Given the crisis in Flint, how can New Yorkers be sure of the quality of their water?

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The ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan is a nightmare scenario, an example of how severe the consequences can be when a city agency is negligent. After Flint switched its municipal water source in 2014, lead from corroded pipes made its way into the water residents use for drinking, washing, and cooking; now investigators are looking into the alleged sluggishness of the city and state government’s response. Lead poisoning has serious health repercussions, and can cause developmental delays, reduced IQ, and behavioral issues. Many Flint parents, whose children were exposed, are anticipating the possibility of years of struggle as a result. 

The situation is a tragedy, as well as a reminder to be grateful that in New York, we have access to clean, potable water. NYC tap water is famously high-quality and has even won taste tests; one particularly clever entrepreneur reportedly went so far as to sell it bottled for $1.50 a pop.

According to a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, New York water comes from “a network of reservoirs located up to 125 miles north of the city. The City owns roughly 200,000 acres of land surrounding the reservoirs to protect them from pollution.” Specifically, these reservoirs are part of the NYC Watershed system, and reach us via thousands of miles of pipes. The DEP spokesperson adds that this water is “tested for 250 different contaminants more than 500,000 times every year, including in every neighborhood in the city.” 

The water being pumped to us sounds pretty pristine, but what about once it gets to your apartment? Prewar buildings could have prewar pipes and fixtures, which might transfer lead to tap water. According to the city, you won’t be able to detect lead by smell or color—though if your water does have a strange hue, odor, or taste, you can file a complaint here. To check for lead, you can order a test kit here

Matthew Waletzke, owner and founder of Healthy Dwellings, which offers in-home environmental health consultations, says that older pipes, as well as the city’s aging distribution system, could also potentially deposit sediment in New Yorkers’ tap water. Ever notice water with a rusty color coming out of the faucet? That’s particulate matter floating in it, Waletzke says.

According to the Water Research Center, drinking water with particulate matter like iron and manganese is not necessarily harmful to health, but it can stain laundry and dishes—plus, some forms of bacteria feed on both substances, and so may be present in water, too. 

The city is required to conduct periodic water checks, and occasionally tests reveal the presence of substances like iron and manganese above the maximum contamination level. But if a follow-up test shows lower levels, the city is considered to be in compliance, Waletzke says.

Complicating matters is that the amount of this matter in water can change dramatically from one moment to the next, Waletzke notes. Residents who are living in a building undergoing construction should keep an eye out, because that kind of work can dislodge sediment. And while it’s never a bad idea to take precautions, if you have your water tested, the results will show “only a snapshot in time,” Waletzke says. “Instead, take the $200 to $300 you’d spend on a water test and get a really good filter.”

When it comes to a quality filtratrion system, a commercial pitcher filter isn’t necessarily going to cut it, Waletzke says, and suggests a filter that’s attached to your water supply line. This kind of system will also eliminate chlorine and fluoride, chemicals that are added to water for sanitation and dental health, respectively, but both of which Waletzke says he’d prefer not to have in his own water.

(The position of New York's Department of Environmental Protection, though, is that neither chlorine nor fluoride are harmful at the levels  present in city water.)

“The other reason why I suggest a filtration system is that there’s a limited number of contaminants that are required by law to be regulated, but there are so many more that could be there,” Waletzke notes. “It’s an added sense of security.”

He acknowledges that New York City water is some of the best available, based on the source it comes from. But, Waletzke says he always thinks that "it’s good to have that secondary level of precaution.” 


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