Test: How Clean Is Our Water?

Photo: Getty Images

Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to tighten drinking-water standards, which are reviewed every six years. Wondering just how potable our water is, we had a lab analyze tap samples from fourteen locations around the city. The good news: Our water is pristine, with all samples passing EPA standards. But that doesn’t mean our liquid assets are pure, unadulterated H20. Here, what else we found in your water in infinitesimal amounts.

The weathering of rocks can introduce sodium into groundwater, as can windblown ocean water if reservoirs are too close to the coast (ours aren’t).

Nitrates—molecules of nitrogen and oxygen—are normal in water, and fine at low levels. Plants use nitrates to grow, and we consume loads of them eating vegetables. But high levels, which can occur in water contaminated with fertilizers or animal waste, can be toxic to infants.

The chlorine used to disinfect drinking water can react with organic matter, such as decaying leaves, to form trihalomethanes. In high concentrations, they can be carcinogenic. Levels varied widely in our samples, though all remained below the EPA standard.

Iron and Manganese
These leach into water from old pipes. They can give water a rusty color and metallic taste, but could even be good for you, helping ward off anemia. (Pipes can also release lead, which is definitely not good for you, but our tests didn’t find any.)

Arsenic is naturally present in soil and can also come from orchard runoff and wastewater from glass or electronics factories. It’s odorless and tasteless (and hence used as poison) and, in high amounts, carcinogenic.

Calcium CarbonateNaturally present in groundwater, it contributes to water’s “hardness.” Ours is relatively soft, so it’s less likely to clog household appliances and lathers more easily with soap.

So do I need to buy a Brita?
Home filtration is a $2.5 billion–a–year industry. Given how safe our water is, are you a paranoid sucker for insisting on a Brita? Not necessarily. Severe weather, the odd rusting pipe, and other conditions can contaminate the system.

“New Yorkers can drink it with confidence.”
—Alex Matthiessen, CEO of Riverkeeper, on city water cleanliness

Size of City Water System:
miles of pipes, aqueducts, and tunnels carrying roughly a billion gallons of water a day
To monitor quality, the city has almost 1,000 sampling stations—cast-iron boxes mounted on poles, they look a little like parking meters—that sip directly from the pipes. DEP scientists run more than 25,000 tests a year for 250 possible contaminants.

Where We Tested: Manhattan: Washington Square; Metropolitan Museum; New York Public Library; Madison Square Garden; Grand Central Terminal; Central Park; 305 W. 103rd St.; 70 E. 10th St.; Film Forum; 293 E. Broadway; Queens: La Guardia Airport; 89-35 237th St. Brooklyn: 201 S. 1st St. The Bronx:1470 West Ave.

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Test: How Clean Is Our Water?