Is it Safe to Drink Your Water?

Natural disasters of 2012, although short of a Mayan Apocalypse, revealed the vulnerability of much of America’s infrastructure. Including its transportation and utilities. But surprisingly, public drinking water remained unaffected in most areas throughout the crises.

This achievement is particularly notable, when you consider America’s challenging history in providing safe drinking water. Urban areas–away from natural springs– generally faced the greatest problems.

In early American cities, it was extremely difficult to find safe water to drink. In New York (New Amsterdam) in 1748, a Swedish botanist visiting the then-Dutch city observed that the water was so foul horses from out of town refused to drink it.

Early Americans living in cities relied heavily on alcoholic beverages since they couldn’t safely drink the water. In these early days, people routinely added alcohol (which killed the bacteria) to drinking water. Often, they skipped the water altogether and went straight to wine, rum, and hard liquors, such as “moonshine.”

Cider also became extremely popular in early America. You could not eat most early varieties of apples grown in the States. Farmers grew them initially to make hard ciders, instead. In fact, most of the apple orchards planted in early America provided the makings of hard cider–perhaps allowing a new interpretation to “Johnny Appleseed’s” positive demeanor during his legendary travels across the new land.

In addition to drinking cider, many communities and families brewed their own local beers. In fact, brew masters held important roles in society in early American cities like Boston, where Samuel Adams was a leading figure.

On the American frontier (which during the 1700s still included western Massachusetts and western Pennsylvania), farmers converted excess grains to more profitable and popular liquor by distilling “moonshine.”

In the late 1700s, the new U.S. Federal Government began to impose taxes for the first time ever on this home-grown liquor. As a result, widespread rebellion broke out in western Massachusetts (Shay’s Insurrection, or the Shaysite Rebellion) from August 1786 to June 1787.

The uproar over taxes became such a concern to the Federal Government, the founding fathers sat down again in Philadelphia that summer to revise our form of government from the Articles of Confederation to the new U.S. Constitution. The newer document granted the Federal Government far more power, prompting several enlightened leaders to add the “Bill of Rights” as the first ten amendments to the Constitution in an effort to protect citizens from their new government.

Later, in 1794, the same problem became severe in western Pennsylvania. President George Washington–urged and accompanied by Alexander Hamilton, the early proponent of “big government” and central banking–led an armed expedition on horseback to put down the “Whisky Rebellion.”

You see, once the Federal Government got its hands on a source of tax revenue it was not about to give it up, come hell or high water. Taxes had become the new necessity. Granted, with the help of various tax revenues and local sanitation boards, municipal governments eventually did successfully provide a safe water supply everywhere in the U.S.

But all this was years in the making and the U.S. government had its work cut out for it…

During the Revolutionary War, British troops had destroyed the infrastructure supporting water supply. Two decades later, in 1799, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr worked together (before their infamous duel five years later) to finance creation of the Manhattan Company. This company–which eventually became Chase Manhattan Bank–financed a new water supply. In addition, in 1842, New York City’s water supply expanded to include reservoirs from the Catskill, Croton, and Delaware watersheds.

Unfortunately, it seems relatively little has been done since then to update or improve America’s water supply. In fact, most of America’s water supply is many decades old, much of it dating to before the Civil War. On average, a major water supply conduit bursts every two minutes somewhere in the country. In poorly run and corrupt local governments, problems are frequent.

Just about the worst example on all scores is in our nation’s capital, where a water pipe breaks once per day on average. I remember how major problems with broken pipes in Washington, D.C. would disrupt events and shut down entire sections of the city. That is, unless you were a politician who could commandeer a motorcade to safely steer you around the disruptions while blocking other drivers.

In addition to aging infrastructure, contaminants pose a major challenge to the safety of our water supply…

First off, you’ll now find harmful pharmaceutical agents in your tap water.  This happens because tens of millions of Americans are taking drugs every day. Then, they excrete residues of these drugs into their urine, sending it into our water system.

People also intentionally flush unused medications down the toilet. As a result, one study found evidence of 56 different pharmaceutical agents in “treated” drinking water among systems serving more than 40 million people.

Pesticide run-off is another problem in our drinking water. Pesticides used to treat lawns run off into our water supply. It is estimated that there are 17 lbs of pesticides used for every man, woman and child, every year in the U.S. A lot of that ends up in our water supply.  These pesticides can potentially disrupt the human hormonal system, and potentially contribute to cancer and other chronic diseases.  (See Daily Dispatch – Farming, fertilizers, and government failures)

Between the unintentional (and intentional, such as chlorine) contamination of drinking water, you should (once again) avoid drinking tap water.

The bottled water industry has become a burgeoning multi-billion dollar business (see Insiders’ Cures special report, Miracle at Red Bush), but you have to be very careful when choosing a brand.

Waters from natural sources and springs are generally safe and healthy. But try to avoid overpriced popular brands that are nothing more than filtered tap water.  Lastly, don’t rely on any water alone for optimal hydration (see January Insiders’ Cures newsletter for more tips on healthy hydration).