How safe is our drinking water?

It's one of life's most basic questions: Is my water safe to drink? The answer depends on at least three factors: the source of your water, the size and sophistication of your water department, and the condition of your water delivery system, including the pipes and fixtures in your house.

Consider the source: In Northeast Ohio, we are blessed with plentiful water supplies. Drinking water sources include:

Lake Erie: Many people in Northeast Ohio (including everyone in Cuyahoga County and beyond who are served by the Cleveland Division of Water) get their water from Lake Erie. Despite the lake's lingering reputation for pollution, it is a remarkably pure and stable source of drinking waters. And water intakes are typically far enough offshore so that urban and agricultural runoff is not a major concern. (The outbreak of the deadly cryptosporidium parasite in Milwaukee several years ago was partially caused by water intakes being too close to agricultural areas.

River and reservoirs: Rivers can be less dependable sources of water than a large lake. Volume of flow changes with the weather. Upstream pollution sources can degrade the water. And water quality can also depend on seasonal factors, such as spring runoff from farm fields sprayed with pesticides.

Oberlin, for example, draws water from the Black River, which drains agricultural areas of southern Lorain County. The Oberlin system times the diversion of water from the river into reservoir to avoid farm chemicals.

Meanwhile Akron, which draws water from the pristine upper Cuyahoga River, has sought to protect its water supply by buying up large tracts of land along the river. Cincinnati has been forced to build a costly carbon filtration treatment plant because the Ohio River is contaminated with so many toxic chemicals.

Groundwater: Municipal systems like Kent and Cuyahoga Falls tap into giant wells and must be concerned about groundwater contamination. Individuals with wells, such as homeowners in parts of Geauga County, have to worry about lowered water tables and salt infiltration. In agricultural areas in Northwest Ohio, wells have been contaminated by farm chemicals.

Treatment and delivery: If the source of your water is all right, you should then evaluate your treatment and delivery system. Big city water departments like Cleveland or Akron have sophisticated treatment plants with trained personnel working around the clock to monitor water quality. A small town or trailer park may have inadequate funding, antiquated equipment and a part-time staff. Every month, Ohio EPA cites small water systems for not notifying its users of water quality problems of for not performing required tests.

If you have your own well, it's up to you to have it tested. Even if the source of your water is pure and the water treatment plant does a great job of filtration and disinfection, problems can still crop up after the water leaves the plant. Lead and other metals can leach out of pipes in the distribution system and in home plumbing (a problem identified in the Cleveland system under worst-case conditions). And the chlorine used for disinfection can combine with organic matter in the water or form hazardous chemicals called trihalomethanes.

The lead problem can usually be greatly reduced if you let the water run for 30 seconds before drinking to flush out the pipes. The chlorination byproducts problem may force water systems to change to another disinfection method, such as ozonation or ultraviolet light.

Bottom line: If you don't trust your water source, you have two optionsbottled water or a home filtration system.

Should you consider these expansive alternatives in Northeast Ohio? If you are the type to avoid all health risks, no matter how small, then you can always find purer water or a more sophisticated filtration system. But in much of Northeast Ohio, public tap water is relatively good. You are probably exposed to far more toxic chemicals in your food (for instance, one Great Lakes catfish will likely give you a greater dose of toxic organic substances than a lifetime of drinking the water, thanks to the way such substances accumulate in the food chain) or in other areas of your home (for instance, lead-based paint is a much greater cause of childhood lead poisoning than drinking water).

Moreover, some bottled water is really no safer than tap water (some of it is tap water with flavoring or carbonation added to make it taste better). And a home filtration system that isn't properly maintained can be a hazard itself, if it becomes a breeding ground for bacteria. So unless you have a particular problem with your water supply, it may not make sense to pay extra for water.

As a general principle, we should avoid private solutions for basic human needs like water and work to ensure that everyone has access to pure water as a public health right.

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EcoCity Cleveland
3500 Lorain Avenue, Suite 301, Cleveland OH 44113
Cuyahoga Bioregion
(216) 961-5020
Copyright 2002-2003

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Drinking water resources

  • U.S. EPA list of water systems in Cuyahoga County
  • Cleveland Division of Water
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