water, you’ll be no safer going the wasteful, plastic route. As Beth Buczynski writes, tap water is surprisingly cleaner than bottled water on the whole. In fact, testing and standards are actually lower when it comes to the quality of bottled water. Considering that undetected chemicals could seep into a bottled water company’s water (which often is just taken from municipal supplies anyway) just as easily, there’s no reason to make the switch.