You likely use your home’s tap water every day to do all the tasks that keep your family healthy, fed, and hydrated. From filling pots for cooking to brushing teeth to quenching your thirst – water from a home’s tap is one of life’s luxuries that we don’t often think about. However, with the increasing prevalence of threats to the safety and integrity of water supplies, it’s important to consider the quality of water you're using.
The Water Quality Association reports that the drinking water supply in the United States is one of the most plentiful and safest in the world. Water that comes from a municipal source is regulated to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) drinking water standards, and these suppliers must post a Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) annually to demonstrate their testing results. However, with the prevalence of aging infrastructures, overdevelopment, agricultural runoff, and naturally occurring chemicals, it's still possible for substances to find their way into water systems, leading to contaminated water.
It's important to note that this is especially true for about 10% of the country’s population that uses well water, which isn’t regulated or checked as regularly. Therefore, it's important to be aware of the potential risks of using well water and to take appropriate measures to ensure its safety.
To know if the water you're using is as safe as it should be, drinking water testing, treatment, and prevention "at the tap" remain the best methods for protecting your family’s health. Understanding why to test, how to test, and what you’re testing for can also help you advocate for safer water and assure the water you’re using is of the highest quality.
Knowledge is power when it comes to drinking water safety – and finding the right solutions for your needs. This article helps you learn more about water contaminants and takes a closer look at what homeowners can and should be doing to maintain their home’s water quality, particularly in the face of the increasing prevalence of contaminated water and the need for safe drinking water standards.
How Does Drinking Water Contamination Happen?
It seems water quality and water contamination are in the news more than ever. Around 2016, the city of Flint, Michigan experienced a water crisis, which was years in the making. In 2014, the city had changed their municipal water supply source from Lake Huron to the Flint River. This switch meant the city was using outdated pipes that were corroded. Lead and other harmful chemicals leached into the water – and, over time, Flint residents collectively started to notice negative impacts on their health. Their demands for outside testing – provided by Virginia Tech – proved their concerns were valid: VT’s report showed that 40% of Flint homes were using water with elevated levels of lead.
Several factors contributed to the Flint crisis, including human activities and aging infrastructure. Unfortunately, aging infrastructures are all around us. According to the Infrastructure Report Card, the U.S. Drinking Water infrastructure’s 2.2 million miles of underground pipes earned a C+ in 2021 in terms of age, safety, maintenance, and funding. There is a water main break every two minutes. However, this grade is rising – from a D in previous years. Funding at the federal level, and major news events, such as Flint, are creating more public demand and funding for better water structure maintenance. This is allowing cities to update their aging pipes, albeit slowly.
Another human impact that puts a strain on water systems – both at the municipal level and private well systems – is from human and animal waste, agricultural runoff, and inorganic substances. Fecal coliform from septic systems can also contaminate water supplies. Natural weather events can exacerbate the problem. From heavy rains to extreme freezing temperatures to earthquakes, pipes take a beating. As climate change continues, these extreme events are becoming more common, and water systems must adapt to keep up. For example, when towns in Texas experienced below-zero temperatures in February 2021, the power grid made national news. Just as important was what was happening below ground – to municipal pipes. While Northern cities bury pipes deeper due to frequent freezing temperatures, southern cities don’t. Since 2021, Texas towns have had a few more days of below-normal temperatures. Cities will need to adapt to protect pipes from freezing, breaking, and general contamination from outside elements. Climate change and elevated temperatures seem to be more relevant these days.
Why Water Quality is Important to Health & Wellness.
The Flint crisis not only put a spotlight on the importance of maintaining infrastructure, but it also showed what can happen when mistakes occur or water systems go unchecked. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 66% of Flint households reported one or more adult members experiencing a behavioral health issue “more than usual” and 54% of households reported at least one child with a similar health concern. These were likely the health effects from lead exposure.
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIH) reports that worldwide, nearly 2 billion people drink contaminated water that could pose a health risk. These risks include exposure to:
- Arsenic, which has been known to contribute to cancers of the skin, lung, bladder, kidney, or liver.
- Lead, which can cause long-term behavioral or developmental effects in children or heart or kidney issues in adults.
