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Drinking Water Week

Photo: A girl drinking from a water fountain.Water is the foundation for life. Learn more about the vital role safe water plays in our lives and what CDC is doing to address challenges to our water supply.

People use water every day to meet their domestic, industrial, agricultural, medical, and recreational needs. Access to public water sources that are safe and reliable is crucial for the health and prosperity of a society.

May 4-10, 2014 is Drinking Water Week. This observance is sponsored each year by the American Water Works Association (AWWA) and a number of other organizations and agencies. Following the theme "What do you know about H2O?" Drinking Water Week provides an opportunity for the public to recognize the essential role drinking water plays in our daily lives, with special attention on the ways in which all water consumers can get to know their H2O (1).

Photo: A woman with a glass of water.Making Tap Water Safe and Healthy

Tap water not only provides Americans with water for daily activities (like drinking, bathing, and cooking), but also is used to deliver fluoride to reduce the potential for tooth decay.

During the past century, many improvements in the health, prosperity, and longevity of the U.S. population can be attributed to improvements in water quality. Water treatment and disinfection have made U.S. tap water one of the safest and healthiest drinking water supplies in the world (2).

In 1908, Jersey City, New Jersey, was the first city in the United States to begin routine disinfection of a municipal drinking water supply (3). Over the next decade, thousands of cities and towns across the United States began disinfecting their drinking water. This disinfection led to a dramatic decrease in cases of waterborne illness (diseases spread through water) and death (4).

Figure 1. Incidence of Typhoid Fever, 1920-1960.  With the implementation of disinfection methods of drinking water, there has been a drastic decline in cases of typhoid fever in the United States. In 1920, the incidence of typhoid fever in the U.S. was 33.8 per 100,000 population, which was a decrease from approximately 100 per 100,000 population in 1900. In 1930, the incidence was less than 20 per 100,000 population; in 1940, it was less than 8 per 100,000; and by 1960 the incidence of typhoid fever in the U.S. was less than 1 per 100,000.  Image Credit:  Robert Tauxe.

Figure 1: Incidence of Typhoid Fever, 1920-1960. With the implementation of disinfection methods of drinking water, there has been a drastic decline in cases of typhoid fever in the United States. In 1920, the incidence of typhoid fever in the U.S. was 33.8 per 100,000 population, which was a decrease from approximately 100 per 100,000 population in 1900. In 1930, the incidence was less than 20 per 100,000 population; in 1940, it was less than 8 per 100,000; and by 1960 the incidence of typhoid fever in the U.S. was less than 1 per 100,000. Image Credit: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 1999;48(40);905-913.

For example, in 1900 there were approximately 100 cases of typhoid fever for every 100,000 persons living in the United States (5). In 2006, the rate had declined to 0.1 cases for every 100,000 persons (only 353 cases of illness in total) and approximately 75% —or 265 cases—occurred among international travelers (6). Adding fluoride to our tap water has also helped reduce the amount of tooth decay experienced by the public. Both the disinfection and fluoridation of public water systems are among the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century (7, 8).

Protecting Tap Water from Contaminants

As a result of environmental regulations, such as the Clean Water Act (passed in 1972), many sources of water pollution—particularly sewage—have been reduced over the years. However, treating water to remove or kill disease-causing contaminants is still critical. Contamination of drinking water sources can occur at multiple points, including in the source water, through inadequate water treatment, in storage tanks, and in drinking water distribution systems (the pipes that carry water to homes, businesses, schools, and other buildings).

consumer confidence report (CCR). This report gives information on local drinking water quality, including the water's source, the levels of contaminants found in the water, problems with the water treatment system which may have occurred, and how customers can get involved in protecting their drinking water.

Photo: Sewage plant.Drinking Water and Private Wells

EPA regulations that protect public drinking water systems do not typically apply to privately owned wells (although some states do regulate private wells). As a result, millions of Americans who get their water from private wells are responsible for ensuring that their water is safe from contaminants. A local health department or well water system professional can provide assistance on well maintenance, new well construction, and water quality testing. For more information on well maintenance and testing, visit CDC's Private Ground Water Well page.

Photo: A man shaving.The Future of Tap Water

Although the United States has one of the safest drinking water supplies in the world, new challenges require us to continue to work to protect our water supply. A primary concern is the fact that our drinking water infrastructure, which includes the pipes that bring water to our homes, is aging (up to 100 years old in some cases!) and needs to be upgraded or replaced. Cracked pipes, water main breaks, and other age-related infrastructure issues increase the risk for water contamination and can lead to boil water advisories. Other challenges include climate change impacts on water availability and quality, chemical and toxin contamination of water sources, and the emergence of new ways to obtain and use water.

Photo: Water pouring out of a faucet.What CDC is Doing

CDC works to address these drinking water challenges through its water-related research, prevention, and policy activities and programs, including:

Research on Health Impacts

  • Providing support for state and local health officials to investigate, report, and prevent illnesses associated with drinking water systems.
  • Estimating the number of illnesses and costs associated with waterborne disease and outbreaks.
  • Identifying the health impacts of climate change, aging drinking water infrastructure, and well water usage to develop strategies for improvement.
  • Identifying and analyzing environmental factors that contribute to waterborne disease.
  • Developing improved laboratory methods for sampling, testing, and monitoring water quality.

Policy and Public Outreach

  • Working with EPA and other partners to provide guidance on drinking water policy and research priorities.
  • Developing a National Well Data Repository to support public health decision-making for well water.
  • Applying study findings to improve waterborne disease prevention outreach, education, policies, and practices.
  • Providing national leadership on community water fluoridation practice.

Collaboration and Partnerships

  • Supporting EPA and other partners in performing their duties and responsibilities related to protecting national drinking water.
  • Guiding the planning,implementation, and evaluation of programs that promote water safety.
  • Strengthening the collaboration among epidemiology, laboratory, environmental health, and regulatory programs to prevent waterborne disease.

References

  1. American Water Works Association. Drinking Water Week 2014.
  2. US Environmental Protection Agency. Water on Tap: what you need to know. Office of Water, 2009. [2.16 MB]
  3. US Environmental Protection Agency. The history of drinking water treatment. Office of Water, 2000. [375 KB].
  4. Cutler D, Miller G. The role of public health improvements in health advances: the twentieth-century United States. Demography. 2005;42(1):1-22.
  5. CDC. Achievements in public health, 1900–1999: safer and healthier foods. [290 KB] MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 1999;48(40):905.
  6. CDC. Summary of notifiable diseases---United States, 2009. [3.73 MB] MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2011;58(53):1-100.
  7. CDC. Achievements in public health, 1900-1999: changes in the public health system. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 1999;48(50):1141-7.
  8. CDC. Ten Great Public Health Achievements–United States, 1900-1999. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 1999;48(12):241-3.
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