Should I have my drinking water tested?

How to make sure that your drinking water is safe.
We've all seen the occasional report detailing exactly what is in the water coming out of our kitchen faucet. These reports, which previously focused on chemicals and industrial contaminants, are now targeting prescription and over-the-counter medications. The headlines can be startling - most of us don't really want a cocktail of antibiotics, heart medication and the mystery drug of the week when we reach for a glass of water. Before you turn off the water supply, read the information below and learn how to determine whether your own drinking water is safe.

Public Water Systems

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates public water systems, which supply drinking water to 90% of Americans. The EPA (www.epa.gov) requires that most water suppliers must provide their customers with an annual water quality report, or Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) before July 1. These reports, which are typically mailed with your bill, reveal what contaminants have been found in the drinking water and how the levels compare to national drinking water standards. Water systems serving more than 100,000 customers are required to post their reports at a publicly accessible website. Some of these reports can be found at http://safewater.tetratech-ffx.com/ccr/index.cfm, while others can be found on local government websites. You may also request a copy from your local water supplier.

Some obvious signs of potential water quality problems are family illnesses, taste, color or cloudiness, odor, and staining of clothes or fixtures. Another area of concern is the materials used in your plumbing system, which is the major source of lead contamination. While most water systems test for lead, these tests are for the water supply as a whole, not for your home and your faucets. If your plumbing system or water supply lines contain lead there is a chance that your water has lead contamination. The only way to know for sure is to have your water tested.

Private Wells

The 10% of Americans who rely on household wells for their water supply are responsible for their own testing, as the EPA doesn't regulate these private wells. State and local agencies may provide some oversight, but it is recommended that you routinely test your water at least once a year.

The EPA has provided a list of conditions or nearby activities that may warrant water testing for household wells:

  • Recurrent gastro-intestinal illness (Recommended Test: Coliform bacteria)
  • Household plumbing (Recommended Test: Lead pH, lead, copper)
  • Radon in indoor air or region is radon rich (Recommended Test: Radon)
  • Scaly residues, soaps don't lather (Recommended Test: Hardness)
  • Water softener needed to treat hardness(Recommended Test: Manganese, iron)
  • Stained plumbing fixtures, laundry (Recommended Test: Iron, copper, manganese)
  • Objectionable taste or smell(Recommended Test: Hydrogen sulfide, corrosion, metals)
  • Water appears cloudy, frothy or colored(Recommended Test: Color, detergents)
  • Corrosion of pipes, plumbing (Recommended Test: Corrosion, pH, lead)
  • Rapid wear of water treatment equipment(Recommended Test: pH, corrosion)
  • Nearby areas of intensive agriculture(Recommended Test: Nitrates, pesticides, coliform bacteria)
  • Coal or other mining operation nearby(Recommended Test: Metals, pH, corrosion)
  • Gas drilling operation nearby(Recommended Test: Chloride, sodium, barium, strontium)
  • Odor of gasoline or fuel oil, and near gas station or buried fuel tanks (Recommended Test: Volatile organic compounds (VOC))
  • Dump, junkyard, landfill, factory or dry-cleaning operation nearby (Recommended Test: VOC, Total dissolved solids (TDS), pH, sulfate, chloride, metals)
  • Salty taste and seawater, or a heavily salted roadway nearby (Recommended Test: Chloride, TDS, sodium)
Testing My Drinking Water

The cost of testing your drinking water is determined by how many contaminants are tested. A simple lead test can cost $15, while a comprehensive test can soar into the hundreds of dollars. To minimize costs, start by reviewing your annual water quality report. Test only for those contaminants of particular concern - specifically those such as lead that can vary from house to house.To find a testing facility, contact your water utility or local health department. They may provide testing or will direct you to a certified water lab in your area.

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