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  • What’s In Our Philly Water? philadelphia-whats-in-our-water Full view

    What’s In Our Philly Water?

    I can’t recall exactly, but I know there was a time when I was able to recognize Philadelphia water by its smell and taste. It took on a certain flavor in my rice, let off a slight odor while brewing my tea.

    I remember thinking I was being a bit crazy. I remember convincing myself it was the dish detergent used to wash my plates and glasses. – even throwing away a sponge, believing that it had been the cause. And then, at some point, it seemed to go away.

    Recently, I spent two weeks living in the middle of the country, a place called Marquette, Nebraska. I lived on a farm that used an underground well for its water. The water was so clear and fresh that there was no problem drinking it straight from the tap. It was, to be honest, delicious.

    The day I returned to Philadelphia I noticed the familiar smell. Like an old friend you’d rather forget, there it was, emanating from my coffee, simmering in my oatmeal. What was this? I was dying to know.

    What exactly is in our water?

    What’s in the Philly Water?


    Like many cities, our household water contains chlorine, which is the quickest and easiest way to remove harmful bacteria from the water. Our chlorine is in the form of chloramine, which is the result of chlorine combined with ammonia. This is used only after a first dose of sodium hypochlorite (read: household bleach, see Philly’s 2014 Water Report). According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), some people “who use water containing chloramine in excess of the maximum residual disinfectant level” (we’ll come back to that) can experience irritating effects to the eyes, nose, and stomach. High levels of this stuff can also result in anemia.

    So this maximum residual disinfectant level, (AKA the amount of chloramine allowed into our water and still considered safe) is set by the EPA at 4 parts per million. Philadelphia uses at most 2 parts per million, ranging to a low of 0.2 parts per million, depending on city location and time of year. (Chlorine is harder to keep in the water in the heat of summer.)

    Interestingly, the EPA is far less concerned about toxicity from chlorine and its other combinations than it is with these things called disinfection byproducts, which are the occurrences (organic, inorganic, or chemical) that form when a disinfectant (in our case, chloramime) is introduced to the naturally present organic matter in the water. These things, known as trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids (THMs and HAAs), have resulted in carcinogenic changes in laboratory animals. Not awesome.

    From the 2014 Water Quality Report, our water ranges throughout the system from 13 to 143 parts per billion in THMs and 13 to 136 parts per billion HAAs. Seems like a pretty wide range, with a scarily high end, but it averages out to 51 parts per billion in THMs and 46 parts per billion in HAAs, which falls under the EPA’s highest allowed levels of 80 parts per billion and 60 parts per billion, respectively.

    That said, chloramine, though a weaker disinfectant than good ol’ chlorine, is shown to be more stable and can extend its disinfectant power throughout a longer distribution system (i.e., Philly’s). It also produces far lower concentrations of these nasty little THMs and HAAs, and protects against regrowth of bacteria in systems with large storage tanks and dead-end water mains, which, also sounds like Philly. (You know us well, EPA!) It also protects against slime coating in the pipes (ick) and reduces corrosion of pipes.

    For my nose’s sake, it apparently does not tend to cause any changes in taste or odor, as opposed to the use of free chlorine. Hmm…

    However, something has to lose in this bacteria-free heaven we’ve created: the fish. The EPA says even low levels of chloramine (like the type used in our drinking water) are toxic to fish and amphibians. And chloramine, unlike chlorine, does not go away with boiling. To be safe: be sure to use a treatment product for your little fishies.


    Go wash your hands. Go on, I’ll wait.

    Feel that kind of film left on your skin after you dry? Or maybe you’ve noticed the spots on your glassware after they’ve run through the dishwasher. Or maybe you’ve had to empty a bottle of shampoo into your hair before you can work up a good lather. This is all due to our hard water. This is nothing to sweat about; it’s just a build up of calcium and magnesium in our water.


    Fluoride is a naturally occurring mineral that has been pumped into water systems in the U.S. since the 1940s under the assumption of oral health benefits (it prevents tooth decay). The Centers for Disease Control promotes these health properties, as does the American Water Works Association, the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, Canadian Medical Association, American Dental Association, and the Canadian Dental Association. In Philadelphia, our water contains the recommended level of 0.7mg/L, which was reduced from an earlier recommendation of up to 1.2 mg/L due to how prevalent it is in other consumer products (i.e. toothpaste).

    However, there are some dissenting voices on this issue. The Fluoride Action Network strong opposes the practice of infusing fluoride into community water systems (up to 75% of water systems in the U.S.). Their reasons against fluoridation range from a lack of informed consent, to criticism of its potentially over-valued health benefits to the public, to the belief that it is just unnecessary.

    Whatever your stance, know that if you live in a city or drink from a community water system, your likelihood of being exposed to fluoride is pretty great. And it can be quite expensive to get rid of (carbon filters, such as Brita, won’t do the trick). If you’re worried, look to remove fluoride from other products like  toothpaste.

    But what about…

    So now I know what the main properties of my drinking water are, but it still doesn’t answer my original question. What is that smell?

    According to the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD), that “musty or earthy” smell and taste (as described by them, and which upon reading I shouted “Yes! That is it!”) is apparently something that occurs all over the world, and the most common flavor noticed by Philly people, other than chlorine. So I’m not alone!

    This not quite pleasant taste of earth is found naturally in waters and soils, as well as in vegetables that grow in contact with soil, such as potatoes, beets, carrots, and corn. It can be especially prevalent in water sources with large pockets of algae or algae blooms. Our water demonstrates pretty miniscule levels, some 5 nanograms per liter (PWD gives the somewhat colorful analogy of 5 pinches of salt to 10,000 tons of potato chips), but sensitive people can still notice it.

    As for me, a month back into the swing of Philadelphia life, I no longer smell or taste the mustiness. But I’m thankful to know it’s not something I need to worry about. After this research, I trust that our city is doing good by us.

    Final thoughts:

    It’s important to remember that the only way to continue to have safe drinking water is to maintain safe water sources. Runoff from oil and gas, fertilizers, hydraulic fractioning, even antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals can seep into waterways.

    We, as citizens, need to be conscious of what we (and others) are putting into our water. Stay vigilant, stay informed, and check out the 2014 Water Quality report for more information on keeping our water healthy, for all of us.

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    About Alisha Ebling

    Alisha Ebling is a writer, biker, vegan food consumer, and lover of all things book-related. You can find more of her writing on her website, or follow her @alishakathryn.

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