Tap Water and Your Health
Is bottled water healthier than tap water? Do I need a filter for my faucet? Should I be concerned about lead pipes? What about pharmaceutical compounds in drinking water?
These are just a few of the common questions many customers have about their tap water. To learn more, click a topic in the box to the right.
About Charleston's Tap Water
Charleston's tap water is clean and safe to drink. Charleston Water System meets and in many cases exceeds the water quality standards set by the US EPA and SCDHEC.
Under the authority of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the US EPA has set standards for approximately 90 contaminants in drinking water in it's national primary drinking water regulations. These are enforceable standards that may include a legal limit on the level of a contaminant or the requirement of a specific treatment technique to remove a particular contaminant.
Water that meets these standards is safe to drink, although people with severely compromised immune systems may need to take additional precautions as directed by their doctor.
Each year, Charleston Water produces a water quality report summarizing the results of water quality tests.
Annual water quality reports
The water treatment process
History of Charleston Water System
Did you know...?
Charleston's tap water comes from the Bushy Park Reservoir and the Edisto River. It's treated at the Hanahan Water Treatment Plant, which produces an average of 55 million gallons of clean drinking water every day.
Lead and Drinking Water
It was once celebrated for its many uses, but today, lead is best known for its health risks. What is the risk of exposure through drinking water and what does Charleston Water do to keep lead out of the water? Here’s what you need to know about lead.
What is lead?
Lead is a soft, malleable metal that was used in everything from gasoline to water pipes before its health effects forced the federal government to limit its use in the 1980s.
Before its toxic effects were widely known, many water utilities used lead water lines in their distribution systems. Lead pipes and solder were also used in home plumbing systems. Today, many of these lead lines have been replaced, but some are still in use, and new plumbing materials and brass fixtures may legally contain up to 8% lead.
What are the health effects of lead?
Short term exposure to high levels of lead can interfere with normal development in babies and young children, and may cause slight increases in the blood pressure of some adults. The effects of long-term exposure to elevated levels are more serious, and may include stroke, kidney disease, and cancer.
How does lead get into drinking water?
Lead does not occur naturally in water. It gets into drinking water by leaching from lead pipes or plumbing materials. Water utilities no longer use lead pipes, but some plumbing fixtures, such as brass faucets, by law may contain up to 8% lead. Homes built before 1986 may have plumbing materials such as solder containing a higher percentage of lead.
Lead pipes are more commonly found in older cities, where lead service lines were installed before the health effect of lead were known. The EPA estimates that 20% of human exposure to lead is attributable to drinking water. The most common lead exposure is ingestion of dust or particles containing lead-based paint.
How do water utilities control the levels of lead in water
Because lead leaches into water by the corrosion of lead pipes in homes, utilities control lead levels by reducing the corrosiveness of water. Charleston Water System adds a compound called orthophosphate to water during the treatment process, which prevents corrosion by forming a molecular barrier between the pipe and the water inside.
Does the government regulate lead levels?
Yes, lead in drinking water is regulated by US EPA through the Lead and Copper Rule. The rule requires utilities to test tap water from a certain number of homes that have lead plumbing. If the lead levels are higher than 15 parts per billion (ppb) in more than 10% of the homes sampled, then the utility must take certain actions, including public notification, and efforts to reduce the corrosiveness of water.
Water samples taken from Charleston homes with lead plumbing showed lead levels of 4 parts per billion, well below the EPA limit of 15 ppb.
If you’re concerned about lead plumbing in your home…
Even if you have lead plumbing, compounds added to the water at the treatment plant will prevent lead from leaching into the water. However, you may follow these tips to further protect yourself:
- If you haven’t used tap water in several hours, let the cold water faucet run for one minute before using the water.
- This will flush out standing water in your home’s pipes.
- Only use cold water for cooking and drinking. Lead leaches more easily into hot water.
- Charleston Water System will test your water free of charge. Call 727-6800 to request a testing kit.
Did you know...?
Lead was widely used in ancient Rome to make everything from make-up to pottery glazes and wine preservatives. It was also used to build water pipes. In fact, the word plumbing comes from the Latin word for lead, plumbum.
Lead poisoning in children is almost always caused by exposure to lead-based paint. Peeling paint inside homes built in the 1950s or earlier and paint chips in dust and soil can easily be swallowed by a child. A blood test can screen a child for lead poisoning.
Fluoride in Drinking Water
Many communities add fluoride to drinking water, a practice that began in 1945 and is widely supported by public health organizations such as the American Dental Association, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Fluoride is a mineral that when consumed at the recommended level, helps prevent tooth decay in children and adults. While fluoride occurs naturally in some water sources, in many communities, such as Charleston, a small amount is added during the water treatment process.
Charleston Water System's target level of fluoride is 0.7 ppm, which is the level recommended by the CDC and US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). This level prevents possible overexposure to fluoride, as many children receive fluoride through toothpaste, mouth rinses, and foods. For information about fluoridated water, including recommendations for infants, fluorisis, fluoride in bottled water, and how fluoride prevents cavities, please visit the CDC web site.
Scientific and public health organizations have conducted scientific reviews about fluoridation during the past two decades. These reviews provide compelling evidence that community water fluoridation is a safe and effective method for reducing tooth decay across all ages.
According to the CDC, about 69% of communities in the US have fluoridated drinking water and 95% of the SC residents on public water systems receive fluoridated water.
For more information about water fluoridation, please visit the web sites listed below.
SC Department of Health and Environmental Control
Centers for Disease Control
American Dental Association
US Environmental Protection Agency
American Academy of Family Physicians
American Water Works Association
Did you know…?
