How Clean Is New York Tap Water?
It’s been called the “champagne of tap waters,” hailed as the magic ingredient behind world-famous pizza crust and bagels, and is highlighted as one of the many shining features that make NYC locals so darn proud of their city. But how clean is the tap water in New York City, really?
When you compare drinking water quality by city, New York tap water definitely ranks highly — but there are still some causes for concern you should know about before sipping straight from the faucet.
A quick history of tap water in New York
While NYC is one of the greatest cities in America, it’s also one of the oldest. With that storied history comes concerns about its aging infrastructure and, as a result, its tap water.
When it was a Dutch settlement in the early 1600s, New York City residents got their water from ponds, streams, and wells. But as the city grew and its population skyrocketed, so did its need for clean water. It began looking to upstate Croton River for its water supply in 1842, building huge dams and aqueducts to get the water from the river to its residents. Finally, the city realized it needed an even bigger water supply to keep up with its growth in the early 1900s and turned to the northern Catskill Mountains.
Today, the vast majority (96%!) of the New York tap water has traveled about 125 miles from watersheds in the Catskill Mountains and the upper Hudson Valley to your faucet. The remaining four percent of the water comes from the Croton.
Is tap water safe to drink in New York?
The tap water is a point of pride for New Yorkers. It consistently ranks highly on drinking water quality reports, and the city makes it a point to test its drinking water frequently to ensure it meets state and federal regulations.
Unfortunately, the drinking water still might not be as sparkling-clean as its hype proclaims.
Lead contamination from the corrosion of old water pipes is one of the most significant threats to our national water security, with a staggering 186 million Americans estimated to have drunk water from lead-contaminated sources between 2018 and 2020.
Here’s why this matters: there is no amount of lead exposure that is safe.
Your body has no way to get rid of this toxic metal, and accumulation can lead to serious health issues like reproductive issues, heart problems, and kidney damage. It’s also a neurotoxin that can even be fatal for children. Just take a look across state lines to the water crisis in Newark, NJ, a city that has been battling the fallout of lead-contaminated pipes since 2016. It’s now replacing all of its lead service lines after a quarter of its children under the age were found to have measurable levels of lead in their blood.
While New York City stopped using lead to build its pipes in 1961, hundreds of lead pipes still remain from before the ban. In 2018, the city’s Independent Budget Office reported that 12 NYC neighborhoods showed high levels of lead in their water, which was especially problematic in older homes built in the 1920s and 1930s. What’s worse: there are still 360,000 lead service lines in the state delivering water to people’s houses, according to a survey by the Natural Resources Defense Council. This means that water could be passing through lead pipes before they get to your residential plumbing system, even in newer buildings.
In the chart (Figure 1), the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) standards for Lead is at 15 ppb, or parts per billion, which is the maximum amount of lead you can have in water for it to be considered safe to drink. NYC’s concentration is at 11 pbb, just 4 points below the EPA standards of safe drinking water and 6 points above the FDA standards for bottled water. While it’s still under the EPA standards of safety, it showcases that NYC’s water isn’t as safe to drink as many people perceive. EPA also recognizes that any level of lead is unsafe.
(Lack Of) Filtration
The NYC Watershed has bragging rights as the largest unfiltered water source in the United States. Instead of passing through a filtration plant, New York’s water goes through a natural filtration process via the forests, swamps, and soils on its way down to the city.
But while the natural filtration of the NYC water means that it tests cleanly enough for state and federal standards, not everyone agrees. According to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Tap Water Database, testing on New York City tap water found 18 total potentially hazardous contaminants, with 10 of those contaminants exceeding their health guideline limits.
And while there may not be a legal necessity for New York City tap water to be additionally filtered, it is still treated with chemicals like chlorine, fluoride, orthophosphate, and sodium hydroxide to make tap water safe to drink. But these can also present issues of their own.
Take haloacetic acid, a potentially carcinogenic compound formed when organic materials mix with chlorine. As recently as December 2021, New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection reported that quality tests of tap water in Staten Island and Brooklyn showed excessive concentrations of haloacetic acid, likely due to recent tropical storms that mixed up organic materials in the soil to react with the added chlorine.
New York City’s iconic skyline boasts magnificent skyscrapers, high rises, and other buildings that stretch towards the sky. But the water mains only have enough pressure to deliver water up to the sixth floor, so taller buildings rely on rooftop water storage tanks to deliver water to the higher stories. Unfortunately, these water tanks may not be as heavily regulated as you might like your drinking water source to be.
A 2014 New York Times investigation sought to figure out how clean those water tanks really were by taking water samples from 14 different water tanks — and what they found was pretty alarming. 8 tanks tested positive for total coliform bacteria, and 5 tested positive for E. coli, presumably due to fecal contamination from invading pigeons, squirrels, and other animals.
So, can I drink the tap water in New York?
The water you get from your New York City faucet is really good compared to many other cities. But even the “champagne of tap waters” isn’t free of potential health hazards like biological contaminants, hazardous chemicals, and toxic lead. The bottom line is that when it comes to water contaminants — and especially when we’re talking about contaminants like lead that stay in your system forever — “mostly” clean is not clean enough.
Water bottles aren’t a good alternative, either: New Yorkers throw out an estimated 1,579,600 pounds of plastic bottles every single week.
So, the short answer as to whether you can drink tap water in New York: it is probably safe to drink, but it should still be cleaned with water filtration systems like a LARQ Bottle Filtered for on-the-go filtration or a countertop solution like the LARQ Pitcher, which remove lead, chlorine, PFAS/PFOS, HAA5, VOCs, BPA, heavy metals from corroding pipes, and more to guarantee safe, clean, and nontoxic hydration in the Big Apple and beyond.