• Do you know what is in your drinking water?
  • Do you drink tap water and do you know where it comes from?
  • Do you drink bottled water?

These were some of the questions that were discussed at the March 14, 2001 NOHA lecture, given by Dorothy Fisher Atwood, RG, a hydrogeologist and environmental consultant from Portland, Oregon. She acknowledged special assistance from NOHA NEWS Co-editor Andrew Fisher for detailed research on local conditions here.

In the Chicago area most of us are blessed with an abundant source of water — Lake Michigan. In many parts of the world drinking water must come from groundwater, which can be exceedingly scarce. Along with a dramatic illustration and explanation of the water cycle, Ms. Atwood gave us an interesting table:


Location Percent of World's Supply Residence Time
Ocean 97.4000% 1000's of years
Ice Caps/Glaciers 2.2700% 10,000 years +
Groundwater 0.3200% 100 to 1000's of years
Lakes 0.0100% 10,000's of years
Atmosphere 0.0010% 10 days
Rivers and streams 0.0001% 10 to 20 days


As we see, water can remain in Lake Michigan for thousands of years. Are we caring for it?



  • Microbes: Microbial threats are from bacteria and viruses and from parasites, such as Giardia lamblia and Cryptosporidium. Diseases include bacillary dysentery, gastroenteritis, and infectious hepatitis. Microbial sources include sewage treatment plants, septic systems, agricultural livestock, wildlife and pets, and storm water runoff. Microbial treatment for parasites has to be filtration and must be sufficiently fine-grained to catch all the cysts from the parasites. When the filtration plant failed in Milwaukee in 1993, one hundred people died and thousands became ill from Cryptosporidium.
  • Pesticides move through the water cycle in many ways: through wind drift, urban waste water, precipitation, spray drift, wind erosion, evaporation, dry deposition, run-off, and seepage into ground water, which gradually discharges into streams and lakes. Pesticides are routinely found in surface and groundwater all over the country and all over the world. Pesticides are designed to kill living organisms and are toxic to all of us. Some short term effects are nausea, headaches, and diarrhea; long term: cancer and endocrine disruption, including fertility problems.
  • Inorganics, including lead from lead pipes and solder in copper pipes; copper from piping; arsenic, which is naturally occurring in some rock formations and which we also get from industrial wastes. Lead causes nervous system disorders; copper, stomach problems; and arsenic can cause skin, bladder, and liver cancer. Drinking water also contains fluoride, nitrates, mercury, and a host of other inorganic contaminants that have signiicant health effects.
  • Pharmaceutical and Personal Care Products (PPCPs) are an emerging issue in the USA. PPCPs are present in drinking water. Examples include anti-inflammatory, anti-convulsant, and cholesterol-lowering drugs, plus, of course, pain killers. The health effects are unknown.
  • Other Potential Contaminants include:
    1. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) from industrial chemicals and solvents, many of which are cancer causing and
    2. Radionuceotides from human and natural sources.


Chlorinating is used to kill bacteria and viruses. However, chlorine is a double-edged sword. It reacts with organic compounds in the water, producing disinfection byproducts: Trihalomethanes are the most common and result in increased cancer risk, especially bladder and colon; plus a possible link to still births.

reprinted with permission from Is Our Water Safe to Drink? by J. Gordon Millichap, MD

Ms. Atwood gave detailed information about contamination levels in local water systems and spelled out government regulations for tap water. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act (governed by the EPA) there are Maximum Contaminant Level Goals (MCLGs), which are based on health effects and are not enforceable. Then, there are the Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs). Eighty standards have been set. They are enforceable and are based on health, technology, and economic feasibility—not just on human health. There are no standards for many contaminants. All the testing is done for single contaminants, whereas we are always exposed to mixtures. Only public water systems are tested. Personal wells are exempt.

Annual sales of bottled water have tripled in 10 years. The cost to the consumer is 250 to 10,000 times that of tap water. Twenty-five percent of bottled water is actually just tap water. However, sometimes the water is obtained from a deep spring and the supplier may be vigilant about protecting the source from seepage coming from the recharge area of the spring.

Bottled water regulations are weaker than city tap water regulations:


Water Type Disinfection
E. Coli &
Safe Source
or Filter?
and Virus
Bottled No No 1/week No No 1/year
Big City
Tap Water
Yes Yes Hundreds/
Yes Yes 4/year


Sales within states are not covered by FDA rules and the FDA lags in its obligation to apply the EPA standards to bottled water. Also discussed was the problem of leaching contaminants from bottled water containers—especially phthalates (endocrine disrupters) from plastic.

