Is It Safe To Drink The Water In America? [S5E1]

Are you one of those people who think that tap water is gross and nasty, turning instead to pre-packaged water or the office water cooler? If you lived many parts of the world -- especially developing nations -- you’d have good reason to be skeptical of the water out of the tap.

But in the vast majority of cities in the first world, the tap water is the safest source of water you can find. That’s not conjecture. That’s a fact. Coming from a few years of living in countries where drinking from the tap isn’t an option for anyone, it’s first-world habit we find a little maddening.

On this, the first episode of the fifth season of our podcast, you’ll hear from a medical doctor on why your fascination with bottle water is anti-science, plus find out just how much this “first world” problem really bothers us.

Full Episode Transcript:

00.01 - 00.08: Hello and welcome to ShEvo vs. The First World. I'm Sheila D. And I am Evo Terra. You're listening to our podcast about the reverse culture shock we experience every day as American citizens returning home after three and a half years living and working overseas.

00.26 - 00.33: On today's show we're going to tackle the weighty topic of drinking water, and our American obsession with the bottle.

00.33 - 01.48: But before we get there, a quick word of thanks to our fantastic patrons and listeners who've been with us since 2014. For the uninitiated, this podcast started out as a way to keep our friends and family updated on our travels around the world. Then in our second season we brought fellow travelers onto the show, having them share their funny experiences as they hopped around the globe. For our third season we doubled-down on the funny and flipped the script, asking comedians to tell stories of their travels. Then we threw the script completely away for the fourth season, answering questions sent in from our listeners all over the globe. And through it all our amazing patrons have continued to support our antics on the podcast, enjoying exclusive content from us each and every week. Like the exclusive content we recorded just before this one where we talked about... recording this one -- getting back on the horse and making more podcasting goodness for people just like you. We'll tell you how you can join that elite group and also hear all of our exclusive content at the end of this episode. But first: what the hell is with you -- we -- Americans and your -- our -- insistence on drinking bottled water.

01.48 - 01.58: There's a common stanza for Americans who travel abroad: Don't drink the water. To find out why, or even if that's a problem, we've enlisted the help of one of our good friends; Dr. Terry Simpson.

1:58 - 02:30: Dr. Terry Simpson: As a physician as a medical doctor…. fellow American College of Surgeons. Also world traveler. One of the things that Americans know when they travel overseas... If there is one written rule about travel is that when you're an American, and you travel to a foreign country: Don't drink the water. Why is that?

02.30 - 06.07: Because water is filthy in most places. In the vast majority of the places that you travel -- even in the United States sometimes -- water is filthy. It contains germs that can kill you. And probably the best thing that was ever done for public health was developing a clean water supply.

And when we look at human lifespan we know that about half of the adult human lifespan is responsible because of clean water, because we don't have all the bugs that are in there -- the dysentery, the typhus -- things that we don't even want to know about. And it's responsible for in the world about three fourths of infant mortality and about two thirds of childhood mortality. Just water.

So when you see these companies saying (it doesn't sound very sexy) “we go to Africa and we give them clean water…”; it's a big deal. It's a really big deal. And even if you go someplace where they say “the water is clean filtered here”... I don't trust them from personal experience.

So it used to be that we sort of intrinsically knew this. We would filter water through sand. And that got rid of particulate matter and things that you see. But it didn't get rid of the bugs, and it wasn't until the germ theory came along (and again the “theory” being it's pretty much proven) where we know the germs caused disease.

Probably one of the all time heights of medicine was a guy named Snow who, in 1854 in London, determined that the cholera outbreak came from this particular water well. And this particular water well had all the cholera because deep down in the pipes the sewage was running by the water and the pipes weren't exactly…. And that was the beginning of the field of epidemiology: the study of disease.

Non-clean water is responsible for porter beer. Porter beer was originally made because you had these porters in London. They would work all day carrying vegetables up and down the market -- meat, squid... all those things that they would carry. And they would get thirsty. But if they drank the water in London;they would get sick. And if they weren’t able to carry on, you wouldn't have a workforce. So they invented the beer because beer “distills” the water and they knew nobody got sick. Early porter beers were about 3 percent so you can drink beer all day long and not get drunk. It was also responsible for tea being thought of as a medicine, because you boil water with tea which kills all the shigella, the salmonella…

And then there was a physician in World War II who came up with one of the first diets in America. His diet was a cure for everything. He got rid of all the vegetables and only fed his troops coffee and meat. Hamburger. Salisbury was his name and the salisbury steak came after him. He thought that vegetables were terrible (to the delight of every child everywhere in the world and my 93 -year-old father who hates vegetables). Because when they got vegetables of course they were sprayed with water. The water was mixed with the all of the filthy stuff because there was no separation of sewage as you're in a war zone. You're just trying to eat, you’re bathing, you're drinking out of the same source. But when you make coffee you're boiling the water. So those soldiers [who drank coffee] didn't get sick.

Clean water is pretty pretty essential.

06.09 - 06.17: It's not that America has clean water, right? The streams, the lakes, the rivers... These aren’t clean water sources.


