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Legal-Ease/An Attorney’s Perspective: Don’t Drink the Water

By April 26, 2024July 8th, 2024No Comments

Judd Matsunaga

If you’re traveling to Mexico, people will tell you, “Don’t drink the water.” Why? Drinking contaminated, or unclean, water can make you sick, i.e., Montezuma’s revenge. Contaminated water can look clean but still have harmful bacteria, viruses and parasites causing diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain, which can ruin your trip.

But what about here? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for making sure that public water supplies within the United States are safe. In 1974, Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act. This law sought to protect the nation’s public drinking water supply by giving EPA authority to set the standards for drinking water quality and oversee the states, localities and water suppliers who implement those standards.

Tap water in the United States is some of the best in the world, and it must meet strict federal standards to ensure it’s safe to drink. As a kid growing up in the 1960s, we never worried about drinking the water straight from the garden hose or the drinking fountain at school. We all did and thought nothing of it. But that was a long time ago.

Since then, a government study found that “Drinking water from nearly half of U.S. faucets likely contains ‘forever chemicals’ that may cause cancer and other health problems” (source:, July 6, 2023). “Forever chemicals,” aka PFAs, are a group of chemicals found in manufactured products that will remain in the human body for years and don’t degrade in the environment.

U.S. conglomerate 3M (originally the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co.), DuPont and other chemical manufacturers have been contaminating drinking water with PFAs across the country for over 50 years. How do I know? Last month, District Judge Richard Gergel gave final approval to a U.S. class-action settlement in which 3M agreed to pay as much as $12.5 billion to resolve litigation over PFAs. However, 3M did not admit liability in the settlement.

Found in everyday products such as nonstick frying pans and waterproof clothing (e.g., Scotchgard), PFAS can linger in the environment for a long time and have been linked to serious health conditions, including cancer and birth defects. Attorneys had alleged that 3M and other manufacturers sold products containing PFAs when they knew of potential health and environmental problems. The $12.5 billion is to test for and filter out dangerous chemicals across the country.

According to a recent article in the Hill (March 24, 2024), public health officials in more than two dozen states voluntarily reported a total of 214 intestine-related disease outbreaks associated with drinking water between 2015 and 2020, according to a recent analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The outbreaks resulted in at least 2,140 cases of illness, 563 hospitalizations and 88 deaths.

You can get sick if you use contaminated water for cooking, washing food, preparing drinks, making ice or brushing teeth. Contact with contaminated water, such as wading or swimming, can also lead to illness.

However, while it’s generally safe for drinking, tap water is not sterile, and there are a few situations in which using water straight from the faucet could endanger your health, according to experts and a CDC report published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases. The risk is higher for older adults and those with weakened immune systems (source:

“Using water straight from the tap for those activities is a bad idea whether you have municipal water or get your water from a well because you could introduce a harmful pathogen into your body,” says Rachel Noble, a microbiologist and professor in the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. It’s best to use distilled water or boiled tap water for those purposes, the CDC says.

“Most tap water naturally contains low levels of microorganisms such as bacteria and amoebae,” says Shanna Miko, an epidemic intelligence officer with the waterborne disease prevention branch of the CDC. Pathogens found in tap water such as Pseudomonas, nontuberculous mycobacteria and Legionella account for a significant percentage of the 120,000 hospitalizations and 7,000 deaths due to waterborne diseases annually, according to the CDC.

“Legionella? Do you mean Legionnaires’ disease?” Yep — it’s back. Legionnaires’ disease is a severe form of pneumonia caused by a deadly bacteria found in drinking water systems across the country. The bacteria can rapidly multiply and become a health hazard in man-made water systems like plumbing if the water is not adequately treated and maintained. While it can be treated successfully, about 1 in 10 people who become infected “will die due to complications from their illness.”

Legionnaires’ disease is not transmitted from person to person; instead, people contract the illness from exposure to the Legionella bacteria itself. Public water systems, for instance, can become sources for Legionella growth, posing potential health risks as people inhale the bacteria present in the air surrounding the contaminated water. Other common sources of Legionella infection include potable water used for showers, cooling towers in air conditioning systems, decorative fountains and hot tubs.

Usually, “The water is safe to drink because those pathogens typically get killed by stomach acid,” says Miko. “But the pathogens can multiply if they’re inhaled or introduced to more vulnerable parts of your body such as your eyes or nasal passages, potentially causing serious or deadly infections. She continues, “Those are dark, moist places that don’t have the benefit of stomach acid to help neutralize these bugs.”

Now, you’re probably wondering if the tap water at your home is safe to drink. While an occasional sip from the faucet might be harmless, you should remember that tap water is not sterile — so it’s best to avoid in some situations.

To protect against “water-loving” germs at home, the CDC recommends the following:

  • Boil water for 1-3 minutes, and let it cool before use.
  • Use a water filter labeled as “NSF 53” or “NSF 58.” Filters with an absolute pore size of 1 micron or smaller are also effective.
  • Purchase distilled or sterile water, especially when using a device to flush sinuses.
  • Flush your faucets and showerheads if you haven’t used them in a while.
  • Regularly clean and upkeep all appliances that use water.

Judd Matsunaga is the founding attorney of Elder Law Services of California, a law firm that specializes in Medi-Cal Planning, Estate Planning and Probate. He can be contacted at (310) 348-2995 or The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Pacific Citizen or constitute legal or tax advice and should not be treated as such.