Is Tap Water Safe to Drink?

Posted by
John Woodard on December 22, 2023

The United States has some of the most reliable and safe tap water in the world. We often take for granted the clean water that flows on demand to our homes. However, there is a growing level of concern about certain contaminants in water and how they affect our health. In this article, you can learn about the contents of tap water, whether it is safe to drink or not, and how to treat it at home.

What is in tap water?

Tap water contains trace amounts of different contaminants depending on the source and location of the water supply. City-treated water, for example, always contains chlorine, chloramines, and fluoride because they are used in the water treatment process. City-treated tap water may also contain water-hardening minerals, arsenic, PFAS, microplastics, heavy metals, lead, or other contaminants. The levels of many contaminants in municipal water are strictly regulated by the EPA, and these regulations are enforced by a local health authority. Each municipal water treatment plant must create a water quality report once per year. If you are curious about the levels of contamination in your municipal tap water, consult your local water report.

Learn more: How does city water treatment work? | How to read your water quality report

Well water is a different story from municipal water. Unlike city-treated water, well water is not regulated by a governing body. As a result, some contaminants can be present at dangerous levels. The most common contaminants in well water include iron, lead, arsenic, bacteria, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrates, and fluoride. The levels of these contaminants depend on the location and type of the water supply.

Learn more: How can I test my water at home? | Lab water tests vs at-home test kits

Is tap water safe to drink?

In the United States, tap water from a municipal water supply is treated to reduce as many contaminants as logistically possible, making the water safe to drink in most cases. For some contaminants, such as lead, the ideal level of contamination, known as the MCLG (max contamination level goal), and the levels that a treatment plant must abide by, known as the MCL (max contamination level), differ. In the case of lead, the MCLG is 0, but the MCL is 15 15 µg/L (0.015 ppm). Removing all lead from a drinking water supply is not realistic for a municipal water plant because of the expense and other logistics behind water treatment, so the EPA regulates it below a specific threshold. When consumed daily over the course of a lifetime, these types of contaminants could pose a threat to long-term health. If you wish to ensure your water is clear from these hazardous contaminants, consider installing a water treatment system in your home.

A growing concern in the world of water is the presence of microplastics and PFAS in public water supplies. Microplastics are broken down plastic waste that are small enough to be unnoticed by the naked eye. PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals”, are chemicals present in many man-made products, such as nonstick cookware, hygiene products, cleaning products, fabrics, and many others. These chemicals linger in the body for an extended time, earning them their nickname. According to the CDC, symptoms of PFAS consumption include increased cholesterol, decreased infant birth weight, increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer, changes in liver enzymes, and increased risk of high blood pressure in pregnant women. If you wish to remove both microplastics and PFAS from water in your home, ensure you install a system that is certified to remove them, such as a reverse osmosis system.

Learn more: How to remove microplastics from water | How to remove PFAS from water

Is well water safe to drink?

If your tap water is sourced from a private well, it is not safe to drink without some form of water treatment system. Dangerous levels of bacteria, arsenic, lead, or other contaminants can be present in your water. Wells should be tested at least once per year or whenever you notice a change in the taste, appearance, or odor of water. Once you know what is in your well water, you can come up with a treatment plan to combat the specific contaminants in your water.

Learn more: Well water contamination and its symptoms | What is the best type of filtration for well water?

What are the health effects of drinking tap water?

If your tap water contains dangerous contaminants, consuming it regularly can lead to certain types of cancer, gastrointestinal disease, growth issues in children, neurological disorders, and other illnesses. These symptoms are contingent on the specific contaminants in your water. For example, a high concentration of lead in water yields symptoms like headaches, stomach cramps, fatigue, irritability, and troubles with concentration. As exposure time to these contaminants increases, the side effects of consumption worsen. While consuming many of these contaminants does not harm you in the short term, they can cause unpleasant side effects later in life. This is why filtering your tap water is so important, particularly if your home uses well water.

How to treat tap water

You can treat tap water at home with a variety of water filtration systems. Some systems target specific contaminants, while others are all encompassing. Whole-house treatment systems deliver clean water for use in a whole home, and point-of-use systems treat water to a specific faucet. If your home’s water contains contaminants that absorb into the skin easily, you likely need a whole-house system. On the other hand, if you need to clear out some contaminants for drinking and cooking only, then a point-of-use system is a great option for you. Some common water treatment systems in the home include reverse osmosis systems, water softeners, UV disinfection systems, activated carbon filters, refrigerator filters, and water pitcher filters.