06.17 - 07.15: No, no... and I wouldn't trust them one bit. And you shouldn't. In fact I, can tell you many many horror stories (which I won't bore you with) of people who drank water, came to a medical facility months later with horrible GI [gastrointestinal] problems, who didn't realize what they were drinking was beer poop or deer poop.They thought the water was clean and sparkling, and they were over the mountain, and it was free, and it had to be great, and it was wonderful... And they almost died from it and some people have.

So public water -- the stuff that comes from the tap -- has higher standards than bottled water. When people say “I’ll have bottled water and not tap” it’s like...really? Why wouldn’t you have tap water? Because it's cleaner than that stuff they put in a bottle. Not to mention about half the bottled water comes from a tap. Not to mention plastic waste and it's bad for whales....

So if you want to be healthy American in America... drink the tap water (unless you're in Flint or about 110 other counties).

And if you're overseas drink the beer.

07.16 - 08.17: Thanks Terry for those words of wisdom.

Now, my love... I thought we should actually speak to the audience at home and let them know where we came from with this particular idea. So I've got a simple question for you:

After three and a half years of living in places not necessarily always in the first world where we had no other option other than drinking the bottled water available (because you could not trust municipal water); how do you feel about being back in a country where now many people make the choice to drink bottled water as opposed to the water that comes out of the tap?

Is that something that you embrace about first world culture? (because we have so many different varieties of water that's why not bottle them and use them?) Something you're embarrassed a little bit about living in the first world? Or is it so problematic for you that you want to escape back to the third world because you can't handle this any longer.

I'm actually really embarrassed by it.

It is embarrassing isn't it.

08.18 - 08.20: I am so embarrassed.

08.20 - 08.45: It's so funny because I take water to work...

When you say you “take water to work”... explain that.

Well I take water from my tap. I don't use plastic water bottles. When I go to workout or anything like that I use my own tap water. Y

Yeah, you have filled that bottle with the tap, right? That's what you're taking. Not Evian.

08.45 - 11.02: No, Not Spring Mountain. It's not a Smart water or “dumb” water.

That right. That makes sense.

Do you think people who are seeing you carrying that bottle around with you… . Do you think they're all making the assumption that she has put in some sort of fancy special uber-great hydroponically wonderful water? Or do you think they don't even think about it?

I don't know that I've ever thought about.

You don't wonder what someone else is carrying when they're walking around with a bottle of water that is clearly refilled? Did they get that from some smart spring?

Because of what I do I assume everybody else is doing that.

You know... again, for the two and a half years lived in places where we could not drink out of the tap water. People need to understand this. I think it's worth a little bit of a digression from me that people should understand that most countries have a water sanitisation process. Even when we were in Thailand, one of the largest countries in Southeast Asia with a booming economy, they have they spent a lot of money treating the water.

The treatment plants are there... yet no one drinks out of their tap for a simple reason. And that is the distance between the water treatment plant and your house. It's going through pipes that were laid... millennia ago. (OK, that's that's pushing things too far.) But the water gets contaminated on the way, and…

Even the Thais didn't drink the water.

No one drinks out of water. But also you can take it too far.

What do you mean?

Well I know plenty of people who travel overseas who will brush their teeth with bottled water. People who will not even take a long shower for fear that that contaminated water will somehow get in their mouth, or their eyes, or other mucous membranes.

I'm just going to say that before we did our long trip: Yeah. That was us, too. We used to buy bottled water to brush our teeth when we were overseas. Even just going to Mexico.

Oh yeah. Yeah.

The last time we went [to Mexico] I remember buying big bottles of water just for brushing her teeth.

Wow. We were those people.

Look at how far we've come!

Now I'm embarrassed by myself...

11.11 - 11.29: I’m kind of embarrassed about the way you are currently acting if you are a person who carries bottled water from Evian or some “natural spring” and refuses to drink out of the tap. But I'm also embarrassed about the guy I used to be. Thank you, living in the third world, for teaching me the right way to be.

11.30 - 11.59: Hey back up at the start of the program I mentioned our amazing patrons. Now if you're not yet a patron you can become one pretty quickly by visiting I'm going to spell that for you because somebody misspelled at the other day. ShEvo as an Sheila and Evo. S-H-E-V-O. No “i”. There's no “i” in “Evo”.

11.59 - 12.02: They just that I needed more more letters than that.

12.02 - 12.11: Patrons all get access to bonus episodes of the program like the one we recorded previously to this where we talked about kickstarting this program once again.

12.11 - 12.36: But still some behind the scenes stuff if you miss some of our travel conversations.

And some patrons unlock special gifts: We've sent handwritten postcards, care packages from abroad, and of course the special exclusive patron-only content Evo just mentioned. Dozens of listeners just like you think this show is worth a couple of bucks a month. If you agree,  get on the list at today.

12.36 - 12.46

Thanks to Dr. Terry Simpson for being a guest of ours on the program today. Hopefully you'll never look at the water cooler at your workplace the same way.

12.46 - 13.09: And thank you for listening to the first episode of the fifth season of our podcast. Oh that was a mouthful. Now called ShEvo VS The First World. Subscribe to the show at, we’re on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Alexa, or where ever you listen to podcasts.

You can find me on Instagram at ShEvo_studios. I'm Sheila Dee.

13.09 - 13.18: And I am Evo Terra. We'll be back next week with another adjustment to your first world problems. Cheers!