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I have been offered a position with a US-based company. This role is initially located in Massachusetts, but the company says I can live anywhere in US, as long as I am not too far from an airport.

My question is about whether public drinking water in Massachusetts is safe to use for coffee, tea, to drink straight from the tap and things like that, or should I buy bottled water from grocery store or invest in some kind of a filter?

Also, since I do not yet know where in USA I will settle permanently, it would be great to know this detail about other states, such as Florida.

  • 17
    I lived there for a long time and would have thought anybody paying for bottled water was loony as a box of frogs. Personally I like the water in Stockbridge the best, but Boston is fine, as is Springfield Mass. The water on Martha's Vineyard can be funny tasting sometimes, but it's certainly potable! – Gayot Fow Dec 14 '14 at 22:55
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    Its safe as noted below in the answers, but some regions may have odd smells which affect taste (not safety). In Rochester, NY I got a filter because I found the smell of the tap water there terrible, and in Florida it seems to have an ocean water smell. – Andy Dec 15 '14 at 0:58
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    Depends on where in Forida ... a couple of coastal towns maybe have a salty tinge to them, but not all of Florida by any means. – user13044 Dec 15 '14 at 1:41
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    As it hasn’t been mentioned before: I found the tap water in the US nearly undrinkable because it smelled and tasted of chlorine. I may have had a small sample size but some US Americans confirmed that this was perfectly normal (and did not even notice this anymore). I cannot say anything about the health impact though. (Unfortunately, the bottled water started tasting weird after a few days too, which I put to the bottle material.) – Wrzlprmft Dec 16 '14 at 23:26
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    @Wrzlprmft it really depends where you are. Burlington VT does not add anything to the water it pulls from the lake, its the closest to well water I've found. – Andy Dec 17 '14 at 1:07

10 Answers 10

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Tap water in MA is quite drinkable; I've lived here for over 30 years, drinking it. No funny colors or odors, either.

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    Here in Germany it is often the case that tap water is of higher quality than bottled water. (Because it is controlled extensively). – Uwe Keim Dec 15 '14 at 6:37
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    In the USA, most of the water supply is very potable except for some of the large cities. In large cities like San Francisco, LA, New York, Boston, and Washington DC, you may get water which is "drinkable" but I would invest in refrigerator-with-a-filter or a Brita pitcher with some filters. It works really well and yes in some places (such as around the continental divide) tap better is actually better than bottled water. And no matter what, being environmentally conscious, I must protest against bottled water. – Fixed Point Dec 16 '14 at 0:10
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    @FixedPoint Actually, New York City has excellent water, to the point where there was a company (Tap'd NY) which bottled and marketed the tap water for sale outside of New York. Most cities share water sources with surrounding areas; the size of the city has no direct relation to its water quality, but bigger cities tend to be older, and suffer from degradation of pipes in buildings. The water in California (not just Los Angeles and San Francisco) is often bad-tasting because it is a combination of heavily mineraled groundwater and aqueduct water imported from hundreds of miles away. – choster Dec 16 '14 at 4:57
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    San Francisco's tap water is almost as good as NYC's; it's good enough that there's an in-joke in some SF restaurants to offer "Hetch-Hetchy" tap water as if it were a fancy "appellation d'origine contrôlée" product. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hetch_Hetchy – Russell Borogove Dec 16 '14 at 21:06
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    @FixedPoint What evidence do you have that Boston water tastes worse than elsewhere? That is contrary to my impression. – Marc Stober Dec 17 '14 at 17:18
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Almost all tap water in the US is drinkable. The exceptions are generally noted and announced and temporary.

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    Note that "drinkable" is not the same thing as "tastes good". There are some decidedly foul-tasting water supplies out there. – Mark Dec 15 '14 at 3:22
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    Most of Massachusetts water is pretty good, most of the time. There are a few towns whose reservoirs occasionally experience algae blooms, which are generally harmless but can make the water taste "fishy" for a few weeks. – keshlam Dec 15 '14 at 4:41
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    As @Mark says, drinkable and tasting good are different. Note that tasting good varies on a smaller scale than by state; it depends on the source of the water as well as the kind of pipes used to transport it. It's possible to have different tasting water in different parts of the same city, if the city is large enough! – Brian S Dec 15 '14 at 20:18
  • Usually bad taste in municipal water is because of plumbing issues; water plants tend to have very high standards. – wberry Dec 15 '14 at 20:38
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    @Mark - but the OP's question was to do with whether the water is drinkable/safe – Matt Wilko Dec 16 '14 at 14:50
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Yes, tap water in the US is regularly tested and drinkable except when explicitly noted. For example, here in Portland, Oregon we usually have a "boil alert" (i.e. boil your tap water before drinking it) about once a year for a couple days because a regular sample indicates possible E. Coli contamination. There usually isn't, but they get the warning out until it's verified safe. I keep a few gallon jugs of tap water handy for when that happens.

