Water Quality

by Stephen Bernal on April 27, 2010

This is the first in a three-part introductory series on water quality. This article focuses on potential contaminants that can negatively impact the quality of your water. The second article will give you information on bottled water. The final article discusses water filtration and water treatment options available to consumers.

Having reliable access to high quality drinking water is important for everybody. Many factors might affect your home water quality. The first thing people think about when they think about the quality of their home water is possible contamination. Contamination concerns are different for homes that receive their water from a local municipality than they are for those who receive their water from a well. Well water quality is often more of a concern because there are many more variables at play. However, city water has possible problems as well. In addition to contaminants that may be present in your water, the hardness of your water, whether it is from a city treatment facility or a well, can be an issue.

Possible Contaminants of City Water

Approximately 85% of homes in the United States get their home water delivered by a public water department. It is the responsibility of the municipality to ensure that the water delivered to our homes meets the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations set forth by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These regulations cover approximately 90 different substances and indicate what the maximum contaminant level is for each substance. Water is required to meet these specifications when it leaves the water treatment facility. However, just because our drinking water quality meets these water quality standards, it does not mean that it is completely safe.

Just because there is a water quality standard, that does not mean the standard is met or adhered to one hundred percent of the time. If a water treatment facility delivers water to the public with contaminant levels above those required by law, they must report that fact to the authorities, but there are rarely any consequences because enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act is lax. You can ask your local water department for a Consumer Confidence Report, which will list any pollutants that have been detected in your water over the past year. There have been reports of chemicals such as arsenic, uranium, bacteria, tetrachloroethylene, or radium in local drinking water sources.

In addition, some of the chemicals used to treat our water and make it safe to drink cause byproducts that themselves are unsafe. For example, water treatment facilities treat drinking water with chlorine to remove microbes and clean the water. A side effect is the formation of chlorination byproducts called trihalomethanes. These chlorination byproducts have been linked to an increased chance of cancer. There can be other unintentional contamination of public water supplies because the testing to make sure that the water is potable is done as it leaves the plant. Water sometimes sits in reservoirs before it is delivered to the customer and that adds an additional chance for contamination.

Possible Contaminants of Well Water

If you get your tap water from a private drinking water well, then the possible dangers associated with water quality are greater for you because you do not have government agencies regulating or testing the quality of your water constantly. It is your responsibility to make sure that your home water quality is acceptable for you and your family. There are some naturally occurring sources of contamination and others are caused by human activities. If you limit the activities around your private well, then you should be able to control the human aspects of water quality degradation, but you should still have your water quality tested at least once a year to make sure it is safe for consumption.

Some of the naturally occurring sources of water pollution are microorganisms, radionuclides, radon, heavy metals, and fluoride. Most microorganism contamination is a result of runoff from flooding. The water running over the ground can pick up bacteria and parasites from animal refuse and the soil. Underlying rock and soil can contain elements such as uranium and radium, which are radioactive, and they do pose a health risk. Radon is a gas that is produced when uranium starts to break down. That gas can find its way into your water supply and then into your home. Radon is most dangerous in the air, but radon in the water is a way to introduce the gas to your home. Heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, selenium, and lead are all present in rock and soil formations, but rarely in concentrations that would be harmful to your health. If these metals are present in high concentrations in your well water, it probably comes from a human pollution factor. Most people are surprised to hear that fluoride can be harmful because most public water treatment facilities add small amounts of fluoride to their drinking water to aid in dental health. However, large concentrations can lead to damaged bone tissue and are a real risk with private well water.

Local activities such as large-scale livestock operations, landfills, farming operations, mining, construction, manufacturing, and other industry can all affect the water quality of your well water. Livestock operations can be bad because the waste produced by thousands of animals has to go somewhere. Many farmers use the manure on their crops, but some of the waste migrates into the local water supply and can create water quality problems in your home. Pesticides and fertilizers can also be a source of pollution. Many chemical and industrial operations use harmful chemicals. These can contaminate the drinking water supply due to improper disposal of waste or accidental release. Your own activities can also put your water quality at risk. If you are not careful with normal household waste like cleaning solvents, used motor oil, paint, soaps, detergents, etc. they can contaminate your drink water. A cracked or faulty septic tank could also be a problem.

Water Hardness

Other than possible contaminants, water quality is also influenced by how hard your water is. Water hardness is a measurement of how high the mineral content is. The minerals that are present in hard water are primarily calcium and magnesium. While there is no evidence that water hardness has any adverse health effects, there is some anecdotal evidence that says hard water can cause dry skin.

Perhaps the most noticeable side effect of having hard water is that soap does not lather well in hard water. That is why you might notice a difference in how much lather forms when you wash your hair on vacation. If you have hard water at home, you tend to use more soap or shampoo to achieve the desired amount of lather when cleaning your body or hair. If you travel to a place with softer water, the same amount of soap or shampoo will produce much more lather than you are used to and you may feel like it is hard to rinse thoroughly.

About 85% of the households in the United States have what is considered hard water. That means that the water has at least 8 degrees of General Hardness or 80 milligrams of calcium oxide per liter of water. Some of the hardest water can be found in streams in Texas, New Mexico, Kansas, Arizona, and southern California. Some of the softest water can be found in parts of New England, the South Atlantic Gulf, the Pacific Northwest, and Hawaii.

Water Testing

If you are concerned about your water then you might want to consider water quality testing. You can either send your water to an accredited lab or purchase water quality testing kits that you can complete on your own. Obviously, you will get much more valuable results if you send your water to a lab because most in home water quality tests only show a positive or negative result and do not give you a quantitative answer. If you have well water, then you should test your water regularly. The EPA recommends at least once a year, but it is probably better to test it at least twice a year after the seasons change because spring and fall runoffs can cause many changes in your water quality.

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