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How Safe Is My Water?

by Mark Timmons May 03, 2023 0 Comments
woman drinking safe water

How Safe Is My Water?

3 May, 2023
Tags: Water, Water Safety, Water Contamination, Toxic Chemicals, Safe Drinking Water
2 min read


Shocking cases of water contamination have captured news headlines in recent years. In February 2023, a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio spilled toxic chemicals into the Ohio River and surrounding waterways. And in August 2022, the failure of a water treatment plant in Jackson, Mississippi left thousands of residents unable to access safe drinking water. These crises have left many people wondering if they need to take precautions to prevent water contaminants, such as installing a whole house water filter.

As these troubling news stories demonstrate, water contamination is a valid concern. Many issues threaten the safety of American water supplies, including aging infrastructure, agricultural runoff, bacteria, industrialization, and naturally occurring compounds. For example, one study reports that 7.1 million Americans get sick each year from microbial waterborne diseases. Another study discovered at least one pesticide in 94% of groundwater and surface water samples taken across the country.

Growing awareness of these issues has led many people to ask: Is my water safe? The answer depends on several factors, including whether you use municipal water sources or get your water from a well. Keep reading to discover everything you need to know about water safety, common types of contaminants, and the steps you can take today to protect yourself.




Is Well Water or City Water Safer?

Most people get their drinking water from one of two sources: municipal — or public — water or well water. In the United States, over 148,000 public water systems provide access to water for 90% of Americans. An additional 23 million households get drinking water from private wells.

Many experts consider city water safest because public systems must comply with strict safety regulations developed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The agency limits the levels of over 90 contaminants in public drinking water. For instance, systems must remove or inactivate 99.9% of viruses and bacteria, like Giardia lamblia. Additionally, public drinking water can only contain trace amounts of certain chemical contaminants, such as the herbicide atrazine and the banned insecticide endrin.

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA works with individual states and tribes to monitor compliance with water safety standards. Every public water system must regularly collect water samples and analyze them to ensure that their supply meets federal regulations. If officials find illegal levels of contaminants in the water, the EPA and state governments step in to ensure they get removed.

By contrast, the EPA provides no oversight for private wells. Instead, the agency recommends that owners test well water at least once a year for coliform bacteria, nitrates, sediments, and other contaminants. Additionally, individuals should take steps to protect their wells from pollutants like fertilizers, fuels, and solvents.

Both municipal sources and wells can provide clean, safe drinking water. However, well owners often need to take extra steps to test and protect their water, like adding a well water filter or a reverse osmosis system.

Common Types of Water Contaminants

Water contaminants typically fall into one of three categories: chemicals, naturally occurring compounds, and microorganisms. Many of these impurities cause acute or chronic health effects if people drink or bathe in contaminated water.

For instance, people exposed to waterborne bacteria can get sick with diarrhea, while long-term exposure to pesticides in drinking water increases the risk of developing cancer and kidney problems. Chemical and bacterial water contaminants are particularly likely to impact vulnerable populations, such as babies and children, people with weakened immune systems, pregnant people, and older adults.

Arming yourself with knowledge about water contaminants is one of the best ways to avoid these concerning issues. Here are some of the most common types of water contaminants you may encounter and signs to watch out for.

Chemical Contaminants

There are many ways that toxic chemicals enter water sources. Sometimes, careless or uninformed people pour harmful substances down the drain or into natural waterways. Other frequent sources of chemical contaminants include agricultural runoff, factories, overflowing sewers, and cracked water pipes.

Chlorine

People often associate chlorine with relaxing summer days at the pool, but many public water treatment plants use this chemical to disinfect drinking water. At high levels, chlorine combines with other molecules in the water and creates carcinogenic compounds called disinfection byproducts. The EPA limits chlorine to safe levels, but even small amounts of this chemical can cause health issues like skin irritation when bathing.

Symptoms of chlorine in water include oddly tasting food and less vibrant homegrown vegetables. Chlorine can also degrade rubber plumbing parts, causing expensive leaks. You can remove chlorine from your water by using a whole house water filter or an under-sink water filtration system.

Chloramine

Unmarked Water Tower

Over 20% of Americans drink water disinfected with chloramine. Water treatment plants create this chemical by combining chlorine and ammonia. Chloramine has many benefits, like eliminating harmful bacteria and preventing the growth of biofilms in water.

However, chloramine can enter the bloodstream of dialysis patients and cause hemolytic anemia, a dangerous blood disorder that may lead to death. Plus, the chemical creates byproducts known as nitrosamines that damage cells and increase cancer risks.

