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Water Without Worry

Is my water safe to drink? It seems like a simple question but finding the answer may not be. The EPA regulates more than a hundred chemical contaminants that can be found in public drinking water. Some naturally occurring and some man-made, these contaminants range from immediate health threats to some that will cause harm only after long exposure. If you're on a well or a private water system, testing your water is a prudent thing to do. But with so many potential threats out there, where do you begin? Let's talk first about the different uses of water, which may have a direct impact on what you test it for. If the water is used only to wash clothes and flush toilets, the demands on its quality will be considerably lower than water for drinking and cooking. There are much higher standards for potable water, or water suitable for drinking. The Environmental Protection Agency has two sets of standards for potable water - primary regulations that deal with safety and secondary regulations that deal with aesthetics. Water that doesn't meet the aesthetic standards generally doesn't present any health hazard, but because of its odor, appearance or taste, it will not be considered potable. A note here: Individuals don't generally test public water supplies, which are tested on a regular basis by state-certified labs to determine if it is safe to drink. If you use public water, you can check its quality by contacting your local supplier or by visiting the EPA's website at But even safe water can have problems. It may need treatment for one of the secondary standards - that is, for aesthetic reasons - or because of lead, taste, sediment, staining or cysts. For now, though, let's stick to the issues more common to wells. The Standard Test The water test with which homeowners are probably most familiar is sometimes referred to as the standard mortgage test due to the fact that banks commonly require it for loan approval. This initial test for a new private well includes a safety check and tests for iron, manganese, pH, hardness, copper and chloride. The safety check tests only three parameters from the primary, or safety, standards. These three are coliform bacteria, nitrate nitrogen and nitrite nitrogen, all of which can threaten your health even if you are exposed for only a short time. All the other parameters in the standard mortgage test are from the secondary, or aesthetic, drinking water standards. It is important to understand that this standard test doesn't tell you much about other contaminants or long-term exposure risks. Other tests are needed for that. And even those tests may not give clear-cut answers. One reason is that the lists are under constant review and change. For another, there are contaminants like hydrogen sulfide that can make water undesirable to drink and will not be discovered at the lab. Hydrogen sulfide gives water a boiled-egg odor and a bad taste; if the concentration is high enough, it can cause black staining. Even if the lab does an odor test, hydrogen sulfide is not usually detected because it dissipates so quickly. The only place the odor will be detected is in the home while the water is being used. Remember, too, that your water conditions can change. What tests determine right now may not be true in the future. To protect yourself, you will need to do periodic testing, determined by the type of contaminant you find, if any, and how likely it is to change. For example, you should test for bacteria at least once a year in a drilled well and more often in a shallow well (dug or driven-point). A shallow well needs more frequent testing because it is more susceptible to surface contamination. Existing Wells What if you're buying a home with an existing well? If you are financing or even refinancing a home, you need to determine what tests the lender requires. If the testing is for the VA or FHA, more test parameters will be required than for a local lender. Check with the lender to make sure you have the latest contaminant list required. If you are not the one collecting the sample, hire someone to do it. Don't rely on the homeowner or real estate broker to collect the samples. If there is water treatment equipment in use, be sure to take samples of treated and untreated water to determine if the equipment is working. When buying a home, you should also take time to run the water to determine what it looks and smells like. A white foam cup is a great tool for detecting the presence of any color in a water sample. You can also look through a clear glass to detect turbidity, or cloudiness. If there is no evidence of staining in the sinks, tub or toilet bowls, try looking in the dishwasher and the toilet tank. These are areas where mineral stains will show up more readily. A brown or orange color in either area will indicate the presence of iron and/or manganese. A film on top of the water in the toilet tank usually indicates the presence of manganese. If you are buying a home near the ocean, be sure to check the chloride content of the water. The presence of chlorides will indicate the possibility of saltwater intrusion. Even if you are willing to live with purchasing bottled water for drinking, the high chloride content in salt water can be very corrosive. Ask if any fixtures in the house have been replaced. Also, look for evidence