MB900440109Responding to the August 6th PediaBlog post “What’s In Your Water?” a reader asks:

What do you do if you have strange tasting water along with an odor?


First of all, I wouldn’t drink it.  In fact, I don’t think I would bathe in it either!  I’d also call your water company and report it.

The source of almost all municipal water supplies in the Pittsburgh area comes from the Three Rivers.  Where I live (in the South Hills), our drinking water originates from the Monongahela River, passes through our local water treatment plant, and is piped to our house.  The Mon is not the cleanest river in America to start with.  This region has a long history of industrial development that is particularly toxic to rivers, beginning with the mining and transportation of coal, the local burning of coal for electricity in riverside power plants, as well as the massive play for Marcellus Shale natural gas currently underway.  Farm pesticides and fertilizer, nutrient runoff, salts used to de-ice roads in the winter, and even the deposition of raw sewage also play a role in the river’s health and water quality.  The river has been plagued in recent years with increases of total dissolved solids (TDS) due to all this human activity.  Huge amounts of water are taken from the rivers to “frack” gas wells, and the contaminated and radioactive fluids that return to the surface during the fracking process travel by pipelines to collection (impoundment) pits, where they often sit, venting chemical vapors.  Municipal water treatment plants are not equipped to treat the chemicals or salts in this “fracking waste water,” let alone handle the sheer volume of water needed to be treated.  Pipelines and plastic impoundment pit liners have been known to leak, leading to alleged pollution of groundwater and water wells.

So if your home receives water from municipal supplies, those are some factors related to the original water source that could cause your tap water to have a bad taste or odor.  Well water is also prone to industrial contamination, especially where coal is mined and gas is fracked.  While municipal water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, well water is not.  Bottled water is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.  WebMD has more about this:

The FDA oversees the standards that apply to bottled water, but it doesn’t have the ability to oversee a mandatory testing program like the EPA does with public water suppliers. So, although it can order a bottled water recall once a problem has been found, there is no guarantee that the bottle of water you bought is safe.


So it seems like municipal tap water should be the safest water to drink.  Still, it would be a good idea to filter that water as it goes into your glass:

Activated carbon filters can remove certain organic contaminants that affect taste and odor. Some systems are also designed to remove chlorination byproducts, solvents, and pesticides, or certain metals such as copper or lead.


The bottom line is that humans need clean water — and lots of it — to stay healthy.  This is really important, affects all of us, and should not be taken for granted.  It’s become clear that we can’t trust the health of the rivers (and our drinking water) to the huge industries that exploit them.  We all need to be the responsible stewards of our precious resources.

The rivers don’t care if we can’t drink from them.  Every person — including those who support energy development in this region and who drink the same water as those who don’t — should.


*** Many thanks to my good friend Bob Donnan for his expertise in helping me fact-check this post.  Bob is a champion of our local rivers and streams and an educated advocate for the quality of the water we drink and the air we breath.  He has written extensively and specifically about the water quality of the Monongahela River, and you can read more here.  A few points that Bob wanted to pass along to our readers:

“The only sure way to treat tapwater is with a reverse osmosis system like they use at your local Starbucks. Purchasing bottled spring water for cooking and drinking is another solution for many.

“One change that occurred in Spring of 2012 for PAWC (Pennsylvania American Water Company) customers in the South Hills of Pittsburgh is the switch from chlorination to chloramination, whereby ammonia is added in place of some of the chlorine and also ‘locks’ the chlorine into the water. It is always best to keep your shower well ventilated since some of the worst exposure to trihalomethanes from water treatment is inhaled.”