The Risks of Drinking Untreated Water


​Despite the availability of treated water, there are many reasons why you or your neighbors may continue drinking untreated water. For older community members, it may simply be a practice that they are accustomed to. Some folks 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 the treated water.

It is important to take the time to carefully reconsider this practice, primarily because we rarely know what else may be present in untreated water sources. The health risk lies in not knowing. Untreated water may contain any number of contaminants including bacteria, viruses, parasites, heavy metals, pesticides, fertilizers, human and animal waste and many more. 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, potentially contributing 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 having the unappealing pollutants, bacteria, viruses and parasites found in untreated water enter our bodies. Below you will find more information that may help you to overcome some of the more common barriers to drinking treated water.

Barrier 1: My Water HAs Been Shut Off or I Can’t Afford the Bill

Barrier 1: I don’t drink the treated water because my water has been shut-off and/or I can’t afford to connect/re-connect to the water system or stay current on by bill.

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 solution. Many communities have affordability programs in place. Talk with those in charge of billing to to see if this is the case in your community. If this is not the case, you may find yourself in a position to propose that some sort of assistance or affordability program be implemented. Jump to the Crucial Conversations section on how to start critical conversations such as this with your utility in community representatives. Here are some examples of assistance or affordability programs offered in other communities that you may offer as ideas for solutions as you approach your utility.

  • Allowing customers to set up payment plans to pay down debt in increments over time.
  • Connecting customers to public or private social assistance programs that help low income households pay utility bills.
  • Offer reduced rates to elders, disabled or lowest income community members. This could be financed by:
    • Slightly increasing rates for all other customers
    • Subsidization
  • Debt forgiveness
Barrier 2: I Dislike the Taste of Chlorine

Barrier 2: I don’t drink the treated water because I don’t like the taste of chlorine.
If the taste of chlorine is the only barrier preventing you from drinking the treated water, try putting the tap water in a pitcher with a cover then letting it set on the counter or in the refrigerator over night. This ​allows most forms of chlorination time to evaporate out of the water, eliminating the associated taste.

 In some tap water chlorinated with chloramine, evaporation time is to slow and letting the water sit may not be effective. If you find that letting your water sit out over night does not reduce the taste of chlorine, consider purchasing a low cost activated-carbon filter pitcher, such as the Britta water filter, to remove the chlorine. Keep in mind that the filter cartridges in these types of filters must be replaced periodically in order for the filters to work.

Barrier 3: I Don’t Trust The Water Treatment Chemicals

Barrier 3: I don’t drink the treated water because I don’t trust the chemicals being added during treatment.

Most drinking water treatment involves the addition of chemicals. The chemicals serve primarily to reduce the concentration of unwanted contaminants. Some common treatment chemicals help neutralize water that is too acidic or alkaline for human consumption. Some coagulate contaminants, or help them bond together so that they may be more effectively removed by a filter.  The most commonly added chemical, chlorine or its compounds (chloramine or chlorine dioxide), serves to kill many harmful micro-organisms. Treated water is regularly tested to ensure that any treatment chemicals it contains remain well within the concentration range that is safe for humans to drink. Jump to the Water Treatment Chemicals section for more information on chlorine and fluoride in drinking water.

Barrier 4: I Don’t Think the Treated Water is Safer Than The Untreated Water

Barrier 4: I don’t drink the treated water because I don’t trust that it’s actually any safer than the untreated water.

Water utilities are required by law to regularly test drinking water for a wide variety of contaminants. They are also required to report the results of that testing to customers through a document called a Consumer Confidence Report (CCR). You may have received a CCR in the past, possibly included along 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 too safe limits. You will also be able to read about whether or not 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 may give you a sense 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 weren’t treated. If you need a new copy of your CCR, speak with the water utility management who should be able to print a new copy. For more information on CCRs and how to read them, jump to the CCR section.

​If you are unwavering in your decision to drink the untreated water, consider conducting some form of treatment at home. Boiling water for at least one full or filtering water through ceramic filters or simple carbon-activated filters may not remove all of the contaminants present, but can remove many of the harmful micro-organisms responsible for common waterborne illnesses.