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Feb 15, 2002 07:44 PM

Is tap water safe in SF?

  • c

Two of the restaurants I've been to recently served me water out of the kitchen faucet. The water was not filtered, it came straight out of the same faucet they use for washing dishes.

These two restaurants have open kitchen. That was how I saw them get the water from.

I am shocked. Isn't it unsafe to serve water from the same kitchen faucet that they use for washing dishes. I always assume that restaurants are supposed to use filtered water for customers or at least boil it first.

I used to boil my tap water before drinking. Nowadays, I buy water from one of those water dispensers you often see in front of a supermaket.

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  1. San Francisco tap water is probably safer than any mineral water you can buy. One of my friends actually buys our water for the PUC. It comes from Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite. Most of Marin water comes from reservoirs on Mt. Tam. The standards for tap water in this country are extremely high; it may not always taste delicious, but this is mostly the effect of chemicals used to destroy potential bacteria. The smell and taste disappear after half an hour in the fridge. According to Consumer Reports, the cheapest faucet filter you can buy ($20 at Cole Hardware) will eliminate the chlorine taste.

    For a hilarious and informative article about the pretensions and safety of water, see Corby Kummer's cover story from the NY Times magazine a few years back.

    (Unfortunately it will cost you, so I will summarize: he loves the rarest, most expensive European bottled waters until he drinks a particularly good US one on a plane. Noticing it comes from a "spring" in his suburban home town, he goes on a search to find out how much of purified and mineral waters is marketing. Dasani, for example, with its Italian name, is bottled by Coke. He concludes NYC has some of the best tap water around.)

    By the way, I hope they were not serving you dishwater, with suds. And while I dislike the flavor or Evian, I do like the "taste" of Fiji water. Ironically, when I went to Fiji, we had to boil the water.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Windy

      Good post -- I'll just add succinctly that tap water actually has to meet more stringent standards for safety than bottled water.

      I buy bottled water for convenience on the go, but half the time I refill the bottle from a tap. Bottled water is one of the great consumer scams of our time.

      At work in downtown SF I do prefer filtered water, though, mostly because the old pipes in much of downtown do shed some sediment/minerals. This an aesthetic issue not a safety issue.

      1. re: Ruth Lafler
        Caitlin McGrath

        Those pipes really make a difference. For years, I've been hearing how great NYC tap water is, but the places I've lived here in Manhattan have all had nasty-tasting, disturbingly particulate-filled tap water (we filter it through a Brira pitcher and it's fine). I guess I've had the misfortune of living in places served by old piping not well maintained.

        When I return to SF and the East Bay to visit, it's always a pleasure to have such clean-tasting water straight from the tap.

        Dasani, BTW, is not spring water--it's purified water with minerals added back. My particular favorite bottled waters are Volvic and Crystal Geyser. Don't like Poland Spring (it's the worst), Deer Park, or Evian.

    2. Tap water is perfectly safe in all of California - I remember reading through the PUC's (that would be the Public Utilities Commission on Van Ness Ave.) reports on water. They quite stringently control the standards to which tap water is held.

      Let me also say that 99% of bottled water's success is due to marketing. Case in point: down here in L.A., we can buy Sparkletts water. Up in San Francisco, the EXACT SAME water is marketed as "Alhambra".

      Well, if you've ever been to Alhambra, California, you wouldn't want to drink any naturally occurring water that might be lying around - you might as well call it "East L.A." The water itself tastes fine.

      We buy a case of Crystal Geyser or Arrowhead water about once every 3 months so we can have the 1/2 litre bottles - then we refill from our tap (and remember, I live in L.A., which is much ickier water-wise than SF, since our water has to be piped from the Colorado river and the Owens Valley, each about 300 miles). We do, of course, Brita-filter it.

      I think you're fine. If you find yourself clinging to cable cars singing the Rice-a-Roni jingle while waving a rainbow-coloured flag, you might want to find something else to drink, like beer (which is made, by the way, with filtered tap water).

      1 Reply
      1. re: PRSMDave

        While it is true that the law requires tap water to be safe, I personally fear that this may not be enforced to the standards one would hope. We are in the Wild West, after all. I highly reccomend "Cadillac Desert" for a history of the development of the West and the water resources. Which leads me to the point of relevance - The problem with LA water, which tastes uniformly terrible, is not that it has to come from so far away, but that en route it is being used to irrigate the farmlands. My impression from the book mentioned above is that it generally gets run through the soil dozens of times before getting accumulated in our municipal resevoirs. The water standards presumably require that the various chemicals used by agribusiness (not to mention the, ahem, runoff from livestock) be dealt with somehow, but I guarantee that there is stuff in the water down here I have never tasted in SF. I use a Brita on the tap and buy distilled drinking water. I liked the taste of the tap in San Francisco, and never filtered it when I was living up there.


