Even though we all need water to survive, it is easy to take drinking water for granted. After all, you only need to turn the faucet in your kitchen to access safe drinking water for the whole family.
In the U.S., people get their tap water from public community water systems.
The supply of drinking water to your home either comes from a surface water source or a groundwater source. The former is collected from reservoirs, lakes, rivers, and streams. The latter is obtained by drilling wells and pumping water from the ground, where the water has collected in the spaces and pores within the rocks and in underground aquifers.
While the U.S. has some of the safest drinking water on the planet, unfortunately, contaminations can happen from time to time which make tap water unsafe to drink.
Of course, you will want to ensure that your drinking water is safe for you and the whole family to ingest. Well, you can use the following seven methods to check whether your tap water is indeed safe to drink.
How Does Drinking Water Become Contaminated?
Before we look at the ways in which you can test your drinking water to ensure it is safe, let us take a brief look at how water can potentially become contaminated in the first place.
Germs and chemicals can get into drinking water at the source of the water or into the distribution system once the water has been treated.
Those germs and chemicals can come from things like pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals that have been used near water supplies.
Take the Camp Lejeune water contamination incident as an example. Between the 1950s and 1980s, the water supplies to the Camp Lejeune military base in North Carolina were contaminated with chemicals like trichloroethylene, perchloroethylene, benzene, and vinyl chloride.
Sadly, the Camp Lejeune water contamination caused many of the military personnel, their families, and the civilians on the base to develop multiple types of cancers and other health issues, including miscarriages, birth defects, and Parkinson’s disease.
While people who have been affected by such health problems from the contaminated water at the Camp Lejeune military base can now apply for compensation, it is obviously worrying that the contamination occurred for so long without being noticed and it is tragic that so many people developed serious health problems.
The CDC estimates almost 900,000 veterans, family members, and civilians were exposed to the harmful contamination.
But how did the drinking water become contaminated in the first place?
Well, the Tarawa Terrace water treatment plant was contaminated by the industrial solvents of trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene, which were found to come from a local off-base dry cleaner.
And the other water source to the base, the Hadnot Point water supply, was found to contain a variety of harmful contaminants from several sources, including leaks from underground storage tanks and spills from industrial sites.
Water contamination can also happen due to contaminants entering our water systems through malfunctioning wastewater treatment systems, sewer overflows, and local land use practices, as well as from naturally occurring chemicals and minerals like radon, uranium, and arsenic.
The example of the Camp Lejeune water contamination incident alone should be enough to make you see why it is so important that you check your drinking water is safe to consume.
So, now you know how contaminants can potentially enter your drinking water supply, let us take a look at the seven steps you can take to check your tap water for potential contamination.
1. Check for Signs of Cloudiness
Water that is safe to drink should be clear and transparent. So, one way of checking for contamination is to look for cloudiness.
While cloudy water does not necessarily mean the water is unsafe to drink, it is often a sign that unsafe chemicals, pathogens, or bacteria that are harmful to your health are present.
2. Look at the Color of the Water
Another visual method you can use to check the quality of your water and spot potential signs of contamination is to examine the color of the water.
If your drinking water is yellowish in appearance, it could contain chromium-6, which is a chemical that can cause cancer. Chromium-6 was the contaminant that was part of the famous lawsuit filed by Erin Brockovich.
Yellow water can also be a sign of the buildup of lead, iron, copper, or manganese.
However, sometimes yellow water can simply be the effect of your utility clearing its pipes. If a yellow tint only appears when you run cold water, it could be a sign of pipe clearing and not something more serious.
If the color of your tap water is brown or orange, it could signify the water contains lead, iron, or manganese. It could also be a sign that the water contains rust, which could breed bacteria and potentially cause serious health risks.
If your water appears blue or green, it could be a sign that it contains elevated levels of copper, due to corroded pipes. High levels of exposure to copper in water can cause health issues like kidney damage, liver damage, and anemia.
3. Perform a Smell Test
In addition to checking your drinking water’s clarity and color, you should perform a smell test to see if you notice any unusual or foul odor.
The three smells you should be most on the outlook for are the smell of bleach, rotten eggs, and fishiness.
Water That Smells of Bleach
If your water smells like bleach, it could contain excess chlorine.
U.S. water supplies contain chlorine to kill pathogens and germs, so a small dosage is not harmful.
But sometimes chlorine can be excessive and other times it can mix with organic compounds to create harmful byproducts, such as the chemicals trihalomethanes, which have been linked to an increase in cancer risk and kidney problems, and Haloacetic acids, which can cause skin irritation and can also potentially increase cancer risk.
Furthermore, low levels of chlorine in water supplies can be dangerous because it can expose people to giardia, which is a parasite that causes cramps, diarrhea, and nausea.
