The Sky is Not Falling

Every year, just in time for National Drinking Water Quality month, a story (or ten) come out about your tap water. Something to the effect of “We are all going to die from contaminated drinking water.” And every year, water districts across the country scramble to ease fear and get the facts out before the pitchforks come for our heads.

This year is no different. As water district employees, many of us spent the weekend answering our friend’s posts on Facebook. The Environmental Working Group released an article titled “EWG’s Nationwide Tap Water Transparency Report is Here: New Database Details Pollutants in Virtually All U.S. Public Water Systems.” Doesn’t sound so bad, does it? But this is what it turned into on my Facebook feed:

“The more you know… YIKES! But seriously, it is so good to be informed!I saw this as I was sitting drinking my tap Water. Enter your zip code into the Environmental Working Group’s Database to find out how good 👍 or bad 👎 your water 💧 is. Post your results below, and let’s compare!”

So, I did. I typed in my zip code and found nine contaminants detected above health levels and 14 other contaminants! Gasp! How could that be? It states very clearly at the very top of the page in bold print; “Tap water provided by this water utility complied with federal health-based drinking water standards.” I am so confused. Aren’t you?

With further investigation, it said our tap water had .0446 ppb of Chromium. And it pointed out that it was cancer causing.

• First, let’s look at what ppb and ppm mean. The measurement ppb equals parts per billion. Ppm stands for parts per million. There are even parts per trillion and parts per quadrillion.

• So, what are .0446 parts per billion? Well, one ppb is like adding a pinch of salt to a 10-ton bag of potato chips. Yes, you heard me right, a 10-ton bag of potato chips!

• So horror of horrors, we have (let’s round up) .05 parts per billion. Your author is not a math wizard by any means, but that pinch of salt would now only be 5% of that pinch of salt in a 10-ton bag of potato chips.

However, none of that matters because EWG is wrong. If you read our water quality report, you will see that our Chromium levels were labeled “non-detect.” That means we could not measure contaminants in the water.

Also, upon reading the methodology used by EWG, you will learn that EWG based its analysis partially on its own standards. “”When official guidelines are not available or are insufficient to protect public health, we developed our own health benchmarks using publicly available scientific research,” reads EWG’s data sources and methodology page. So the while the tap water meets all of the federal based drinking water standards, EWG decided to choose their own standards. Set by whom? And with what validity?

The article continued by stating “Reduce your exposures to common drinking water pollutants with EWG’s handy tip sheet.” Clicking on the link takes you to a page asking you to sign up for EWG’s email list and asking you to donate to EWG. Finally, I could download a one-page infographic that encouraged me to buy a filter for my sink or a whole home filter. Interesting, don’t you think? Their standards seem to “smell” and are a little “cloudy” to me.

The moral to this story? Dig deeper into the story. Question the facts they give you, and research your facts.

Please take the time to review our annual water quality report at scwd.org/report. Every public water system must by law complete one each year. Remember, just because it is on Facebook, it doesn’t mean it’s real. But you already knew that!

You can always learn more at scwd.org.

Frequently Asked Questions

A Story as Old as Time. In the battle between Mr. Bottle and Ms. Tap, who will prevail?