In many ways, we’re lucky to live in a country that prioritizes clean drinking water. As long as you don’t live too far out in the wilderness, you should have access to a supply of disinfected city water.
But how clean is this water? Our public drinking water is monitored by several independent bodies – but how closely monitored is it? Is it possible for municipal water suppliers to mislead their customers about their water quality, or cover up the truth?
In this guide, I’ve sought to find the answers to these questions. During my time writing for WaterFilterGuru, I’ve seen a huge increase in demand for water filtration solutions all over the US – and this isn’t exactly a promising sign for water quality.
I’ll also be looking at the causes of poor water quality in the US, and, most importantly, which states are reported to have the worst water quality as of 2023:
Table of Contents
💧 How Is Drinking Water Quality Determined?
Drinking water quality is determined by the rules outlined in the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Note that this only applies to public water suppliers, and not private wells. It is the well owner’s responsibility to test their water and ensure it is safe for drinking.
The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA)
Passed by Congress in 1974, the Safe Drinking Water Act aims to protect the health of the nation by regulating public drinking water systems.
The law has been amended several times since it was passed, and requires states and local authorities to protect drinking water and the lakes, springs, reservoirs and rivers that supply it.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency is authorized by the SDWA to set national standards for drinking water, ensuring that the public is protected from a range of man-made and naturally occurring impurities that may contaminate drinking water. It is the job of states and public water systems to ensure that the standards set by the EPA are met.
🚰 How Is Tap Water Safety Monitored?
The safety of tap water is monitored by two independent bodies: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
The EPA sets standards for safe tap water according to the information outlined in the SDWA.
There are currently EPA regulations in place for a number of different tap water contaminants, including man-made chemicals and disease-causing germs.
There are two types of regulations the EPA sets for drinking water contaminants:
1. National Primary Drinking Water Regulations – public water systems are legally obliged to follow these treatment techniques and standards in order to limit contaminant levels and protect public health.
2. National Secondary Drinking Water Regulations – public water systems may choose to follow these guidelines to address aesthetic tap water issues that don’t pose a health concern, like smell and taste.
The EPA is also obliged to name any unregulated contaminants that may need to be regulated in the future.
You can view the full list of the EPA’s tap water standards here 👈
Environmental Working Group (EWG)
The Environmental Working Group deems some of the EPA’s standards for tap water contaminants too lenient, and has produced its own, more stringent standards for public water systems.
Federal tap water standards have remained the same for decades, and this concerns the EWG. Its own standards are based on the latest research, and take into account the contaminants that the EWG believes the government has ignored, such as toxic chemicals.
You can view the EWG’s standards here 👈
🔎 What Are the Causes of the Worst Water in the US?
The worst tap water sources in the US usually have one of several causes in common:
Aging Water Infrastructure
The most recent State of the Water Industry report by the American Water Works Association highlighted that infrastructure renewal and replacement remains one of the top issues facing the water sector.
The problem is that replacing or renewing aging water infrastructure is very expensive – but old, worn pipes are much more susceptible to leaks and breaks, and therefore pose a much higher risk of contamination.
Metal leaching is another major problem associated with poor water quality in the US.
A recent NRDC analysis of EPA data discovered that an estimated 186 million public water customers consumed water that contained more than the recommended 1 part per billion (PPB) of lead between January 1, 2018 and December 31, 2020.
Many old pipes were made from lead, and though lead pipes were banned in 1986, most pipes already in the ground were not removed.
Lead isn’t the only metal that can leach into tap water. Copper and iron are two other common metals that can end up in public tap water through leaching.
Agricultural or Industrial Pollution
It’s estimated that about 80 percent of the world’s wastewater, including agricultural and industrial waste, ends up being dumped back into the environment.
When industrial and agricultural pollutants get into lakes, streams, reservoirs and other tap water sources, they can make their way through the system and eventually end up in our homes.
