Access to Safe Drinking Water

Clean, fresh drinking water is essential for human health [28]. Children’s growing bodies require water; moreover, children drink more water per kilogram of body weight than do adults[29]. , making them more susceptible to the effects of contaminants in drinking water.

In addition to the healthful benefits of water, federal law requires that ECE programs participating in the Child and Adult Care Food Program make water available to children [30]. Specifically, ECE programs are required to make water available to children throughout the day, including at meal times and when requested by a child.10

This section describes how to identify potential contaminants in drinking water and protect children and ECE program staff from these contaminants.

Sources of Water Contamination

Contaminants can get into drinking water from a variety of sources, activities, or problems, including the following:[21]

  • Naturally occurring elements and minerals, such as arsenic, radon, and uranium.
  • Water pipes and old plumbing.
  • Agricultural use of fertilizers or pesticides, livestock grazing, or concentrated animal feeding operations.
  • Manufacturing or industrial processes.
  • Sewer overflows.
  • Malfunctioning wastewater treatment systems, such as nearby septic systems.
Contaminants in Drinking Water

Many substances can contaminate drinking water. Some contaminants, such as lead from old plumbing fixtures, are common across the country; others are specific to a region or small local area. Which specific contaminants are in a drinking water source—if any—depend on the natural environment, the human uses that surround it, the local or regional water system, and the plumbing fixtures used in a specific building. Table 4.5 lists some common contaminants found in drinking water.

Different regions of the country have different rock and soil composition. Soil composition affects the types of elements and minerals that might be in the water. For example, in the Northeast and the Southwest, naturally occurring elements that might get into water include arsenic, radon, and uranium. Locally, human activities such as agriculture, manufacturing, or industrial processes, and sewer or wastewater treatment can also contribute to water contamination. For example, the chemical TCE is used for cleaning metal parts and also for dry-cleaning clothes. When TCE is spilled, it can soak into the ground and get into groundwater supplies.

In office buildings and homes, contaminants such as lead or copper could get into drinking water by leaching from plumbing materials and fixtures as water moves through the water pipes. Even if the source drinking water meets federal and state standards for lead or copper, a building could have elevated lead or copper levels caused by its plumbing materials and water use patterns. Because lead or copper concentrations can change as water moves through the distribution system, the best way to know if a building might have elevated levels of lead or copper in its drinking water is by testing the water in the building. Testing makes it possible to evaluate the plumbing and helps target remediation.

State or local health departments can provide information on how to test your drinking water for common, regional, and local contaminants.

Table 4.5. Some common contaminants in drinking water
Some common contaminants in drinking water
Contaminant How it enters water Health effect Where found
Copper Copper has been used in household plumbing. Copper is also found in fixtures, faucets, and fittings made of brass. Where drinking water is slightly acidic, the copper might dissolve out of the fixtures and fittings more readily and get into the drinking water. Some amount of copper is essential to good health, but drinking too much copper can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.[31] Across the United States, wherever it was used in pipes and plumbing fixtures.
Lead Has been used in making water pipes that bring water from the public source to homes or businesses and that carry water within homes or businesses. Homes built before 1986 are more likely to have plumbing with lead. Lead is known to damage the brains of children who drink it. Lead can cause behavior change and reduce a child’s capacity for learning. These effects can last a lifetime.[32] Across the United States, wherever it was used in plumbing pipes and fixtures.
Naturally occurring contaminants (arsenic, uranium, radon, etc.) From natural processes such as groundwater dissolving minerals. Naturally occurring contaminants can be made more accessible by human activities such as mining. Various possible health effects. Occurs regionally across the United States.
Nitrates From animal and human waste that comes from agricultural run-off, sewage, and leaking septic tanks. Nitrates can cause serious health effects and even death in infants age six months and younger. Across the United States in agricultural areas and areas where homes use septic tanks.
Other chemicals (pesticides, TCE, VOCs, etc.) From agriculture, manufacturing, and industrial processes. Various possible health effects. Occurs locally, depending on the current or past use of the site and nearby sites.
Note: Pathogens are not chemical contaminants, but because their health effects can be swift and serious, they are included in the table for completeness.
Pathogens include bacteria (such as Escherichia coli), single-celled organisms (such as Cryptosporidium [33] and Giardia [34]), and viruses. Pathogens can get into your water supply from sewer overflows or malfunctioning wastewater treatment or septic systems. Some pathogens can cause stomach upset and diarrhea. Water-borne pathogens, such as Legionella [35], can cause pneumonia, and echovirus and Coxsackie B can cause inflammation in body organs [36]. Across the United States.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) A group of compounds resistant to heat, oil and water. These chemicals were used in many manufacturing products and firefighting foam. Information is still emerging on how these contaminants affect human health. They might harm the liver or kidneys. As these chemicals are being more readily tested for in water, they are being found across the United States in public and private water supplies.

10Please note that Head Start requires that their ECE programs make safe drinking water available to children under their care.

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Page last reviewed: August 25, 2017