The National Academies

Protecting a Critical Resource

By Patricia Pooladi

January 7 - People in the U.S. often take safe drinking water for granted until a severe weather event, like a flood or drought, endangers its availability. Water potability is not a subject that’s well-understood by the public, and few realize that the everyday activities of industry, people, and nature are constantly affecting the safety and reliability of what comes out of our water taps.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates more than 60,000 chemicals are in use throughout the U.S. that could affect drinking water quality. Many of these chemicals have not yet been studied for possible effects in humans and are not regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act. Even regulated chemicals need to be reassessed periodically, as improvements in our ability to measure and assess contaminants refine our knowledge of levels of chemicals deemed to be “safe.” In addition, nature presents its own set of contaminants that can get into drinking water supplies -- microbial pathogens such as Giardia, Cryptosporidium, and Legionella.

The National Academy of Sciences has several resources designed to help the general public understand some of the concerns of our drinking water treatment and distribution system. Reports and an overview of related information have been collected on the Water Information Page, and a booklet – Drinking Water: Understanding the Science and Policy Behind a Critical Resource – is available for free. The Web site “Safe Drinking Water Is Essential” addresses some of the issues associated with providing safe drinking water in developing countries. And several reports from the Water Science and Technology Board tackle the issue of drinking water quality, including Desalination: A National Perspective, Drinking Water Distribution Systems: Assessing and Reducing Risks, and Classifying Drinking Water Contaminants for Regulatory Consideration.

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