The benefits of fluoride were discovered in 1931, after researchers discovered that high levels of naturally occurring fluoride caused tooth staining and fewer cavities for children in a Colorado town.
Further studies found that reducing the amount of fluoride in drinking water produced the benefit of fewer cavities without staining teeth.
Is Bottled Water Better?
Studies show that people buy bottled water for a variety of reasons: It’s convenient, it’s a healthier option than sodas, it tastes good—the list goes on.
Bottled water sales are driven in part by marketing strategies that tout bottled water as cleaner and safer to drink than tap water. But if your tap water is provided by a utility that meets drinking water standards, is paying a dollar or more for a bottle of water worth it? Here are some facts to consider.
- Bottled water companies are regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, and are held to different, less stringent standards than water utilities, which are regulated by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
- Monitoring and enforcement of FDA standards for bottled water companies is different from the EPA’s monitoring of water utilities. The International Bottled Water Association, in coordination with the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) has established voluntary standards and grants a seal of approval to all bottled waters that meet the standards. A list of brands is available at www.nsf.org or by calling 1-877-8-NSF-HELP.
- For residential customers, a gallon of Charleston tap water costs about a penny, compared to more than a dollar for a gallon of bottled water.
- Bottled water that meets FDA standards is safe to drink, and is good to store for emergencies. Charleston Water System tap water meets all EPA standards, and is also safe to store for emergencies.
- Tap water contains trace amounts of a disinfectant to protect against bacteria and microbes, but most bottled water does not. For this reason, bottled water that has been opened should not be stored for a prolonged period of time.
- Many bottled water brands do not contain fluoride. Charleston's tap water contains trace amounts of fluoride at safe levels recommended by the American Dental Association. Fluoride helps prevent tooth decay in children.
- Studies comparing samples of bottled water to tap water have found that bottled water is no better that tap water from a well-run utility.
American Waterworks Association
National Sanitation Foundation (NSF)
International Bottled Water Association
Bottled Water Basics, an EPA publication (PDF file)
US Food and Drug Administration
Did you know…?
There are more than 700 brands of bottled water in the United States.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that access to fluoridated tap water reduces incidence of tooth decay from 18 to 40 percent.
The Facts About Filters
For those who don’t want to buy bottled water, home water purification systems, called point-of-use (POU) devices, are a popular alternative. There are a variety of systems on the market that are designed to remove different contaminants from the water, and they vary in price—from $25 for a simple faucet filter to several thousand dollars for systems that treats water as it enters a home’s plumbing system. Before you buy, here are some facts to consider:
- Charleston Water System tap water meets or exceeds all drinking water standards and is safe to drink unless your immune system is severely compromised. You do not need a water filter to make your water safe to drink. For people with severely compromised immune systems, a doctor may recommend a certain brand of water purification device or certain bottled waters.
- No purification system can remove 100% of contaminants in water.
- There are no federal regulations requiring water filter companies to test their products or prove they actually remove the compounds they claim to remove. The National Sanitation Foundation (NSF), a non-profit organization that tests and certifies products, including water filters, has a list of certified filters available at www.nsf.org or by calling 1-877-8-NSF-HELP.
- Not all filters are designed to remove all compounds. Some only remove harmless compounds that affect the taste and smell of water, while others are capable of removing bacteria or minerals. Be sure you know what a filter is made to remove before you buy.
- If you want to improve the taste or odor of your water, a carbon filter is usually most appropriate.
- Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s directions for changing the filter in your unit. Failing to do so may actually introduce contaminants into your drinking water.
Consumer Reports rates water filtration system and bottled water.
National Sanitation Foundation (NSF)
Did you know...?
Boiling water for at least one minute is effective at sterilizing water against bacteria.
Cold water has less of a taste than warm water. Try refrigerating a pitcher of tap water for a more refreshing drink.
Pharmaceuticals in Drinking Water
From antibacterial soap to prescription and over-the-counter medications, almost everyone uses pharmaceuticals and personal health care products, called PPCPs.
These products contain a wide variety of chemical compounds--compounds that wastewater treatment plants are not designed to remove. As a result, studies have found that trace amounts of these compounds are turning up in our nation's water bodies, and potentially, in our drinking water.
Advances in technology now enable laboratories to detect these compounds in water at incredibly small levels---down to parts per trillion. There is no evidence of any impact on human health at this level, and federal and state regulations do not require testing for these compounds or establish limits in drinking water. In fact, studies show exposure to these compounds exists in many food and beverage products at higher levels.
However, recognizing the importance of this issue, Charleston Water System had its source water and treated drinking water tested for a variety of these compounds. Of the 36 compounds tested for, only three were shown to be present in Charleston's treated drinking water at the parts-per-trillion level: caffeine, phenol (a compound in wood and cleaning products), an TDCPP (a flame retardant compound).
It is important to note that Charleston Water System meets or exceeds all regulations for drinking water, and is closely following the research on this topic.
For more information, please visit US Environmental Protection Agency web site and the American Water Works Association web site.
How you can help:Proper disposal of prescription medicines
One way that trace amounts of pharmaceuticals end up in the water environment is from leftover drugs being flushed down the toilet. You can help prevent this by properly disposing of prescription medications.
- Take unused or expired medications out of their original containers and throw the containers in the trash.
- Mix prescription drugs with coffee grounds or kitty litter dispose in the trash in an empty can or plastic bag.
- Do not flush medications down the toilet unless the label or accompanying patient information specifically instructs you to do so.
- If you have questions, ask your pharmacist.
These guidelines are from the Office of National Drug Control Policy and are supported by SC DHEC.