Water That Smells Like Rotten Eggs
When drinking water smells like rotten eggs or sewage, it could contain hydrogen sulfide.
The colorless gas, which naturally occurs in groundwater, could convert into sulfate if it is exposed to specific types of bacteria. And sulfate can cause dehydration – the opposite of what water should do! – and diarrhea.
Water That Smells Fishy
If you notice your drinking water smells fishy, it could contain cadmium or barium.
Cadmium is a chemical that is found in copper and lead ores. It can leach into water pipes via industrial waste and can cause liver, kidney, and bone damage.
Barium is a naturally-occurring chemical that can seep into water supplies via manufacturing or drilling. When there are high amounts of barium in drinking water, it can cause the drinkers to experience health issues like muscle weakness, high blood pressure, and liver, kidney, or heart damage.
4. Watch Out for a Metallic or Salty Taste
In addition to using your sight and smell to identify potentially harmful drinking water, you can use your taste.
If you find your tap water has a metallic taste, it could be a sign that the water contains excessive copper, iron, zinc, manganese, or lead; which could come from rusty pipes.
The release of such metals into drinking water supplies can also make the water taste salty.
However, a metallic or salty taste could be simply the result of a low pH.
5. Be on the Outlook for a Slimy Texture
Another way of identifying whether your drinking water is safe for your family to drink is to wash your hands in the water, and use soap, to see whether they feel slimy afterward.
This is a test to discover whether your water may be hard water.
If your hands feel slimy after washing, you could well have hard water, which is often characterized by a buildup of substances like magnesium and calcium.
Those substances can leave deposits on drinking glasses, faucets, and sinks.
Having hard water is not dangerous in itself but it could be an indicator that your water contains metal elements that are potentially harmful, such as manganese, lead, and aluminum.
6. Check with Your Water Company
If you notice any of the above things, such as cloudy water, foul-smelling water, metallic-tasting water, and so on, you should contact your water company.
In the United States, you can call the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline to connect with a water testing agency in your locality.
It can also be useful to contact your water company to view its annual Consumer Confidence Report, which the Environmental Protection Agency requires all water companies to make accessible to their customers.
The report will provide you with helpful and important information about the contaminants that could be present in your water and how high levels of certain contaminants could pose health risks.
You can also use the Environmental Protection Agency’s Drinking Water Watch Program to search a database that contains detailed information about water quality contaminants and violations and report any hazards.
Also, it is worth noting that when a water company discovers that its quality standards have not been met, the company must inform its customers that there is a risk to their health.
While water companies regularly check water supplies for contaminants, as we know, sometimes contamination can still happen.
The frequency of water testing by official agencies depends on multiple factors, such as the type of water source, and certain contaminants are tested much more frequently than others.
The EPA sets regulations for the presence of over ninety different contaminants in public drinking water. They include potentially serious contaminants like cryptosporidium, salmonella, and E. coli.
7. Get Your Water Tested
In addition to finding a water-testing company via the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline, you can get information from the Water Quality Association to find approved water testing companies in your local area that can test your water to identify any substances that are potentially harmful.
While the above checks will enable you to spot potential health risks, the only way to be 100% certain that your drinking water is safe is to get it tested. So, you may wish to take steps to get your water tested yourself.
Depending on how many contaminants you want to test for, the cost of a single water quality test can range from as little as $15 to several hundred dollars.
You might be interested in reading this post to learn about how to test for PFAS chemicals in your drinking water.
Health Issues That Can Occur from Water Contamination
We have already mentioned in passing some of the many potential health risks that can come from drinking unsafe tap water.
For example, exposure to certain bacteria can cause diarrhea, exposure to industrial contaminants like perchloroethylene can cause a wide variety of cancers and other health issues, and exposure to copper in water can potentially cause health problems like kidney and liver damage.
But other contaminants can cause various other health risks, including:
- Gastrointestinal illness.
- Neurological disorders.
- Reproductive problems.
- Weakened immune systems, especially for pregnant women, infants, young children, and seniors.
Even though water companies and authorities regularly check drinking water supplies for contaminants and the U.S. has some of the safest tap water in the world, as we saw with the Camp Lejeune water contamination scandal, contamination of water supplies can happen.
And exposure to the contaminants in drinking water can sometimes lead to serious health conditions.
Therefore, you should always be on the outlook for any potential signs that your tap water is unsafe for you and your family to drink.
So, to recap, you should:
- Check your water for signs of cloudiness.
- Look at the color of your water.
- Perform a smell test to see if the water smells of bleach, rotten eggs, or fish.
- Watch out for a metallic or salty taste.
- Wash your hands to see if they feel slimy afterward.
- Check with your water company.
- Potentially get your water tested yourself.