1. Mason, Diana J. PhD, RN, FAAN, AJN Editor-in-Chief

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I live in New York City. Most of you probably think that this city's water must not be very good. But its drinking water is actually ranked among the nation's tastiest and purest.


Or so I thought.


New York City gets its water from an extensive system of reservoirs in upstate New York. To the consternation of some upstate communities, the city bought up land surrounding the reservoirs, imposed limits on development and waste management in these communities, and developed an extensive monitoring and security system to ensure that the risk of contamination of the reservoirs is minimal.


But saying our water is relatively pure doesn't mean we can take this for granted. On June 30 of this year, I turned on the television in a hotel room in another city to see that New York City officials were warning residents not to drink unboiled water for 24 hours if they were older adults, pregnant women, small children, or people who were immunocompromised. Heavy rains had resulted in an excessive number of particulates in the water, a temporary condition which could interfere with chlorination of the city's water.


While that news may have escaped your attention, imagine a situation in which there's no water for drinking, preparing food, or handwashing, and where the water we do have is dangerous rather than sustaining? Hurricane Katrina left more than 1,200 water systems in the Gulf states contaminated. The sludge that rose up in New Orleans as a result of Katrina and human failures (including the failure of the federal government to fund the shoring up of the levees surrounding the city) was not only foul smelling and undrinkable, it was untouchable. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tests revealed that the water was laced with high levels of Escherichia coli as well as volatile and semi-volatile compounds (such as heavy metals, pesticides, and herbicides). Health officials warned people not to drink the water and to wash any areas of the body that had come in contact with it. Television and newspaper images of the distribution of cases and cases of bottled water illustrated the importance of safe water to health and life.


But we don't have to go to New Orleans to find contaminated water. In the October 2002 issue of Infection Control Today, Susan Burns discusses the myriad occurrences of water contamination in hospitals-including water contaminated with Legion-ella bacteria-which often go unreported or unrecognized (see Emerging Infections, page 35).

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Or consider this: A 2002 issue of Water Science Technology included a report of the detection of traces of prescription drugs in drinking water and groundwater in Germany. In August of 2004, the BBC reported that Prozac had been found in England's drinking water. But that's Germany and England, you say? At least their governments are taking these concerns seriously. It's worrisome that the EPA covered up the problems in air quality in New York City after September 11, 2001. Our governments should monitor the quality of drinking water and honestly disclose the findings.


As drinkable, touchable water becomes a more precious resource, nurses need to be able to answer questions that patients may have about water (whether in the hospital or home), potential health hazards from impure water, and methods for ensuring safe water supplies. This month, Stephanie Chalupka ("Tainted Water on Tap," page 40) writes about the impetus for her own interest in safe drinking water and discusses these issues (including the fact that not all bottled water is uncontaminated). I hope that it will spur readers to pay attention to the water in their own communities and institutions and be vocal about the public policies needed to protect this precious, life-sustaining resource.