How To Tell If Your Water Is Safe

How can I tell whether the water in my house is safe to drink?

It’s not easy. You can rely on your senses to alert you to a few of the more unappetizing things that spill into your drinking glass — like sulfur, with its distinctive rotten-egg smell, or too much chlorine.

The Water Quality Association offers an interactive Diagnose Your Drinking Water tool on its Web site, which can help you figure out why your tap water smells like rotten eggs, tastes like salt, or spots your glasses. Advice is also available on how to treat a problem once you’ve identified it. But some of the most serious — and most common — contaminants, such as bacteria, viruses, lead, and other chemicals, can’t be tasted or smelled.

The water from most municipal systems in the United States is safe, because any system that serves 25 people or more is required to comply with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Your water comes from a municipal system unless you have a private well on your property or live in a rural area where a number of families share a well. The water system must test regularly for potentially harmful contaminants and alert the public if any are above acceptable limits.

Unless you’ve heard otherwise, you can be reasonably confident that your water meets federal standards. Still, there’s only one way to know for sure what’s in your water, and that’s to have it tested.

How can I test my tap water?

If you’re on a public or municipal water line in the United States, call your local water supplier (the number’s on your water bill). By law, the supplier must test its processed water regularly and provide you with a copy of the results, called a Consumer Confidence Report, annually as well as on demand.

Many water agencies across the country now make their annual water quality reports available online. You can access these reports on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site.

If you contact your local agency by phone, ask for a test of the water from your own faucets to find out whether any contaminants are getting into the water between the treatment plant and your drinking glass. Some suppliers will do this test free of charge.

If your water supplier won’t test your water, you’ll need to have the test done by a state-certified lab. To find one in your area, call the Environmental Protection Agency’s Safe Drinking Water hotline at (800) 426-4791, go to the EPA’s Web site for a list of state certification offices, or look in the Yellow Pages under “Laboratories — Testing.”

Alternatively, you can use a nationwide testing service: Underwriters Laboratories will test your water for a variety of contaminants, from fecal bacteria to industrial pollutants, and get the results to you in about a week. The price depends on how many contaminants you want to test for: It can range from $30 for a simple mercury screen, to $500 for a 94-contaminant screen.

You can also test your water yourself, using a home test kit. These kits can’t test for everything, but they detect lead, arsenic, pesticides, and bacteria. Two reputable ones are PurTest and Discover testing. The kits sell for $10 to $30.

In any case, be sure to test what’s called first-draw water — the stuff that comes out of your faucet when you first turn on the tap in the morning. If contaminants are leaching from the plumbing pipes into your water, the level of contamination will be highest after the water has sat in the pipes overnight.

Although the EPA says that more than 90 percent of water systems in this country meet its water quality standards, several contaminants can make their way into the water supply. These include arsenic, viruses and other disease-causing organisms, chlorine by-products, industrial and agricultural pollutants, and lead.

In concentrations of more than 15 parts per billion (ppb), lead can be very dangerous to infants and children, leading to delays in physical and mental development, neurological disorders, kidney disease, and learning disabilities. (Contaminants are measured by how many particles of the substance are present in a billion particles of water — 15 ppb means 15 particles of lead in a billion particles of water.)

Have your water tested for lead if you have lead pipes or brass faucets (which may contain lead), and for copper if you have copper pipes. Lead solder could legally be used to join plumbing pipes until 1986, but lead is a concern even if you live in a brand-new home. Faucets and pipes are still allowed to contain as much as 8 percent lead and have been shown to leach the metal in significant amounts, particularly when they’re new.

Should I test my well water?

Federal drinking water standards don’t apply to private wells, so it’s up to you to have your water tested (and to pay for the test). To find a certified testing lab, call the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water hot line at (800) 426-4791, look in the Yellow Pages under “Laboratories — Testing,” or use a national testing agency such as Underwriters Laboratories.

Your local health department or public water system can advise you about possible well-water contamination in your area. However, even if no advisory’s in place, you should still test your water regularly.

At least once a year, have your well water tested for nitrates, coliform bacteria (bacteria found in the intestines), total dissolved solids, and pH (acidity or alkalinity), especially if your well is new or you’ve recently replaced or repaired pipes. Test every three years for chloride, iron, sulfate, manganese, hardness, and corrosion. Depending on the area in which you live, you may also need to consider annual checks of lead, copper, arsenic, radon, pesticides, or other substances.

If you’re pregnant, test your water for nitrate before your baby is born, just after your baby is born, and sometime during the first six months of your baby’s life. Babies are especially vulnerable to nitrate poisoning.

Exposure to high levels of nitrate can cause methemoglobinemia, a blood disorder known as “blue baby” syndrome, which affects the hemoglobin in a young baby’s blood, causing the oxygen supply to drop dangerously low. If your baby’s skin starts to turn blue, seek medical attention immediately. Nitrate poisoning can be treated, but prompt medical attention is crucial.

A water test can run anywhere from $30 to screen for one or two particular contaminants, to $500 to screen for the full range of detectable contaminants.

Am I better off just drinking bottled water?

Not necessarily. Bottled water is not only more expensive than tap water, but in some cases it’s no healthier — and may even be less healthy — than your local tap water. (Of course, that depends on the quality of your local water supply.) In fact, about one-quarter of bottled water is simply tap water that has been processed and repackaged, according to a 2000 report by Consumer Reports.

The quality of bottled water can vary, depending upon the manufacturer, where it originated (whether it’s spring water or well water, for example), and how it was treated. The Food and Drug Administration regulates bottled water together with state agencies and trade organizations such as the International Bottled Water Association, which lists bottled water companies that adhere to the organization’s Model Code.

Some bottled water is certified by NSF International, a nonprofit independent, third-party monitor. NSF’s consumer Web site contains a great deal of useful information about the different types of bottled water available and where the water comes from. Look for the NSF mark on the bottled water you buy, to ensure that it’s been carefully tested.

Bottled water is regulated differently than tap water, with stricter standards for some contaminants and looser standards for others. For example, bottled water is not required to be tested for asbestos or for parasites such asCryptosporidium or Giardia, because the FDA doesn’t consider the sources to be at risk for these contaminants. But the standards for lead and fluoride are stricter for bottled water than for tap water.

A less expensive alternative to using bottled water is to install a filter on your kitchen sink or refrigerator. Certain filters can remove lead and other contaminants from your water, but not every type of filter removes all contaminants.

Before you purchase a water treatment unit, have your water tested so that you know exactly which contaminants you’re trying to remove. NSF International maintains a database of certified drinking water treatment units, which you can search by the contaminants they remove.

If you purchase a water filter, follow the manufacturer’s directions and change the filter regularly to prevent contaminants from building up.



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