You’ll have to forgive me this morning if I sound a little punch drunk. I just got done reading a pair of stories about municipal water supplies while downing a glass of Takoma Park’s finest. I’m feeling a little light headed. I’m not sure it’s because of the articles or the tap water.

The Times (East Coast version) has just published an investigation into how our perfectly legal drinking water can still make us sick. The Times (West Coast version) tells us about Los Angeles’ alternative to the municipal tap: rain water collection. Both stories are worth a read.

The New York Times’ investigation, of course, will grab most of the headlines today. In it, Charles Duhigg reports some scary damn stuff:

The 35-year-old federal law regulating tap water is so out of date that the water Americans drink can pose what scientists say are serious health risks — and still be legal.

Only 91 contaminants are regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, yet more than 60,000 chemicals are used within the United States, according to Environmental Protection Agency estimates. Government and independent scientists have scrutinized thousands of those chemicals in recent decades, and identified hundreds associated with a risk of cancer and other diseases at small concentrations in drinking water, according to an analysis of government records by The New York Times.

But not one chemical has been added to the list of those regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act since 2000.

Other recent studies have found that even some chemicals regulated by that law pose risks at much smaller concentrations than previously known. However, many of the act’s standards for those chemicals have not been updated since the 1980s, and some remain essentially unchanged since the law was passed in 1974.

All told, more than 62 million Americans have been exposed since 2004 to drinking water that did not meet at least one commonly used government health guideline intended to help protect people from cancer or serious disease, according to an analysis by The Times of more than 19 million drinking-water test results from the District of Columbia and the 45 states that made data available.

The Times later notes that, despite all the scientific wavering on whether polluted water actually causes human health problems, several studies have shown that “millions of Americans become sick each year from drinking contaminated water, with maladies from upset stomachs to cancer and birth defects.”

Then the paper throws some seriously cold (and contaminated) water on the faces of residents in several cities:

Communities where the drinking water has contained chemicals that are associated with health risks include Scottsdale, Ariz.; El Paso, Tex., and Reno, Nev. Test results analyzed by The Times show their drinking water has contained arsenic at concentrations that have been associated with cancer. But that contamination did not violate the Safe Drinking Water Act.

In Millville, N.J., Pleasantville, N.J., and Edmond, Okla., drinking water has contained traces of uranium, which can cause kidney damage. Those concentrations also did not violate the law. (Contaminant records for each of the 47,500 water systems that provided data are at

“If it doesn’t violate the law, I don’t really pay much attention to it,” said Stephen Sorrell, executive director of Emerald Coast Utilities Authority, which serves Pensacola, Fla. Data show that his system has delivered water containing multiple chemicals at concentrations that research indicates are associated with health risks. The system has not violated the Safe Drinking Water Act during the last half-decade.

The full story goes on to depict environmental scientists and crusading politians who have their careers threatened by businesses and even the military for wanting to clean up our water. Lobbyists get involved, too, and the public’s tap water suffers as a result. It’s not democracy’s finest hour. 

The Los Angeles Times opinion piece doesn’t really offer a solution to our potable water problem, but it does offer hope about another looming public crisis: lack of water period. Molly Selvin, a professor at Southwestern Law School, writes about her experiences with L.A.’s rain-water collection program. It’s sounds like the kind of model program other cities should adopt.

Consider Selvin’s words:

I can’t control what happens at this week’s meeting in Copenhagen, where world leaders, activists and politicians are debating steps to slow climate change. And at home, a new poll from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press charts a sharp decline in the number of Americans who believe that human activity has caused global temperatures to rise — and even that the Earth is warming. In Congress, serious discussion of emissions caps, fewer coal-fired plants and more power from solar and wind — among the obvious policy steps — is stalled amid screeching over “socialized” medicine, illegal immigrants and whether the president should have bowed to another head of state.

But to me, the small things I can do matter.

Add my 55 gallons, refilled a few times each winter, to what my neighbors are collecting and it starts to add up. The city estimates that the first 600 barrels could save 600,000 gallons of water annually. Put a barrel at each of the city’s 800,000 residential parcels and demand for tap water could drop by about 800 million gallons. 

 Photo by Darwin Bell via Flickr Creative Commons, Attribution License