How to Know if the Water in Your Home is Safe and What to Do If It Isn’t
We are fortunate to live in a country where we have access to clean water. But, unfortunately, that doesn’t mean we should always blindly trust the water coming out of our faucets. Just one look at the Flint Water Crisis proves that water contamination is a real occurrence with serious consequences.
The Natural Resources Defense Council reports, “A story of environmental injustice and bad decision making, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, began in 2014, when the city switched its drinking water supply from Detroit’s system to the Flint River in a cost-saving move. Inadequate treatment and testing of the water resulted in a series of major water quality and health issues for Flint residents [with] complaints mounted that the foul-smelling, discolored, and off-tasting water piped into Flint homes for 18 months was causing skin rashes, hair loss, and itchy skin. […] Later studies would reveal that the contaminated water was also contributing to a doubling—and in some cases, tripling—of the incidence of elevated blood lead levels in the city’s children, imperiling the health of its youngest generation.”
While many of us will never deal with a water contamination issue as large as the one in Flint, Michigan, we should still be aware that accidents do happen, and water can be contaminated. According to Science Magazine, “In any given year from 1982 to 2015, somewhere between 9 million and 45 million Americans got their drinking water from a source that was in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act,” which is risky for their health.
This month’s newsletter is aimed at helping readers learn all there is to know about water contamination, including how to protect themselves from it.
Water that comes from a public water system is supposed to be safe for the public to drink according to the Safe Drinking Water Act. The CDC explains, “This law sought to protect the nation’s public drinking water supply by giving EPA authority to set the standards for drinking water quality and oversee the states, localities, and water suppliers who implement those standards. In 1986 and 1996, the law was amended to protect drinking water and its sources, which include rivers, lakes, reservoirs, springs, and ground water wells.”
However, even with the Safe Drinking Water Act, water can still be contaminated. “The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) defines ‘contaminant’ as any physical, chemical, biological or radiological substance or matter in water.” Even in water deemed safe for drinking, it may contain some contaminants. The problem occurs when the contamination level is increased.
What Causes Contamination
Even though the EPA monitors public drinking water according to the Safe Drinking Water Act, disasters occur that can contaminate the water. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention provides this list of the most common causes of contaminants:
Naturally occurring chemicals and minerals (for example, arsenic, radon, uranium)
Local land-use practices (fertilizers, pesticides, livestock, concentrated animal feeding operations)
Malfunctioning wastewater treatment systems (for example, nearby septic systems)
Additionally, when a community is impacted by a natural disaster, the public water systems may be contaminated as a result of flooding or sewer problems.
What is an Algae Bloom and Who Does It Affect
You may have heard of algae blooms that have contaminated water for communities near large bodies of water. For example, residents near the Mississippi River Basin, California, and Ohio have all recently been affected by algae blooms. “In summer 2014, the residents in and around Toledo, Ohio were told not to drink, cook, or bathe with the water from their faucets” because of harmful algae bloom that got into the public drinking water system.
Clean Water Action explains, “Cyanobacteria commonly live in freshwater and are an important part of aquatic life. However, excessive growth of these bacteria can release cyanotoxins, resulting in Harmful Algal Blooms, which cause damage to freshwater ecosystems, harm wildlife, livestock and pets, and threaten public health and drinking water supplies.”
This is an example of a potential water contamination issue that even the EPA Safe Drinking Water Act can’t prevent. However, if your community is affected by a harmful algae bloom, your public water system is required to notify you, according to the EPA.
Other Causes of Contamination
Unfortunately, there are other reasons why your drinking water may be unsafe to drink. For instance, lead in drinking water is harmful, especially for children. The problem is that lead can bioaccumulate in the body over some time making it very dangerous. The EPA explains, “Lead can enter drinking water when plumbing materials that contain lead corrode, especially where the water has high acidity or low mineral content that corrodes pipes and fixtures.”