The EPA, and local authorities, produce water quality reports. This is the one for Massachusettes.

A note about bottled water, about 25% of it is tap water. Yup, they take water from the municipal supply, filter it, put it in a bottle and sell it back to you with a huge markup. The rest comes from somewhere else, but there's no guarantee it's any better than tap water. Different agencies regulate tap vs bottled water (EPA vs FDA) and the regulations tend to be stricter for tap water. Enjoy!

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    I keep a few gallon jugs of tap water handy for when that happens. This might be counter-productive. Storing water in a container for too long can cause it to become stagnant. – Philipp Dec 16 '14 at 13:46
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    @Philipp I also use it for camping, it gets rotated. – Schwern Dec 16 '14 at 19:33
  • Additionally, the stored bottled water may absorb volatiles from the plastic. That is the reason that bottled water has an expiration date. – dotancohen Dec 17 '14 at 19:18
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    @dotancohen That's not the reason, the bottles are regulated to prevent appreciable leeching. There's no FDA limit on the shelf life of bottled water. But if it sits around too long it might taste bad, so the manufacturers voluntarily put an expiration date on it. Then the consumer won't blame them for stinky water. fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/BuyStoreServeSafeFood/… – Schwern Dec 17 '14 at 19:26
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    @dotancohen Lots of things leak out of lots of things, the question is if its enough to do any harm. The FDA says it's safe. The EFSA says its not sure so don't expose infants. They're both keeping an eye on it. The FDA and the EFSA operate under different principles. For the FDA, something has to be proven to be harmful. For the EFSA, the suggestion that it's harmful is enough. – Schwern Dec 17 '14 at 19:43
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First off, except in the case of short-term disasters, tap water is safe to drink everywhere in the United States.

In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency regulates tap water quality.
The Food and Drug Administration regulates bottled water as a food.
EPA standards are stricter than FDA standards.
For bottled water products that are bottled and sold in one state, there may be no federal regulation whatsoever.

The NRDC, an environmental organisation, gives some guidelines about tap water.

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U.S. municipal water systems provide drinkable tap water. Most of them add chlorine compounds to sterilize the water. (Of course, if you want to be certain that the water is sterile, you need to boil it or chemically treat it yourself.) Many also add fluoride compounds, allegedly to prevent dental cavities.

The biggest problem with American "tap water" is the pipes in the houses. Many homes and schools have galvanized steel drinking water pipes, and/or lead solder to join the pipes. Galvanized steel pipes rust on the inside, causing the drinking water to have a yellow, red, or brown tint. Lead solder can leach lead into the water. In houses that have discolored tap water, a filter is worth paying for and using. Brita is one brand of these filters.

The second biggest problem with American "tap water" is that much of the country has "hard water". This makes it harder to clean sinks, tubs, and showers. Some people choose to "soften" their water, but this usually puts extra sodium in the water.

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    "many homes and schools "? do you have something to back that up. Its been standard for a while now to use copper pipes and lead free solder. – Andy Dec 17 '14 at 1:13
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    Actually, the modern standard is to use PEx plastic pipes. Copper pipes and reduced-lead solder are also used in many homes. But older homes and schools commonly have copper pipes with lead solder, or galvanized steel pipes. activerain.trulia.com/blogsview/3671206/… – Jasper Dec 17 '14 at 3:14
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    @Andy -- There are huge numbers of older homes and schools still standing. Most of them do not get re-piped unless someone decides it is worthwhile to do a "gut remodel". (There are companies that can "repipe" without doing a "gut remodel", but most homeowners do not know about this option.) – Jasper Dec 17 '14 at 14:32
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    @Andy -- Unfortunately, most PEX pipes are PEX-A. PEX-A pipes have a consistent internal diameter, even at joints. This provides good water flow properties. PEX-A can only have limited amounts of anti-oxidants. (PEX is damaged by oxidation, especially by UV in sunlight, and chlorine in hot water.) PEX-A is designed to last for generations in typical American uses (including hot chlorinated water). – Jasper Dec 17 '14 at 14:36
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    @Andy -- PEX-B (Silane PEX) has an order of magnitude more anti-oxidants than PEX-A. This means that PEX-B is designed to last for centuries in typical American uses (including hot chlorinated water). PEX-B pipes are narrower (on the inside) at joints, so it can take longer for hot water to reach faucets. – Jasper Dec 17 '14 at 14:38
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Note that a lot of houses in the US have their own well - that is, they don't get water from the utility but straight from the ground. Not something you expect in a "first world" country, but given the size of the place, not actually all that strange. According to the EPA, about 15% of Americans have "private water supply". Whether those are safe depends on the construction of the well, as well as on nearby sources of pollution and possibly filtering / processing equipment that comes along with it. I have friends who love their well water, and others who complain they can't even wash their clothes in it.