      2. I know the water is safe for drinking. Somehow, I have to always boil it first.

        I think drinking without boiling the water first is not a very wise advice. Unfortunately, most restaurants serve water right out of the kitchen faucet.

        Now, instead of drinking water while dining, I order softdrink instead.

        5 Replies
        1. re: chowow

          You should be able to get analysis records from your water supply system, which summarize the testing parameters.

          Unless you order a canned or bottled soft drink, you'll get something that comes right from tap water at the bar gun.

          BTW, soft drinks and beer are made with somebody's tap water, anyway.

          Better drink wine.

          1. re: ironmom

            yes i only order canned softdrink. I look around first and only order if they serve canned softdrink.

            Softdrinks and beer mare made with controlled tap water. They don't just use any water as this can alter the taste of a softdrink or beer. So i'm not too worry about the tap water they use.

            1. re: chowow

              We humans are amazing creatures! We all seem to fixate on one or another belief, often to the detriment of our future well-being because we're simultaneously ignoring scientifically proven risks that don't fit our food or drink preferences.

              It's my understanding that lead is primarily a risk for little kids. And then in rather substantial doses.

              We receive an annual analysis of all the elements in SF's drinking water. I assumed everyone did.

              I'd worry a lot more about the proper use of soap and water by kitchen crews as well as their adherence to time/temperature rules for food safety. Those food-lovers who refuse to give up known high-risk items have their own potential health worries too! As do those who ignore the oft-stated recommendations for a minimum of 5 fruits and vegetables daily.

          2. re: chowow

            Living in a place with 107 year old plumbing, I was concerned about lead as well. The biggest danger of lead comes from the old solder joints in the plumbing of your house, less than the municipal supply...The way around this is to let your water run for a minute before first drinking use in the morning; this will get rid of all that night-long lead contact, if any..Also, use only cold water for drinking and cooking; it carries less lead..Despite all this, my downstairs neighbor, who had 2 infants, did the very expensive testing that required the WHOLE BUILDING not use their water all nite, for higher testing density..Turns out there were no measurable levels.

            1. re: chowow

              Boiling the water only kills any bacteria that might be in it -- it doesn't affect the lead content (or any other mineral) at all -- if anything by boiling the water you're actually concentrating (slightly) any metals or minerals that might be in it.

              Even if there were measurable levels of lead in tap water it would take more than an occasional glass of tap water in a restaurant to cause lead poisoning.

            2. j
              Jill Cornwell

              As a former health inspector, I always try to talk people out of buying water from the dispensing machines at grocery stores, because I've seen a lot of grimy ones in my day. That water is only as clean as the filters are, and trust me - they may well not be clean. You have no way of knowing how often or well the dispensers are serviced, and you are much better off drinking tap water or filtering it with your own device (ie Brita, Pur) so that you know the filter has been changed in a timely manner.

              Boiling water is generally done when bacteria is a problem, and that is not something we have to worry about with our municipal water.

              2 Replies
              1. re: Jill Cornwell

                Aren't water companies supposed to change the filters from the dispensing machines at regular interval like every month or so?

                I'm sure there are laws that require them to do this.

                1. re: chowow
                  Jill Cornwell

                  Oh, there are laws, but that doesn't mean that they are always complied with, or that the employee changing the filter actually cleans the machine. I'm not saying that you absolutely shouldn't drink the water, just that I've seen the insides of a lot of those dispensers and prefer to filter my own.

              2. My husband and I drink tap water at home all the time. It's been over five years since we moved here, so far so good.

                I actually prefer the taste of SF tap than some of the bottle stuff. But then again, I think one gets used to the water and its taste.

                2 Replies
                1. re: Wendy Lai

                  usually anything bad happens from drinking tap water, you won't see the results until many years later ~10-20 years.

                  Lead poisoning can cause brain damage. And you won't know a thing until 20-30 years later. By then, it's too late and the damage is permanent.

                  not to scare you but when i see restaurants serve tap water, i now don't order water anymore. Restaurants are notorious for runing hot, cold, hot, cold water. They never let cold water run for 1 min before serving you. This is where you could get lead poisoning.

                  1. re: chowow

                    Sorry, I think you misunderstood my One-minute running time post...You only need to do this FIRST THING in the AM, when the water had been sitting on the lead joints all night..I realized, after I posted, that i should have added, "Restaurants run their water so often and so continuously, there isn't TIME for it to sit in the pipes and absorb lead"..Drink on!