By: Alan Woolf, MD, MPH, FAAP, FACMT, FAACT
Water is the best beverage you can serve active, growing kids. However, it is essential for their health that their drinking water be reliably free from harmful contaminants. It's especially important considering that children drink much more water for their size than adults.
Here is information to help ensure the water your kids drink is safe.
How is drinking water safety regulated?
Municipal water systems
Today the drinking water in the United States is among the safest in the world. The quality of municipal tap water is regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. Later laws have set drinking water standards for chemicals known to be in some municipal water supplies.
Contaminations can occur from time to time. Contaminants that can cause illness in the drinking water include germs, nitrates, man-made chemicals, metals, radioactive particles and byproducts of the disinfecting process.
Private wells are not federally regulated. They should be periodically tested by owners for nitrates, coliform bacteria and other environmental toxins such as arsenic, uranium and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
Testing guidance for private well owners is available from local, state and tribal authorities on their websites.
(See "Well Water Safety & Testing: AAP Policy Explained.")
Tips to help ensure your family's drinking water is safe
You can get water quality information from your town or county health department or your state environmental agency. Local water companies are required to report what is in the water each year. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also has a Safe Drinking Water Information Hotline (1-800-426-4791 and Emergency Response Hotline (1-800-424-8802). Well water should be tested for nitrates and coliform bacteria yearly and for other contaminants every 3 years or so.
Other steps you can take:
Have well water tested for nitrates before giving it to infants under one year of age.
If your private well has been contaminated, contact a local professional with expertise in private well construction and remediation. Ask for advice on "shock chlorination" or other strategies to fix the problem.
Contact your local water department to see if the standpipe from the town's water main to your house is made of lead. If so, it should be replaced.
Use cold water for cooking and drinking. Contaminants can build up in hot water heaters.
If you are concerned about the quality of your plumbing,
run the faucet for 3-5 minutes each morning prior to using the water for cooking or drinking. This will flush the pipes and lower the likelihood that contaminants will end up in the water you use.
Drinking water that may be contaminated with germs should be boiled and then allowed to cool before drinking. Boil for about one minute. However, it is important to remember that boiling water only kills bacteria and other germs; it does
not remove toxic chemicals and may, in some cases, concentrate them.
Clean your faucet's screen (aerator) regularly. Sediment, debris and
lead can collect there and get into your water.
Point-of-use filters: If you don't like the taste or smell of your tap water, filters made with activated carbon or other absorbent material will remove the off-taste or smell. Such filters will also remove some (although not all) undesirable chemicals without removing fluoride that prevents tooth decay.
Reverse-osmosis filtering systems may be needed for some private wells to remove natural and manmade chemical contaminants.
How can tap water become contaminated?
Both municipal water systems and private wells can be contaminated. Causes may include:
soil and rocks that naturally contain chemicals and minerals such as arsenic, radon and uranium
fertilizers, pesticides or other chemicals applied to land near the water
animal or human waste from large industrial animal farms, sewage overflow or faulty septic systems
flooding, wildfires and other events worsening with climate change.
manufacturing, mining or fracking operations
cracks or corrosion in pipes or other problems in the water distribution system
National Priorities List (NPL or "Superfund') sites
disasters such as industrial chemical or oil spills, nuclear power plant incidents and war or terrorist attacks
Where is drinking water contamination a risk?
Water contamination is most likely to happen in small municipal systems that serve less than a thousand people. However, many different municipal water systems include older,
lead-containing pipes. These require special strategies (adjusting the water's pH, for example) and monitoring to keep lead out of the drinking water. Ideally, these leaded water mains and standpipes should be replaced with newer, non-lead alternatives.
When to use bottled water
Unless there are known contamination problems in your community's water supply or your private well has been compromised, it is not necessary for families to purchase bottled water. Bottled water is generally much more expensive than tap water. It also generates a lot of
plastic waste that is not good for the environment. In addition,
fluoride typically is not added to bottled water, and additional fluoride treatments may be needed for children drinking only bottled water.
About Dr. Woolf
Alan Woolf, MD, MPH, FAAP, FACMT, FAACT is a pediatrician and a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. He serves as the associate chief medical education officer at Boston Children's Hospital (BCH) and the director of its Pediatric Environmental Health Center and its fellowship training program in pediatric environmental health. He also directs the Region 1 New England Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit. Dr. Woolf is a member of the Executive Committee of the AAP's Council on Environmental Health & Climate Change.