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LA Tap Water: To Drink Or Not To Drink

Benjamin Gottlieb |
November 20, 2011 | 10:12 p.m. PST

Senior News Editor

A Sparkletts man delivers water in Los Angeles (Photo obtained under Creative Commons license).
A Sparkletts man delivers water in Los Angeles (Photo obtained under Creative Commons license).
Ask the average American to visualize a quintessential 1950s panorama, a Back to the Future-like glimpse of the nation’s self-proclaimed “Golden Age,” and odds are they’ll paint a similar setting.

Scenes from Gary Ross’s Pleasantville instantly come to mind. Corner diners, packed to the brim with sociable, young teens, gorging themselves with cherry-topped chocolate malts, sporting pink poodle skirts and t-bird leather jackets. Automobiles of a feel-good era – the embodiment of the American Dream. The Chevy Corvettes and Starliner Coupes of a bygone era. The drive-through movies and drive-through diners. Suburbia in its infancy.

And of course, the neighborhood milkman, hand delivering quarts of cream-topped milk to the eagerly awaiting, and overtly oppressed, American housewives.

Growing up in the Los Angeles suburbs, the 21st century milkman that came to my parent's house carried something a bit less nostalgic and arguably, somewhat absurd: gallons of bottled water.

As a young boy, I would watch intently from the family living room couch for the arrival of the Sparkletts man, hauling blue-capped water jugs into my quaint two-bedroom home in Sherman Oaks. His big, green truck, laden with shinny blue reflector panels and construction vehicle tires, would pull up like clockwork, dropping off a few five gallon containers and then putter away begrudgingly to the next neighborhood subscriber.

I never asked questions. Water from the sink was bad for me, my parents said, packed full of toxic chemicals that could make me sick.

So it was bottled water for me.

After all, high levels of cancer-causing agents from industrial and refrigerants waste – such as total trihalomethanes (TTHMs) and haloacetic acids – have been found in Los Angeles’ main water supply, a Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report found. These levels, measured in 2001, were worse in East and Central Los Angeles – 80 parts per billion of TTHMs.

Although these levels are not illegal, they are risk factors for cancer, the report said.

But these waterborne pathogens are not the only concern for Angelenos intent on drinking from the tap. Radon was detected in county water wells at levels above federal recommendations. Perchlorate, an unregulated contaminant from rocket fuel, has also been found in the city’s water.

Los Angeles’ tap water is also loaded with Arsenic, at about 4 parts per billion, posing “a lifetime cancer risk exceeding 1 in 1,000—more than 10 times worse than the highest cancer risk the EPA usually allows from tap water,” the NRDC report said.

To clean up these pollutants, Southern California’s consortium of 26 water-governing bodies, the Metropolitan Water District, began pouring fluoride into local tap water supplies last decade.

But scientific research backed by the public health and dental researchers are not so sure the health risks of fluoride outweigh the benefits of tap water fluoridation, such as improving dental health. 

At the recommended dosage of water fluoridation, the only clear side effect is dental fluorosis, or a discoloration of one’s teeth.

The fear, however, is that unsafe levels of fluoride could be applied to tap water supplies, according to the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit public health organization. 

Children are most at risk, the group said.

But here’s the thing: Just because your water comes in a bottle doesn’t mean it’s void of these pollutants.

A separate NRDC report found that about one-third of the bottled water tested during their study contained levels of contamination, “including synthetic organic chemicals, bacteria, and arsenic.”

The tap water debate continues to be a hot topic in the council chambers and town forums of this country. Recently, a group of concerned residents of Pinellas County in Florida championed a campaign against the use of fluoride in their county’s water supply. The county plans to remove all fluoride from its water supply by the end of the year.

While no such measure is in the books in Los Angeles, many clean water advocates continue to push a fluoride-free water table.

Myself? I drink right out of my corroded, 1950s copper pipes that supply my dumpy apartment in Little Armenia proudly. I’m not part of the crowd terribly troubled with the city’s water.

Bottled water is harmful to our planet, period. The plastic waste involved in packaging and transporting flats of Arrowhead or COSTCO water, for example, is a nasty side-effect of one of the biggest corporate scams of our generation.

And at healthy levels, fluoridation’s biggest side effect is yellow teeth. When used effectively, the chemical has been shown to dramatically clean up tap water and combat cancer-causing pathogens.

So, at $20 an invoice for the 21st century version of the milkman, I’m going to take my chances with our city’s finest.


To reach Benjamin Gottlieb, click here.

Follow him on Twitter @benjamin_max.

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