Despite the availability of treated water, there are many reasons why you or your neighbors may continue drinking untreated water. For some older community members, it may simply be a practice they are accustomed to. Some community members may collect untreated water because they aren’t able or willing to pay for the treated water, while others may be wary of the chemicals in treated water.
It is important to take the time to carefully consider the risks of untreated water, primarily because we rarely know what is present in untreated water sources. Untreated water may contain any number of contaminants, such as: bacteria, viruses, parasites, heavy metals, pesticides, fertilizers, and human and animal waste. These contaminants are rarely visible to the naked eye and may cause a variety of ailments, including: diarrhea, stomach cramps, vomiting and even pneumonia. Some contaminants, such as arsenic, are even known carcinogens, which can potentially contribute to cancer. The risks of drinking untreated water are significant.
Drinking treated water, on the other hand, provides numerous benefits to our health and allows us to avoid being exposed to unappealing pollutants, bacteria, viruses and parasites. Below you will find information that may help community members overcome some of the common barriers to drinking treated water.
If you are 100 percent dedicated to your decision to drink untreated water, despite the potential health risks, consider conducting some form of personal water treatment at home. Treatment methods, such as boiling water for at least one full hour, or filtering water through ceramic filters or simple carbon-activated filters, can remove many of the harmful microorganisms responsible for common waterborne illnesses. However, these methods likely cannot remove all the contaminants present in water.
If the main barrier preventing you or your neighbors from drinking the treated water is a genuine inability to afford the service, you will need to work with your local utility and Tribal or city officials to find an alternative payment solution. Many communities have affordability programs in place. Ask those in charge of billing if this is an option in your community and go to the Difficulty Affording the Water Bill section to see examples of affordability programs.
If there are not options, you may need to propose that an assistance or affordability program be implemented. Go to the Engaging in Critical Conversations section on how to start critical conversations with your utility and leadership. You may also wish to direct relevant stakeholders to the resources on Rate Setting and Making Water Affordable in the Local Leadership section of this toolkit.
If the taste of chlorine is the only barrier preventing you from drinking treated water, try putting the tap water in a pitcher with a cover, then letting it sit on the counter or in the refrigerator overnight. Thisallows time for most forms of chlorination to evaporate, eliminating the associated taste.
In some tap water chlorinated with chloramine, evaporation time is slow. If you find that letting your water sit out overnight does not reduce the taste of chlorine, consider purchasing a low-cost, activated-carbon filter pitcher or faucet connector, such as the Britta water filter, to remove the chlorine. Keep in mind that filter cartridges in these types of filters must be replaced periodically in order for them to remain effective.
The treatment of drinking water often involves adding chemicals in amounts that are not harmful to your health. The chemicals primarily serve to reduce the concentration of unwanted contaminants. Additionally, some common treatment chemicals help neutralize water that is too acidic or alkaline for human consumption, and coagulate contaminants so that they can be more effectively removed by a filter. The most commonly added chemical, chlorine or its compounds (chloramine or chlorine dioxide), is effective at killing many harmful microorganisms. Treated water is regularly tested to ensure that any treatment chemicals remain well within the concentration range that is safe for humans to drink. Go to the Understanding Chemicals in Treated Water section for more information on chlorine and fluoride in drinking water.
Water utilities are required by law to regularly test drinking water for a variety of contaminants. They are also required to report the test results to customers through a document called a Consumer Confidence Report (CCR). You may have received a CCR in the past, possibly included with your water bill or community newsletter. From the CCR, you will be able to read the level of each tested contaminant present in your water and compare that to limits safe for health. You will also see in that report if your water has violated any regulatory standards in the past year, what that may mean for you and what has been done to address the issue.
The CCR should give you a sense of how thoroughly water is treated and tested. Violations may give you a hint as to which contaminants might regularly exceed safe limits if the water isn’t properly treated. If you need a new copy of your CCR, speak with the water utility management, who should be able to print a copy. For more information on CCRs and how to read them, jump to the Consumer Confidence Report section.