- Chemical, microbial, and radiological contaminants, which can cause immune and reproductive issues.
- Pesticides, which can lead to neurodevelopmental issues and Parkinson’s disease.
In addition to these long-term health issues, short-term exposure to water contaminants can cause gastrointestinal distress, headaches, nausea, and more. The best prevention is drinking water testing at the tap, which the CDC recommends doing at least once a year for those on well systems. It’s also beneficial for homeowners on municipal systems to check at their tap to assure that issues aren’t occurring between the municipal water source and their home.
What Should You Be Testing For?
What types of harmful contaminates are often found in drinking water? Lead is often talked about the most, but there are other contaminants you’ll want to consider testing for. Some of these are naturally occurring elements, like fluoride, arsenic, and radon. In fact, using a radon water test has become more common in recent years, since rural development and fracking can release the radon gas that’s naturally present in rocks and soil.
Basic potability tests will check to make sure your water is safe for drinking and will measure coliform bacteria, nitrates, pH, sodium, chloride, fluoride, sulphate, iron, manganese, total dissolved solids, and hardness.
The Water Quality Research Foundation’s Contaminant Occurrence Map shows a detailed display of the regulated drinking water contaminants and where they occur most. It’s a helpful tool to assist you in understanding the minerals and chemicals that are most likely present in your area – and the greatest risk to your drinking water.
Regular Drinking Water Testing: How it Works & What to Consider
Some homeowners choose to test their water when they notice an issue – the water appears cloudy/discolored or it smells or tastes off. However, not all contaminants (and many of the most harmful ones, like radon and lead) cannot be detected by sight, taste, or smell.
Monitoring water quality can occur at different levels, including at the municipal source, at your well (if you use one), and at the tap. Public water systems are regularly tested for over 90 different contaminants, including E.coli, salmonella, and cryptosporidium, and the results are available in the EPA’s Consumer Confidence Report (CCR). These tests comply with EPA standards, which consider various water quality parameters and their potential negative impacts on human health.
If you want your household water tested – whether because you’re on a private well or want to double-check your water’s quality – the EPA recommends finding a certified laboratory in your state. Depending on what you’d like to test for, the cost and quality of these tests can vary. There are often two different types of testing methods you can choose from:
At Home Testing. These over-the-counter water testing kits contain strips that a homeowner dips into their water. The strips then change color if a certain bacteria or chemical is detected. While these tests provide instant water analysis, they can be hard to read. Also, while many of these kits test for EPA standards, they are not recommended by the EPA. These tests might be able to tell you if a contaminant is present, but a single strip cannot determine the amount of the contaminant and if it’s at a safe level.
Lab Testing. Sending water into a lab for testing is often more accurate and comprehensive. This is where the National Testing Laboratories Watercheck Program stands apart. National Testing Laboratories is ISO/IEC 17025, EPA and multi-state certified to carry out high-level tests that ensure the safety of municipal and bottled water.
How the Watercheck Program Works
Our Watercheck program includes dozens of contaminant-specific tests as well as comprehensive tests for both city and well water. All water samples are collected at the source by homeowners and shipped to our independent laboratory, which is one of the largest in the U.S specializing in the analysis of drinking water for chemical and microbiological contamination. This level of detailed, scientific testing assures greater confidence in the results.
Post-Testing: Treatment & Maintenance
Once you’ve completed testing, it’s important to address any issues you uncover. If you’re on a public system, be sure to report the issue to your supplier. If you’re on a private well, you may need to install or implement some additional treatment options. In addition to testing services, we offer a comprehensive brochure on specific contaminants and available treatment options that apply to homes on both city and well water. In many cases, water softeners, ion exchange, filtration, distillation or reverse osmosis can be used to reduce contaminants.
It's also important to talk to your neighbors. If you have an issue – they might too. Let them know your results and ask them if they’ve experienced any concerns with their water.
Testing Makes All the Difference
If the Flint water crisis taught homeowners anything, it’s to trust their gut. If you are concerned about an issue: test. If you want to make sure the water you’re giving your family is safe: test. Testing is easy to do, and EPA-based testing is some of the most stringent available. Testing can be a vital tool to help prevent both short-term illnesses and long-term health issues that can affect development, growth and overall wellness.