Fact or Fiction: Is Your Tap Water Safe to Drink?

Clean, safe water is vital for drinking, cooking, bathing and more, yet most people barely give it a thought. Here's what to know.

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Water, like air, is usually taken for granted. As long as that vital liquid just splashes forth from our home taps, who has time to give much thought to the details?

But if you’ve ever lost access to fresh drinking water, you know exactly how crucial it is. During the February 2021 winter storms in Texas, grim images showed residents boiling snow, melting icicles and scouring picked-over stores for bottled water. Our bodies and even our planet are made up mostly of water. Even more than food, we cannot live without it.

What Is Tap Water?

Tap water is simply water piped into a tap and delivered to homes and businesses for drinking, cooking, showering or flushing the toilet.

In the U.S., tap water is almost always treated by a municipality to remove contaminants before it reaches your faucet. Some homes draw their water from private wells; in those cases, testing and maintaining water quality falls to the homeowner. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), about 10 percent of U.S. homes use well water.

Is Tap Water Safe to Drink?

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, the safety of everyday items, from takeout containers to mail, has come into question. But thankfully, water, for the most part, remains safe.

“The water in the United States is very good,” said Gregory Korshin, a University of Washington environmental engineering professor who researches issues about drinking water. Korshin, a Russian, has traveled the world, even living in China for a time. Now based in Seattle, he finds the tap water there excellent.

Water, he admits, can be contaminated. The Flint, Mich. water crisis thrust municipal water decisions into the spotlight. But most Americans can safely drink from their tap with no issues.

“Tap water is regulated very vigorously by the EPA, which is very, very respected worldwide,” Korshin said. “Safe drinking water has saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.”

If you want specifics on your water supply, Korshin says your local water utility probably offers online reports. The EPA also provides a deluge of online water information, including regional water quality reports, sampling data and violations.

Does Tap Water Have Chlorine In It?

Chlorine is added to tap water as a disinfectant. You might never notice it, but in some systems it gives the water that familiar swimming-pool taste. Korshin is blunt about the need for the chemical.

“What I know is that no chlorine means death,” he said. “Some people don’t like the taste of it, but it prevents epidemics.”

Also, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes almost all water contains some naturally occurring fluoride. Many municipal systems adjust the level to help prevent tooth decay.

What About Tap Water Filters?

If your tap water has an overly chlorinated or mineral taste, there are certainly plenty of products you can buy to alleviate it. Options include the popular Brita water filter pitchers, under-sink devices and whole house water filtration systems.

Korshin notes that when he lived in China, he filtered his tap water. He’s never felt the need to do that in the U.S. “People think whatever is worth doing is worth overdoing,” Korshin says with a laugh.

He says we tend to get used to our local water taste after a few days, rarely making filters necessary. “But if you’re sensitive, or you feel you want to try a filter, go ahead and use it,” he says.

Bottom line: In the U.S., under normal conditions, tap water is safe to drink.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, has been a journalist for 30 years. She is the co-author of two pop-culture encyclopedias, "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," as well as "The Totally Sweet '90s." She lives in a 90+-year-old house in Seattle in which she does home improvement projects with her husband and daughter. Gael loves the quirkiness of old homes.