Municipal Water Safety & Drinking Water Safety
Lindsay Entringer
Part of Water is Life, a class website on water privatization and commodification, produced by students of Geography 378 (International Environmental Problems & Policy) at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, USA, Spring 2004.


Although three-quarters of the Earth's surface is water, only one percent is available for human consumption. As everyone knows, clean water is essential to life. That is why it is important to know about your municipal water supply. Water that comes from municipal wells is considered very safe, because it is tested more than two times per day. Many contaminants can easily get into water and be detrimental to people's health. It is crucial to remove these wastes so we stay healthy. Unfortunately, some areas of the world are not able to afford treatment for their water, and have to put people at risk of getting sick from drinking contaminanted water. Public water and treatment varies from place to place, so it is important to talk with your local water utility and health department regarding the safety of household and community tap water. This is especially important for immunocompromised individuals who may react differently to contaminants.

    Keeping Drinking Water Safe

    For many years it has been known that chlorine does an amazing job of bringing "dirty" water to a safe drinking standard. Water can be life-threatening if it carries water-borne disease. When chlorine was discovered in 1908, it made a huge difference in purifying drinking water. Why is chlorine essential? According to the Chlorine and Drinking Water: Here's to your health chlorine is just as important to water as water is to us. Public health officials around the country believe that this is true. However, no purification system is perfect, and chlorine can have byproducts which can be harmful.

    One such byproduct, trihalomethanes (THMs), forms when chlorine reacts with organic materials such as the remains of leaves or soil in water. Some epidemiological studies have suggested a possible link between THMs and an increased risk for bladder and colorectal cancer. More studies need to be done on these or there is debate over these issues, and you can find more information on the Chlorine Knowledge website. The chart below shows The Santa Clara Valley Water District's Water Quality for an eight-month period. It does not exceed of the EPA maximum contaminant level (shown in red).


    Drinking Water Concerns

    Since water is so capable of dissolving contaminants, there is no way of getting "pure" water (Drinking Water Contaminants). There are many solvents that can be in your water, such as lead, that may affect you and your family, especially children and pregnant women who are at high risk of contamination. There are inorganic compounds and of course organic compounds.

    Inorganic Compounds: relating or belonging to the class of compounds not having a carbon basis, such as hydrochloric and sulfuric acids.

    Organic Compounds: any compound of carbon and another element.

    The materials suspended in water serve a health risk because these can cause diseases. Pathogens are disease-causing organisms, and some of these organisms can come from other sources besides drinking water. There are bacteria, such as cholera, thyphoid fever, and E. coli. In the article Tap Water at Risk, the Houston Chronicle notes that there were 3,641 water purification sites that violated the health standards for fecal contamination.

    There are also protozoans that can cause many problems if ingested. Cryptosporidium parvum and Giardia lamblia are two very common parasites, which can give humans cryptosporidiosis and giardiasis respectively. The picture below is a picture of the infective stage of the parasite C. parvum called the oocysts (Wilkes University). The infective stage for G. lamblia is the cyst stage found in fecal matter shown in the second picture (Bugs on the Web).

    Outbreaks Throughout the World

    These two diseases are the most prevalent throughout the world and are considered cosmopolitan, which means they have had world wide distribution. Cryptosporidium became well publicized during the massive outbreak in Milwaukee in 1993 (CIC Guideline for Crypto). It was found to be spread by drinking water that was contaminanted with the oocysts. Unfortunately the water was not purified according to Federal standards. After a few days, 400,000 people came down with diarrhea, weight loss, and abdominal cramping.. People who were immunocompromised (such as HiV/AIDS patients) were at increased health risks. In the end, residents had to boil water for quite a few weeks until the problem was fixed, and in the end over 100 people died from this outbreak. A Giardia outbreak occured in Sydney, Australia (in a privatized utility system), but was not as severe as Milwaukee's and was taken care of through increased water safety and treatment.

    Water Safety Around the World


    The United States and other industrialized countries have good monitoring of the municipal water supplies and are usually able to catch contaminants. If you have your own well, you may want to read up on how to monitor your drinking water for safety (Cancer Research Center website). If you are not sure if your water is safe, find out what you can do or drink water from another source. Unfortunately, U.S. citizens' money is being put into buying bottled water, rather than guaranteeing safe water for Americans and others in the world.

    Australia/New Zealand

    Australia is a country much like the United States, and has many municipal water safety facilities that monitors what is in the water every day. If there is an outbreak agencies are able to clean it with chemicals (Drinking Water Guidelines for Australia).

    Third World Countries

    Water problems in the "Third World" (Periphery and Semi-Periphery) countries are much more devastating and dangerous to people's health. Most of the time local rivers, streams and lakes are the source of drinking water. This is very dangerous for people because they have a much higher risk of being contaminated by bacteria and parasites. Just stepping into a lake with fecal contamination is dangerous. Imagine having to drink that water because the economy is too poor to provide safe drinking water, or the community is too far from a source of safe water. The question for many countries who cannot afford water safety facilities is, "Municipal services: basic human right or economic good?"

    China's rapid economic growth, industrialization, and urbanization -- accompanied by inadequate infrastructure investment and management capacity -- have all contributed to widespread problems of water scarcity and water pollution throughout the country (China). Many Chinese try to boil their water, but unfortunately this does not work for many toxins. Much fecal contamination has occurred in China and other Asian countries, which makes risks of parasites and bacteria very high.

    Water Safety

    Water safety is a concern for countries all over the world. It is important to understand what is being put into the water you drink. It is crucial to know who to contact and what you should know about water from the city, your own well, and other countries. There is a continual struggle in "Third World" countries today. They are still hoping to have access to safe water, but privatization is making this more expensive.


For more information, contact your local municipal water safety council in your town/city for accuarate information or questions.

Australia Water Safety Guidelines:

Cancer Reasearch Center:

Cholorine and Drinking Water: Here's to Your Health:

Chlorine Knowledge:

Cryptosporidium Guidlines:

Drinking Water Contaminants:

Municipal Services in South Africa Article/China:

Parasite Pictures:

Santa Clara Water District:

Tap Water:

Wilkes University:

Environmental Science; AGlobal Concern Text Book. Cunningham W.P., Cunningham M., Saigo, B. McGraw-Hill Publications. Copyright 2003.