Signs of chloramine contamination include foul-tasting and smelly water, irritation of the eyes and skin, and an upset stomach. Granular activated carbon removes chloramines from water supplies.

Volatile Organic Compounds

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) refer to commercial and household chemicals that easily dissolve into the air and water. VOCs are present in thousands of popular products, such as adhesives, deodorants, gasoline, plastics, and skin lotions. These chemicals contaminate groundwater wells and other water supplies.

VOCs became infamous after officials discovered the compounds in public water systems that supplied water to housing at the Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. These hazardous chemicals cause numerous health effects, including congenital disabilities, childhood cancers, and increased infant mortality.

An activated carbon filter system effectively removes VOCs from water.

Pesticides

Pesticides are chemicals and other products used to kill, repel, or prevent undesirable creatures and plants, such as cockroaches and weeds. This broad category includes herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and rodenticides. Pesticides applied to farm fields, gardens, and lawns seep into groundwater and surface water and contaminate drinking water.

When ingested, these toxic chemicals build up in human cell membranes. Research has linked pesticide exposure to acute health problems like blurry vision, diarrhea, headaches, nausea, wheezing, and vomiting. Long-term exposure to the contaminants can cause severe issues like cancer, Parkinson's disease, and reproductive disorders.

The EPA hasn't developed drinking water regulations for many pesticides, so it's essential to test your water to ensure you're not ingesting these contaminants. At-home devices like charcoal filters and reverse-osmosis treatments reduce your exposure.

PFOAs

Per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFOAS) are human-made chemicals found in many consumer products. These substances have convenient properties that make them popular with manufacturers. For instance, PFOAs give cookware non-stick qualities and prevent fabrics from staining. However, these chemicals seep into water supplies and persist for many years.

The presence of PFOAs in drinking water supplies and other parts of the environment is a serious and pervasive issue. One study found that over 95% of American adults and teens have PFOAs in their blood. People exposed to PFOAs in tap water can develop many health problems, like high cholesterol, kidney and testicular cancers, and thyroid disease. Plus, women may have trouble conceiving and experience preeclampsia during pregnancy.

PFOAs are often detected in well water and can be removed with reverse osmosis membranes.

Fluoride

Public drinking water typically contains 1 milligram of fluoride per liter of water. In small amounts, this natural mineral reduces dental decay and strengthens teeth.

Exposure to 2 mg/L of fluoride may cause discolored teeth in children younger than nine years. And long-term exposure to 4 mg/L of fluoride or more can lead to a bone condition called crippling skeletal fluorosis. People who develop this disorder have abnormally dense, yet fragile bones.

You won't notice any signs of fluoride in your water, but you're likely drinking this mineral if you have city water. A membrane filtration or water deionizer eliminates fluoride from water.

Naturally Occurring Contaminants

While chemical contaminants result from human action, naturally occurring impurities in drinking water come from the environment. On the surface, organic compounds may sound less harmful than synthetic substances, but they can also cause unpleasant effects.

Sediment

Public water systems and private wells typically use sediment filters to remove clay, sand, silt, and other organic materials. However, very small grains of sand or clay may slip through these filters and contaminate drinking water.

Sediment in drinking water is often readily apparent. The water may look cloudy, dirty, or discolored. Also, you may notice a foul taste and a faint gritty feeling in your mouth after drinking. These organic materials have no impact on human health, but most people don't relish the idea of drinking clay or sand. Also, sediment damages pipes and may cause ugly stains on appliances and plumbing fixtures.

A sediment filtration unit and regular filter changes will keep your water clear and sediment-free.

Hard Water and Limescale

People in the Midwest and South often complain about the hardness of their water. But what is hard water, and why should you care about it? This term refers to water with a high concentration of dissolved calcium, magnesium, and other minerals. These compounds clump together to form chalky white deposits known as limescale.

Hard water doesn't have any effect on human health, but many people dislike it because limescale has a bitter taste. Hard water also leaves a filmy residue on dishes and reduces the effectiveness of laundry detergent and soap. Plus, limescale can build up in appliances and pipes, causing damage.

Fortunately, it's easy to treat hard water with a water softener. This system filters out calcium and magnesium and adds sodium ions in their place. Alternatively, a water conditioner alters the chemical makeup of the minerals so they can't form limescale deposits.

Iron

Well Water Shooting Into the Yard

Iron is a mineral that often contaminates water supplies. You may have soluble iron that dissolves into the water or insoluble iron that settles along pipes in solid deposits. Typically, water with high iron levels has a strong metallic smell and taste. The water may also look reddish-brown as it exits the faucet and leave orange or gray stains on your clothing and plumbing fixtures.

