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Drinking Water Week 2012: Celebrate the Essential

Photo: A woman with a glass of water.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 6–12, 2012 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 "Water: Celebrate the Essential," Drinking Water Week provides an opportunity for the public to recognize the vital role that safe water plays in our daily lives (1).

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).

Chart: Incidence of Typhoid Fever, 1920-1960; plotted line decreases left to right, indicating decrease in incidence.

Incidence of Typhoid Fever, 1920-1960. With the implementation of disinfection methods for drinking water, there has been a drastic decline in cases of typhoid fever in the United States. Image Credit: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Click to view larger chart.

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).

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).

Photo: Sewage plant.The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets maximum concentration levels for many water pollutants and regulates drinking water quality in public water systems. Every community water system is required to provide its customers with an annual 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.

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.

The Future of Tap Water

Photo: A man shaving.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.

What CDC is Doing

Photo: Water pouring out of a faucet.The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) works to address these drinking water challenges through its water-related research, prevention, and policy activities and programs, which include:

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

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.
 

More Information

Public drinking water quality and your local drinking water

How to protect and improve well water quality

Other drinking water and health-related resources

References

  1. American Water Works Association. Drinking Water Week 2012.
  2. US Environmental Protection Agency. Water on Tap: what you need to know. Office of Water, 2009. [PDF - 2.16MB]
  3. US Environmental Protection Agency. The history of drinking water treatment. Office of Water, 2000. [PDF - 375 KB].
  4. Cutler, D. & Miller, G. The Role of Public Health Improvements in Health Advances: The Twentieth-Century United States. Demography - Volume 42, Number 1, February 2005, pp. 1-22
  5. CDC. Achievements in public health, 1900–1999: safer and healthier foods. [PDF - 290 KB] MMWR 1999; 48(40):905.
  6. CDC. Summary of notifiable diseases---United States, 2009. [PDF – 3.73 MB] MMWR 2011;58(53):1-100.
  7. CDC. Achievements in public health, 1900-1999: changes in the public health system. MMWR 1999; 48(50):1141-7.
  8. CDC. Ten Great Public Health Achievements –United States, 1900-1999. MMWR 1999; 48(12):241-3.

CDC works 24/7 saving lives and protecting people from health threats to have a more secure nation. A US federal agency, CDC helps make the healthy choice the easy choice by putting science and prevention into action. CDC works to help people live longer, healthier and more productive lives.

 
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