I use a simple water filter for coffee and tea, because I don't like the (after)taste of the water where I live. But it's absolutely safe to drink. And that is true anywhere in the US.

UPDATE

You may have heard about the scandal in Flint, Michigan where the water supply was taken from a heavily polluted river. The interaction of chemicals (acidity) in that water with the old lead plumbing system resulted in severe contamination and made a lot of people sick.

Apparently not all tap water is safe to drink...

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    I would add that well water can vary tremendously even over very short distances. My water is extremely iron-heavy (so it leaves stains, even when filtered and treated) and has a bacteria present that makes it unsafe to drink unless boiled first. However, I have neighbors 100 feet away who have no problems with their water. – James Sneeringer Dec 16 '14 at 18:10
  • @JamesSneeringer wow, that sucks. One of my buddies who lives on a dairy farm gets all his water from an underground spring that is crystal clear and tastes like.. water. – easymoden00b Dec 16 '14 at 19:50
  • Wow, I find that percentage surprising. I've lived in the U.S. all of my life and I'm not sure that I've ever drank well water. I've heard quite a bit about it being used 1-2 generations ago, but I very rarely hear about it still being used today. I certainly wouldn't expect that someone visiting the U.S. would encounter this anywhere near a large city. – reirab Dec 17 '14 at 5:23
  • Really? I've lived in a several places in the northeast and many of my neighbors who lived outside of the city have well water. When the power goes out, they come to the office with big water jugs. :-) – RoboKaren Dec 17 '14 at 19:10
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    @reirab While the percentage has been dropping for some time, as of 2005 about 14% of the U.S. population (~42 million) used self-supplied water, primarily wells and cisterns. – choster Dec 17 '14 at 23:21
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Publicly available water in the US is held to a legally enforceable standard by the EPA through the Safe Drinking Water Act. The minimum standards are listed here if you are interested.

If water deviates from these the local drinking water authority is required to make those deviations quite public.

For example, recently, near where I live, there was a very small amount of E. coli detected in the water and a boil water order was issued. The standard is "No more than 5.0% samples total coliform-positive in a month". This was announced in the papers, tv and radio. It was obvious that the water coming out of the tap was not up to snuff. Massachusetts is held to this exact same standard and you can expect that if something goes wrong you will know about it quickly.

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Tap water in Boston proper and certain surrounding communities comes from the MWRA and they have to publish reports on the quality, and MWRA usually come out pretty good. For example, see this report: Monthly Water Quality Test Results (Massachusetts Water Resources Authority).

As I recall the MWRA switched from chlorine to ozone (oxygen) to treat water a couple years, with a somewhat noticeable improvement in taste, and in general meaning less of chemicals you might not want in your water.

I think Cambridge might have its own separate water system. Other towns and parts of the state have their own systems, too.

  • And the further away you get from Boston and other cities the more likely that there is no municipal water supply and that private wells are used. – Stephen Ostermiller Dec 18 '14 at 16:40
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As others have said, the municipal tap water everywhere in the US is regularly tested and is "safe", save, perhaps for a few very small towns, or a larger town here and there which may be having temporary difficulties.

Do be aware that there are many private wells and the like, especially in rural areas, and, unlike municipal supplies, they are not subjected to regular testing and certification.

And you may find the water in one part of the country or another just doesn't taste good to you. Sometimes this is simply because you're used to a different taste, and sometimes it's due to stuff in the water that, while perfectly "safe", imparts a taste/odor. You're more likely to encounter this in small towns.

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Tap water in the United States is generally safe to use, but if you stay longer (several years), lead poisoning can become a problem.

While Flint is mostly known, it is only the tip of an iceberg: Elevated blood levels are widespread in the USA because there are still many deposits of lead: old factories, lead paint in old houses and water contamination with lead plumbing.

For comparison: The mentioned CDC elevated level for lead in blood for children is 5 µg/cl, while the recommended value of the WHO for lead in blood is 1 µg/cl.

So it may be a good investion to test the tap water level for heavy metals, especially if you live near the Great Seas or in the northeast.

protected by RoflcoptrException Dec 18 '14 at 9:49

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