Post-hurricane water safety: What you need to know
As the “Frankenstorm” approached, the East Coast braced for devastating winds, flooding and power outages. In lower Manhattan, Saks Fifth Avenue looked abandoned, its windows boarded up to defend against Hurricane Sandy. And for the first time in a century, Wall Street suspended operations due to weather.
Businesses owners began planning for the worst. And after what may be remembered as the fifth costliest hurricane in the United States, many businesses are struggling to rebuild, or trying to make up for days of lost income. Amid the turmoil, safety may take a back seat to financial worries, yet one question anyone on the East Coast should be asking is: Is my water safe to drink?
Water, water everywhere
After Hurricane Sandy made landfall, wastewater treatment plants could not accommodate the extra volume of water, and millions of gallons of raw sewage seeped into waterways. In several states, health departments warned residents that the tap water might be unsafe to drink.
But it wasn’t just the storm surge that caused the sewage overflow; power outages left some treatment facilities unable to process wastewater. Almost a week after the storm hit, areas of New Jersey were still being told to boil water before using it.
Similar reports of water contamination prompted the Federal Emergency Management Agency to deliver bottled water to affected areas. Yet, opinions have been divided for some time about whether bottled water is significantly better or safer than tap water.
What’s in the bottle
Which would you prefer to drink: An unopened plastic bottle of Fiji spring water or a cup of tap water from Cleveland, Ohio? If you chose Fiji, you might be wetting your whistle with arsenic – in lab testing, Cleveland’s water was found to have no measurable arsenic, whereas Fiji had 6.31 micrograms of arsenic per liter.
Author Annie Leonard, who directed the short film, “The Story of Bottled Water,” claims that the bottled water industry excels and creating demand for its product. Leonard says tap water is subject to more regulations than bottled water, and that up to 40 percent of bottled water is nothing more than repackaged tap water. But Hurricane Sandy showed that tap water can easily be contaminated, and that certainly wasn’t the first time people have been advised to boil tap water before drinking it. So that prompts the question: If nearly half of all bottled water comes from the tap, could it be contaminated, too? Yes, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Risk of illness
The CDC advises consumers to carefully read labels on water bottles. Labels may describe contents as artesian well water, spring water or mineral water, but none of those terms guarantee that the water is free of cryptosporidium, a parasite that causes severe gastrointestinal distress.
Only certain types of water can be trusted to be free of cryptosporidium: distilled; osmosis-filtered; and one-micron-filtered.
The take-home lesson
Businesses do hold some degree of accountability when it comes to the safety of their employees, clients and visitors. No CEO would want to find out that half the company fell ill after drinking bottled water at the last quarterly meeting.
As Leonard advises, if you’re concerned about what may be lurking in your tap water, buy a water filter. Don’t take chances with contaminated water.