Oftentimes, the severity of local pollution is unknown, and water isn’t properly treated to remove pollutants before it is sent to the public for consumption.
Naturally Occurring Geologic Contamination
Finally, there are a number of naturally occurring geologic contaminants, including radon, arsenic, radionuclides, and uranium, which make water unsafe to drink.
These contaminants are present in the earth’s crust, and are more prominent in some parts of the US than others. For example, arsenic, one of the most dangerous naturally occurring contaminants, has the biggest presence in California, Nevada, Arizona, New Hampshire Ohio, Florida, South Carolina, and more.
Naturally occurring contamination is impossible to avoid, which is why testing and treatment for these contaminants is so important.
🗺️ States With the Worst Drinking Water in the US
|State||# Contaminants above legal limits||Facilities with significant EPA violations|
Washington’s water quantity is beginning to run low, but the state is also facing a huge water quality issue, giving it some of the worst drinking water in the country.
Chromoim, radon, nitrate, arsenic, uranium and radium are all contaminants that can be found in Washington’s tap water, many of which are present above the EPA’s recommended levels for safety. Many of these contaminants are linked to cancer and other dangerous health problems.
Washington also received a fail grade from U.S. PIRG Education Fund and the Environment America Research and Policy Center for not testing its school tap water for lead.
Georgia is another state with the worst public water supply, with ash from coal mining found in surface water in Juliette, and other towns and cities in the area.
Research has discovered that radium, arsenic, chromium, chloroform and chlorate are present in much of Georgia’s water above legal levels .
Some water systems were even found to be polluted with THMs, which have been linked to fetal development issues and certain cancers. Additionally, PFAS and PFOA from firefighting foam have been reported to have contaminated water from all three of Georgia’s military bases.
California’s urban areas might have access to relatively clean water, but a number of the state’s rural farming communities drink water that contains arsenic and uranium. Agricultural areas are consuming nitrate-contaminated water, too, which can cause developmental issues and cancer.
A report found that more than 1 in 10 people in 12 California counties, equating to around 718,000 people, didn’t have access to safe tap water, giving California a space on this list of states and cities with the worst public drinking water supplies.
Perhaps you didn’t expect New Jersey to make this list. However, a 2017 report estimated that 1 in 5 people in New Jersey have access to a water supply contaminated with PFOA, a highly toxic “forever chemical”.
New Jersey also faced a water quality crisis in 2019, when residents were left queuing for bottled water after excessive levels of lead were discovered in their tap water, drawing comparisons to the Flint, Michigan crisis.
Arizona is also fast losing access to a water supply, and a lack of sustainability is to blame. Again, this state also faces a major water quality issue, with many of its contaminants exceeding the EPA’s health guidelines.
One report found that tap water in Phoenix had the highest average levels of chromium-6, a dangerous toxin that can cause cancer. 9 of the state’s water systems were also found to have higher levels of PFOS and PFOA chemicals than permitted.
Like Georgia, Pennsylvania is also dealing with the repercussions of unregulated mining practices, and a total of 20,000 miles of the state’s streams are unsafe to fish and swim in, according to federal water quality standards.
Once again, PFAS is an issue in Pennsylvania, with around 85,000 residents near Philadelphia drinking potentially unsafe tap water because of the city’s proximity to decommissioned military bases. Fracking is also a big problem in Pennsylvania’s rural communities and can give water a yellow tint and an unpleasant odor, and make it unsafe to drink.
Hurricanes Maria and Irma are responsible for massive damage to Puerto Rico, and rebuilding the ruined infrastructure has been a largely slow and unsuccessful process. Safe tap water is no longer guaranteed, and most water is flecked with sediment.
Water filters were distributed across the island in an attempt to help residents recover from the hurricanes – but water quality was an issue before the natural disasters. A 2017 report found more than 2.4 million people in the area got their water from systems containing harmful bacteria or other contaminants.