With all these problems we may feel hesitant to drink water. However, water, which we drink plain or which is contained in juicy fruits and vegetables that we consume, is essential for our health. One recommendation is that you drink your weight in pounds divided by two in ounces every day: for a 150 pound person that would be 75 ounces—about two and a third quarts per day.


Sources of water are not systematically protected and there are many constituents in drinking water. Acute health concerns are fairly well addressed in our country. Chronic concerns are challenging; new ones are emerging; and the identified ones are not fully understood.


Be an advocate for source protection. For example, NOHA has long advocated eating food that is not directly contaminated with pesticides. Work with others, for example, Beyond Pesticides/NCAMP and the Lake Michigan InterLeague Group of the League of Women Voters on eliminating pesticide use everywhere. Question all uses of persistent toxic chemicals.

Advocate the precautionary principle, which uses an indication of harm versus proof of harm as the trigger for action, particularly if delay may cause irreparable damage. The policy should be that toxics will never be used if there is any other way to accomplish the necessary task. Principle of Reverse Onus: Prove safety before introducing a product into the grand human experiment. Safety versus harm should have to be demonstrated. This action shifts the burden of proof off the public and onto the producer.

Educate yourself and others. Call your water provider and ask for the latest "Consumer Confidence Report." (required by law) If you have’nt just arrived, ask about past quality issues, for example, lead pipes that may have been replaced but ask when. Ask about prevention and emerging issues. Surf the web for up-to-date information.




Millichap, J. Gordon, MD, Is Our Water Safe to Drink? A Guide to Drinking Water Hazards and Health Risks, PNB Publishers, P. O. Box 11391, Chicago, Illinois 60611, 1995.

Booker, Susan B., "NTP [National Toxicology Program] Taps Disinfection By-Products for Study,"Environmental Health Perspectives, 108(2):A64-6, February 2000.

Potera, Carol, "Drugged Drinking Water,"Environmental Health Perspectives, 108(10):A446, October 2000.

Morales, Knashawn H., et al, "Risk of Internal Cancers from Arsenic in Drinking Water," Environmental Health Perspectives, 108(7):655, July 2000.

Abraham, Hilary, The Tap Gap: Pesticides in Oregon’s Drinking Water, published by the Oregon Pesticide Education Network (OPEN), which includes The Oregon Environmental Council, 520 SW 6th Avenue, Suite 940, Portland, OR 97204, July 2000.

NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) 2000, "Bottled Water: Pure Drink or Pure Hype?" See

Porter, K., et al, "Pesticide Health Effects in Drinking Water," Natural Resources Cornell Cooperative Extension 1998. See

U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water Programs. National Primary Drinking Water Regulations. See

Sampat, Payal, Deep Trouble: The Hidden Threat of Groundwater Pollution, WORLDWATCH PAPER 154, December 2000

McGinn, Anne Platt, Why Poison Ourselves? A Precautionary Approach to Synthetic Chemicals, WORLDWATCH PAPER 153, November 2000



LINKS and RESOURCES Environmental Working Group Provides the public with locally relevant information on public health issues including drinking water. A comprehensive guide to America's water resources from the U.S. Geological Survey. Water Quality Homepage: A comprehensive list of more than 1,000 web sites related to all aspects of water quality from the National Agriculture Library.

New York Times section features articles on availability of water for an expanding human population, and more. The Watershed Management Council: Information from a non-profit educational organization on the art and science of watershed management.

NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) 2000, "Bottled Water: Pure Drink or Pure Hype?"

U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water Programs. National Primary Drinking Water Regulations. EPA Safe Drinking Water Hotline: 1-800-426-4791.

In Chicago, whose water treatment plant also serves many suburbs, you can call 312-744-7001. See

City of Evanston Web Site: "" Go to "Departments," "Public Works," "Water& Sewer"

NSF International, in Ann Arbor, Mich., tests and certifies products __such as bottled water, water filters, and water treatment units: __877-867-3435 or on the Web at

For more on this topic, including what to look for in bottled water __or in a filter:

Article from NOHA NEWS, Vol. XXVI, No. 3, Summer 2001, pages 1-3.