This mineral can grow iron-reducing bacteria that get energy from oxidizing iron. These bacteria don't harm humans, but they do cause repulsive orange slime to form on pipes. Eliminating iron-reducing bacteria is expensive and time-consuming.

Backwashing iron filters like catalytic carbon filters with hydrogen peroxide injection remove this contaminant from your water supply.

Sulfur or Hydrogen Sulfide

Sulfur typically contaminates well water in the form of dissolved hydrogen sulfide gas. This issue often occurs when oil companies drill near wells or when rotting plant matter dissolves in groundwater.

Symptoms of sulfur include a powerful rotten egg smell, corroded metals, and black and yellow stains on silverware. This contaminant doesn't cause health problems in most adults, but babies can get diarrhea from exposure. Additionally, sulfur can grow sulfur-reducing bacteria that produce black slime.

Combining a sulfur filter with an oxidizer like hydrogen peroxide is the most effective and affordable treatment for sulfur.

Chloride

The dissolution of salt in water creates sodium and chloride. These minerals exist naturally in groundwater, but their levels spike when the water gets contaminated by fertilizers, road salt, sewage, and other pollutants.

Elevated levels of sodium and chloride make water taste salty. Sodium in drinking water may exacerbate health conditions like high blood pressure and kidney disease. Also, elevated chloride levels corrode metal appliances and plumbing.

A filter or a reverse osmosis system reduces chloride and sodium levels.

Tannins

Tannins are biomolecules that get released into water by decomposing plants. These compounds enter surface water and wells, thereby contaminating drinking supplies.

Symptoms of tannins include brackish, brown water with a bitter taste. Tannins won't harm you, but they make the water look and taste unpleasant.

Tannin removal typically requires a two-pronged approach: treatment with a water softener and a tannin removal system.




Microorganism Contaminants

Dangerous pathogens often infiltrate drinking water and wreak havoc on human health. These contaminants can be difficult to detect, so a solid filtration system is essential.

Bacteria

Waterborne bacteria grow in pipes and household devices like neti pots if drinking water isn't sufficiently disinfected. These harmful germs also develop if you don't run your faucets for extended periods, leaving stagnant water in the pipes.

Healthy people usually don't get sick after exposure to bacteria, but these microorganisms can cause upset stomachs. Additionally, some germs can lead to severe infections in the brain, blood, eye, lung, or skin. For example, people who unintentionally rinse their nose with water contaminated with Naegleria fowleri may develop a deadly brain infection.

Cysts

Water systems with inadequate filtration systems may host microbial cysts deposited by protozoans and parasites. Cysts can cause gastrointestinal illnesses like Giardiasis. Public water treatment plants typically filter out cysts, but well owners need to disinfect and filter their water to remove these organisms.

Viruses

Poorly sanitized water frequently harbors dangerous viruses, such as enterovirus, hepatitis A, and rotavirus. These waterborne viruses cause a variety of health effects, ranging from abdominal cramps and diarrhea to inflammation of the brain and spinal cord.

Viruses are too microscopic to remove with filtration devices, but boiling water or disinfecting it with powerful chemicals like chlorine and iodine eliminates these pathogens.


Protect Your Health and Home With Water Testing

Reading about the wide range of water contaminants may seem overwhelming and scary, but don't feel intimidated. You can use many strategies to assess your water's quality and detect problems.

First, pay close attention to changes in your water's color, smell, taste, and effect on your plumbing fixtures. If you notice symptoms, US Water Systems' handy diagnosis chart helps identify potential causes.

If you have city or municipal water service, check with your provider to learn more about water safety. Most municipalities publish water quality reports that provide insights about contamination levels.

Additionally, water specialists recommend routinely testing your water quality, especially if you have unregulated well water. Many third-party laboratories provide affordable and simple tests that quickly pinpoint contaminants.

For instance, America's Best Water Test from US Water Systems accurately detects up to 115 contaminants. This comprehensive test covers bacteria, chemicals, heavy metals, minerals, and organics. Within five days, our expert laboratory team will send you a detailed report identifying health hazards and plumbing risks for your water. Plus, you'll receive a free consultation from a Water Quality Association-certified Water Specialist. Your consultant will review your laboratory report with you, so you can feel confident that you understand any risks associated with your water.

Additionally, your consultant will recommend the best methods to improve your water quality and eliminate harmful contaminants. For instance, they may recommend a water filter for chemicals or a water softener. Thanks to this personalized guidance, you won't waste time and money on ineffective solutions that don't solve your water problems.

Water contaminants can seriously threaten your well-being, but water testing gives you the knowledge you need to protect yourself, your family, and your pets. Order your America's Best Water Test today, or get in touch with our friendly water specialists to learn more.

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