According to the United Nations, more than 25% of the world's population does not have access to clean and safe drinking water. Drinking untreated water is the leading cause of severe illness among infants and children globally, with diarrhea being the most common symptom. While we often take clean water for granted in the United States, it is crucial to understand that it is not the case everywhere. Thanks to the Safe Water Drinking Act (SWDA) passed in 1974 and strengthened over the years, we benefit from one of the world's safest supplies of fresh water. Nonetheless, it's essential to be aware of the risk factors and take necessary precautions.
Although municipal water systems in the United States are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), private well systems – which serve about 10% of the population – are not regulated. Therefore, it's crucial to test your water sources regularly, even if you believe your water is safe. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that consumers proactively check their tap water for any changes and test it accordingly.
Waterborne diseases are caused by drinking water or swimming in recreational water such as pools and lakes that are contaminated by disease-causing microbes or pathogens. In the United States, approximately 7.2 million people fall sick each year due to waterborne pathogens. While many people associate nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting with drinking contaminated water, skin rashes and respiratory issues can also indicate a water contamination issue.
Testing remains the best way to detect and work towards the prevention of waterborne diseases. Through testing, you can not only determine what is contaminating your water but also determine how to effectively treat it and prevent contamination in the future. This is especially important for those who use natural water sources or swimming pools, as they are at a higher risk of contracting waterborne diseases. It's crucial to take care of our water sources as it is essential to human health.
What are the most common water-borne diseases?
Waterborne diseases typically fall into two categories: (1) those that happen due to contaminated drinking water, and (2) swimming or bathing in contaminated water. According to the CDC, the top causes of drinking water outbreaks in the United States from 1971 (when the data began being tracked) and 2020 are:
- Legionella, which can cause a serious lung infection, commonly diagnosed as Legionnaires’ disease. Outbreaks can often happen in communities that share a water system – like hospitals, hotels and apartment buildings.
- Giardia. If your water has been infected with sewage or feces from pets or animals, giardia may be present. This tiny parasite can cause diarrheal illness and other GI upset.
- Norovirus is another GI issue that can result in diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and stomach pain. It’s often associated with food contamination, but it can also be present in contaminated water.
- Shigella is another bacteria that can cause diarrhea and illness.
What can cause water contamination?
Water contamination can happen anywhere and is often due to human error or environmental changes. The most common causes of water contamination are:
- Raw sewage: Whether from livestock or private septic systems, infiltrating fresh water systems or water tanks, raw sewage (which contains fecal matter) can pose a significant risk to human health upon exposure.
- Naturally occurring chemicals and minerals: Chemicals and minerals such as radon and arsenic can be present in water sources and pose a risk to human health upon exposure to untreated surface water.
- Outdated plumbing fixtures or pipes: Outdated plumbing fixtures or pipes that can cause lead to seep into water can also lead to contamination, which can pose a risk to human health.
- Fertilizers, pesticides, or animal feed runoff: These can infiltrate natural water sources and cause contamination, posing a risk to human health and freshwater sources.
- Manufacturing practices: Manufacturing practices that improperly dispose of heavy metals or industrial waste can also cause contamination and pose a risk to human health from exposure to waterborne pathogens.
In addition to these common causes of water contamination, it's important to note that exposure to untreated surface water can also lead to waterborne diseases. Therefore, it's crucial to take necessary precautions and test your water regularly to ensure it's safe to drink and swim in recreational water sources such as swimming pools and lakes.
How can you detect and prevent water contamination in your home?
Many of the most common contaminants that can cause waterborne illnesses in residential settings are nearly impossible to detect just by looking at your home's drinking water. The water often doesn't taste or smell different, and people typically assume that an upset stomach or other GI issues are due to poor eating habits or household viruses. So how do you know if there is an issue with your water? The best prevention of waterborne diseases is early detection – and regular water testing can help you determine if there is a problem. The CDC recommends testing well water annually. Water from a municipality is tested frequently at the source, yet testing at your tap can assure that no bacteria, including chlorine levels, enters the system before it reaches your family.
You can also pay attention to things happening around your home. If you live in a rural area, how close is livestock to your property? If you live in a more suburban or city environment, is there new development in the area that will cause new water runoff near your home? Fewer trees and grass can lead to less natural filtration and more water issues. Are new manufacturing facilities popping up nearby that can lead to potential industrial waste? Any major changes around your home could be a good trigger for getting your water tested.
It's important to note that exposure to chemicals used in manufacturing can also be a risk factor for waterborne illnesses. Mild illness symptoms like skin rashes and respiratory issues can indicate a water contamination issue. Public health warnings may be issued for weeks of exposure to contaminated water sources. Investigation into the source of contamination is necessary to identify the cause of illness and prevent it from happening in the future.
What testing methods check for bacteria in water?
There are many different types of water tests available. Some test for biological and bacterial elements. Others test for chemicals in water – things like radon, arsenic and lead. The most comprehensive tests will check water for EPA regulated contaminants. In fact, sometimes these tests require multiple water samples to run various analyses.
Laboratory testing is often the most accurate and thorough type of testing available. That’s one of the ways the National Testing Laboratories Watercheck program stands apart. Our laboratory is ISO/IEC 17025, EPA and multi-state certified to carry out high-level tests that ensure the safety of municipal and well water. Using a laboratory a that’s certified in your state is important, since we can better understand the unique challenges your area encounters, including the naturally occurring biological hazards that can be present.
There are Watercheck tests that are contaminant-specific as well as comprehensive. For example, our Deluxe test checks for:
- 22 heavy metals and minerals
- 7 other inorganic chemicals
- 5 physical factors
- 4 trihalomethanes
- 47 volatile organic chemicals
- 20 pesticides, herbicides and PCBs
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 contamination. This level of detailed, scientific testing assures a greater confidence in the results.
In addition to laboratory testing, at-home drinking water testing kits can be found at hardware and specialty stores. These contain strips that a homeowner dips into a glass of water. The strips then change color if specific contaminants are detected. While these tests provide instant water analysis, they can be hard to read. Also, while many of these kits test to 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 has limitations in determining the amount of the contaminant and if it’s at a safe level. Starting with an at-home test can give you a baseline understanding of your water, but using a Watercheck laboratory test is much more accurate and informative.
Is it possible to treat your water to eliminate harmful bacteria?
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, all of our test results come with 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, but you should consult with a water treatment professional to make the best treatment decisions for your specific situation.
It's also important to talk to your friends, family, and neighbors about water testing. 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. By working together and communicating with each other and the local health departments, you can help prevent waterborne illness and ensure better overall human health.
Staying healthy starts with healthy water
Water testing remains one of the best ways to better understand the quality and safety of your water. When you know your water is free from harmful bacteria and chemicals, you can prevent waterborne disease outbreaks and keep your family hydrated – and healthy.