Transitioning to potable water sources in the U.S. was quite an experience for me after having had a taste of safe and trusted access to drinking water in countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Japan, etc.
The overarching drinking water regulatory program appears to be disjointed from an outsider’s perspective; the FDA regulates bottled drinking water (treating it as food) and the U.S. EPA regulates the public drinking water spectrum that includes Community Water Systems, Non-Transient Non-Community Water Systems, and Transient Non-Community Water System—which adds up to over 150,000 water systems across the U.S. These water systems are currently being utilized by over 300 million people. It is to be noted that the U.S. EPA does not regulate nor provide the recommended public health and safety criteria of private wells that more than 13 million households rely on. This gray area collides with, and in some cases, nullifies the efforts of the FDA as small food and beverage start-ups find it easier to swim through loop holes to support their business motives; be it health movements based on pseudoscience or adding to the “off the grid” culture and fueling locavores.
The recent seasonal increase in parasitic infections linked to the contaminated drinking water in Texas, or the Salem, Ore., water crisis that affected residents this spring, are some of the many cases highlighting the need for more practical, timely, and research-based potable water regulatory programs. The current roadblocks that are standing in the way to world-class potable water safety and quality in the U.S. are tied to fiscal, environmental, technological, political, or a combination of all of the aforestated reasons, even though the nation predominantly provides safe drinking water.
The transition from the “flat fee” system that was once offered by utility companies, to monthly rate structures based on monitored consumption rate has had a positive impact on reducing wastage. On the other hand, this has added to the strain that low-income or below poverty line households face as it is increasingly difficult to be able to afford quality potable water. This further pushes them to explore other (often unregulated) avenues such as private wells.
The ongoing trade tariffs conflict is another example of how the political landscape can impact food safety and quality. Pollutants such as nitrates from field runoffs have been steadily increasing since the trade tariffs legislation was passed. Farmers were typically able to control or counter the excess nitrates from fertilizers by co-planting soybean alongside other staples such as corn. Soybean is a crop that easily absorbs the surplus nutrient, thus preventing it from leaching into our drinking water systems by percolating into ground water. The current trade tariffs provide no incentives to farmers in the U.S. to purchase soybean from the leading consumer and exporter of soybean—China. Not only do the farmers have to now counter this challenge by seeking other and more expensive exporters of soybean, but they also have to invest in run-off treatment systems to meet the regulatory agricultural requirements. The ramifications end with the end user—innocent and unsuspecting tax payers.
It remains to be seen whether the opportunity to have a more unified, and better regulated approach towards distributing safe potable water, will present itself in the near future. At the pace at which we are advancing in science and technology, the drinking water predicament should really be a no-brainer. Nonetheless, when cultures and politics collide, it will certainly impact food and beverage safety and quality.