Signs Your Water is Contaminated
Does your water have a smell or appear cloudy? Don’t drink it! If you are worried your water is unsafe, don’t put yourself at risk by drinking it. If you notice any of the following signs, it is best to have your water tested.
Difficulty getting clothes cleaned forcing you to use more detergent
Weird feel on the skin after washing
Dirty, colored water (such as yellow, brown, or orange)
Green or blue tinted water
Strong smell (bleach may mean too much chlorine, rotten eggs could mean hydrogen sulfide, and fish could mean barium or cadmium)
A metallic taste
Keep in mind that many contaminants cannot be detected using our senses, which is why it is critical to pay attention to your public water system’s warnings.
How to Know if Your Water is Safe
If you notice any of the above signs and are concerned about the safety of your drinking water, you should contact your public water system company. Report what you have noticed and see if there have been any reports of contamination.
You can also have your household water professionally tested by a State Certified Drinking Water Laboratory. The cost of the test ranges from 15 dollars to over a hundred dollars. Additionally, you may want to consider purchasing your own water testing kit.
Before you spend money on water testing, remember that public water systems are required to send a Consumer Confidence Report once a year, which reports contaminants found, possible health effects, and the water’s source. Also, your public water system is required to notify you when water quality standards have not been met or if there is a waterborne disease emergency.
How to Protect Your Drinking Water Sources
To protect your drinking water sources means going beyond your household and into the community. Since our drinking water comes from other sources, we must make efforts to make sure these sources stay clear of contaminants. The best way to protect your drinking water sources is to lead by example and not pollute.
Dispose of hazardous materials (like household chemicals) safely to avoid toxins getting into the ground and water sources.
Clean and protect nearby water sources.
Don’t dump waste into storm drains.
Don't overuse fertilizers and pesticides.
Pick up after your pet.
Don’t flush or pour medicine down the drain.
NOTE – Today’s newsletter focuses on public water system contamination, but it does not address well water contamination. For homeowners with a private well, see EPA’s Guide to Protecting Your Home’s Water.
Ditch Plastic Water Bottles for a Barrel
Speaking of pollution, according to Forbes, “Globally humans buy a million plastic bottles per minute. The second, 91% of all plastic is not recycled.” The water bottles that are not recycled wind up in our oceans and landfills, which is a major problem for our environment.
Instead of stocking up on wasteful plastic water bottles in case of an emergency, invest in a Waterfull Barrel. 1 Waterfull Barrel is equivalent to 168 plastic water bottles.
Millions of Americans drink potentially unsafe tap water. How does your county stack up? (American Association for the Advancement of Science)
DIY - How to Make Water Safe in an Emergency
In case of an emergency or natural disaster, it is important to make sure your water is safe to drink before you consume it. Water from your Waterfull Barrel is the safest choice in the event of an emergency. Waterfull provides easy emergency home water storage that will eliminate the need for the following steps.
Boil the water. The CDC explains, “Boiling is the surest method to kill disease-causing organisms, including viruses, bacteria, and parasites.” If the water is cloudy, filter it first using a paper towel or coffee filter. Then, bring the clear water to a rolling boil.
Use disinfectants. If you cannot boil the water, then you can add unscented household liquid chlorine bleach using the directions for disinfecting drinking water on the bleach label. If there are no instructions, refer to this CDC chart for measurements. Stir the mixture and let sit for at least thirty minutes before use. You can also use chlorine dioxide tablets.
Filter with a portable water filter. If your portable water filter has small enough pores, it can remove parasites. It is wise to follow the filtering by adding a disinfectant to the water.
Distillation. Upon boiling, collect the steam vapor.
Waterfull has created a Family Emergency Preparedness Plan that also includes directions and measurements for making water safe in case of an emergency.
Waterfull has been named a 2019 TechConnect Defense Innovation Award winner by the Selection Committee of the 2019 Defense TechConnect Innovation Summit and Expo for the company’s self-refreshing drinking water storage system that provides a week’s worth of drinking water for a team of 4 without requiring any maintenance. (See the above link for the full press release)