Florida has experienced several water quality issues over the years, sealing its spot on this list of the states and cities with the worst tap water in the US. The Gulf of Mexico has been plagued with red tide microorganisms, and rivers, lakes and the ocean were contaminated with blue-green algae, as a result of over-use of farming chemicals like fertilizer.
Storms and hurricanes can also cause flooding and contamination issues in Florida, and some areas have reported elevated levels of coliform bacteria in water utilities. Additionally, Florida’s water in multiple cities, including Tallahassee, is consistently contaminated with PFOS and PFOA.
Ohio has also experienced a water crisis similar to that of Flint, Michigan. In 2016, the water system was found to contain elevated levels of lead, and businesses and schools were shut as a result.
Poor mining has also left numerous Ohio communities with water containing high levels of sulfate and iron, and improper industrial waste disposal in Ohio’s rivers has made many water bodies inhabitable for living things.
The final state with the worst tap water on this list is Texas. The state has many low-income and rural regions, and this is where the most polluted water can be found, containing levels of arsenic, lead, and radiation that violate health guidelines.
Again, it’s estimated that many of the contaminants in Texas’ waterways, including toxic chemicals, have been spilled directly into them. A 2018 report also found that Texas has the most radiated tap water in the country.
🔬 How Can I Find Out if My Tap Water is Bad?
If you want to know what your own tap water contains, there are several methods you can use:
Consumer Confidence Reports (CCR)
Consumer confidence reports, otherwise known as water quality reports, are reports that public tap water suppliers must share with their customers annually.
In a consumer confidence report, you should find information on every single contaminant your water contains (or doesn’t contain – the contamination will be listed as 0).
You should be able to compare your water’s contaminant levels with the EPA standards to see that your authority is in line with these guidelines. If a contaminant is listed as “violated”, it means that it is present in amounts higher than the EPA’s recommended maximum contaminant levels.
The issue with consume confidence reports is that they don’t account for contaminants that may leach into your water on its journey to your home, like lead. Some people may also feel hesitant to trust the validity of the information provided by their local authority.
At-Home Test Kits
At-home test kits allow you to test your water quality in a matter of minutes.
Most of these kits will provide you with several test strips and a color chart. You’ll need to dip a test strip in your water sample, then wait for the advised time frame (usually two minutes).
Your test strip will take on a shade depending on the contaminants your water contains. You can then compare this shade to the color chart to determine your results.
At-home test kits are cheap, but they can usually only test for up to 10 common contaminants, and they’re not the most accurate testing method.
Certified laboratory testing gives you the clearest indication of the contaminants in your tap water supply.
Most laboratories will send you a testing kit, including vials to take water samples. You’ll then send these samples back to the lab to get tested, and receive your results by email within a week.
My recommended certified laboratory for testing your water is SimpleLab by Tap Score. SimpleLab offers test packages for well water and city water, with different pricing options depending on the contaminants you want to test for.
Laboratory testing is the most accurate water testing option, and will tell you exactly what your water contains. However, it’s the more expensive option because of this. A standard test can cost upwards of $100.
❔ What Should I Do if I Have Poor Quality Drinking Water?
If you have poor quality drinking water, don’t panic – there are plenty of options to remedy this.
My advice is to invest in a filtration system that will address your specific contaminant-removal needs, as identified in testing.
There are masses of water filters available on today’s market, some cheaper and more convenient than others. Just a few systems to consider include:
- Pitcher filters, the cheapest and most portable option, and some are capable of removing hundreds of contaminants
- Under-sink filters, which intercept your water line and remove contaminants from water before it leaves your faucet
- Reverse osmosis systems, either under-sink or countertop, which are capable of eliminating more than 99.9% of total dissolved solids
- Water bottle filters, a portable filtration option that typically tackles aesthetic contaminants
Being faced with so many filtration options can be overwhelming. To see a small selection of the best-performing water filters available today, check out our best water filters guide to see our top picks for 2023.