Reverse osmosis systems

Reverse osmosis (RO) systems are a multi-stage water treatment method that utilize sediment filtration, activated carbon filtration, and an RO membrane. Most residential RO systems are point-of-use, meaning they are connected to a single faucet in a home. Reverse osmosis reduces a significant number of contaminants from water, making it one of the premier home water treatment methods available. The RO membrane is the heart of a reverse osmosis system. Water is placed under pressure and pushed through the microscopic pores of the membrane, leaving most contaminants behind. If you wish to provide as clean drinking water as possible to your home, a reverse osmosis system is a great option.

Learn more: What is a reverse osmosis system and how does it work?

Water softeners

Water softeners remove damaging water-hardening minerals from water. Unlike many contaminants, water hardness is just as likely to be found in well water as it is municipal water. This is because the water-hardening minerals calcium and magnesium are not harmful to consume by humans, so they are not regulated in drinking water by the EPA. However, hard water can wreak havoc on your home’s plumbing, appliances, and other water treatment systems. If your home’s water contains high levels of hardness, a water softener is essential in maintaining the longevity of these systems in your home.

Learn more: What is a water softener and how does it work?

UV disinfection systems

UV disinfection systems are used to disinfect water that is contaminated with microorganisms. These systems utilize a germicidal wavelength of UV light to deactivate the DNA of microorganisms as they flow through. While UV systems do not technically remove these contaminants, they are rendered harmless by the UV light. UV systems are primarily used by homeowners that use well water, but they can also be used in other applications, such as RVs and homes with municipal water. Municipal water treatment plants use chlorine and chloramines to disinfect water, so a UV disinfection system is not needed with municipal water unless a boil water advisory is issued. UV systems are available in both point-of-use and whole-home configurations, so there is a system best suited for every situation.

Learn more: What is a UV water purifier and how does it work?

Activated carbon filters

Activated carbon is used in many types of water filtration systems, but it can also be used as a standalone filtration system. Carbon filters are effective on both municipal and well water. In municipal water, carbon filters are commonly used to reduce the chlorine added to disinfect the water. In well water, high-quality carbon filters can reduce levels of lead, iron, mercury, and certain bacteria. Activated carbon filters can be found in both point-of-use and whole-home configurations, making it a versatile option in the home. Activated carbon is also used in refrigerator filters, water pitcher filters, and reverse osmosis systems. While they do not remove as many contaminants as RO systems, activated carbon filters are excellent supplementary filters for other systems in your home.

Learn more: Activated carbon filters 101

Refrigerator filters

Refrigerator filters are the most common type of water filter in the United States because of their ease of installation, compactness, and effectiveness against foul tastes and odors. Most refrigerator filters use a combination of carbon and sediment filtration, reducing dirt and sediment alongside chlorine. The primary goal of fridge filters is to improve the taste of municipal water. As a result, refrigerator filters are not the most powerful filter on the market, but they are effective at what they do. If your water is heavily contaminated, you need a much more robust water treatment method than a fridge filter can provide.

Learn more: Do refrigerator filters really work?

Water pitcher filters

Water pitcher filters are the second most common type of water treatment used in United States homes. They often utilize activated carbon like refrigerator filters, specializing in improving the taste and odor of water. If your home uses well water that is heavily contaminated, do not assume that a water pitcher filter makes your water safe to drink. Many water pitcher filters are advertised to reduce more contaminants than they do. If you decide to purchase a water pitcher filter, look up what official certifications a filter possesses to discover what it can truly remove.

Learn more: Do water pitcher filters really work?

Does boiling tap water make it safe to drink?

Boiling tap water can make it safe to drink if it is under a boil water advisory. However, if your water contains dangerous contaminants that are not microbiological, boiling the water will not remove them. In fact, boiling the water would only increase the concentration of these contaminants as water is lost in the form of vapor.

Learn more: Boil water advisory procedures

Bottled water vs tap water

Bottled water undergoes a thorough treatment process before it is bottled, so it contains much less contamination than tap water. However, plastic water bottles waste an enormous amount of plastic each year. Americans alone use about 50 billion water bottles each year. This waste can be reduced by installing a water treatment system in your home. Not only will the water be of similar quality, but you will also save money and plastic in the long run.


If you have any additional questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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