of leaks that may have been caused by corroded plumbing joints or connections. Finally, be sure to test for the contaminants that will have long-term exposure risks. These will be things like radon, arsenic, gross alpha, uranium and fluoride. Other Tests As mentioned earlier, there can be many contaminants in your water that have not been tested and that you should consider as a private well owner. To understand what testing should be done after the initial safety check, let's take a look at the categories of contaminants in the EPA's primary drinking water regulations: Inorganic chemicals: Inorganic chemicals can occur naturally or as the result of industrial waste. Of them, lead is the most commonly asked about. In almost all cases, lead found in drinking water is deposited there by the corrosion in the distribution system. The source is usually lead street connections, old soldered joints (solder used today does not contain lead) or brass fixtures. The most common technique for controlling lead, other than removing the source, is corrosion control. Public water systems typically try to control the pH of the water to limit the amount of lead dissolved. One way to protect against lead is simply to run the water and flush the pipes before drinking the water. This works because the lead dissolves relatively slowly. The problem with doing this is the uncertainty of how long to run the water. In testing, most experts will suggest taking both first-draw samples and samples after the water has run to determine the potential for lead exposure. The catch here, especially with public water supplies, is that there are many other factors that affect the concentration of lead in the water, such as the rate of water usage and the amount of lead that is exposed in any given line. If you are concerned about lead, I recommend you install a point-of-use filter that will remove it. The device should be approved by the National Sanitation Foundation for lead removal. Another inorganic chemical that has gotten a lot of attention lately is arsenic. In many parts of the world it occurs naturally in the soil, causing very high levels in water supplies. Some industrial wastes also contain arsenic. In the United States, there are areas where naturally occurring arsenic concentrations exceed the old maximum contamination levels in more than 10 percent of wells. A recently approved change in the arsenic MCL (maximum contaminant level) will push this percentage much higher. Like lead, arsenic problems can be fixed by installing point-of-use filters. If you have young children, you should also consider testing for fluoride. This is another naturally occurring compound that can cause health problems. Many public water supplies add this to the water to help reduce tooth decay. In high doses, though, fluoride can cause bone disease, and children may develop mottled teeth. Fluoride, too, can be removed with point-of-use filters. Radionuclides: These are naturally occurring elements that emit radiation as they decay. Testing for radionuclides reveals the presence of radioactive particles that can cause cancer. A test that is often overlooked in this area is the gross alpha test, which screens for radioactive alpha particles whose presence would usually indicate whether the water has uranium or radium dissolved in it. The radionuclide testing will not reveal the presence of dissolved radon, another radioactive element. That requires a separate test. These radioactive elements are another group best treated with point-of-use systems designed for their removal. They are best removed with reverse osmosis systems. Reverse osmosis systems push water through a semi-permeable membrane that removes radionuclides as well as many other dissolved minerals. Organic chemicals: These usually result from industrial waste, fuels, fuel oils, herbicides and pesticides. Testing for organic chemicals is usually done only if there is some suspicion of contamination. Close proximity to fuel tanks, a waste site, a golf course or a farm may be enough to warrant this type of test. These organic tests will only indicate what is presently in the water and can in no way predict if there will ever be a problem. In most cases, you should be prepared to retest and provide some kind of treatment that will protect you in the future. If you find organics - or for that matter, heavy metals - you may want to install a reverse osmosis system for your drinking water. You will want to consider a point-of-use device that uses carbon. There are a number of units on the market that are NSF-certified to do this. Disinfectants and disinfection byproducts: These are only a concern for those of you on public water supplies that are chlorinating water from a surface supply, like a lake or a river. The byproducts are caused by the reaction of chlorine on organic materials in the water and are potentially cancer-causing agents. They can be removed with a point-of-use device. The most effective devices are those that use some kind of carbon filtration. Again, it is important to purchase a device that is NSF certified for this purpose. Water supplies that have recently been chlorinated pose some special problems. If the well was chlorinated because of bacteria, a chlorine test should be done before taking a bacteria sample. If there is any chlorine detected, do not take the sample, as the results will be meaningless. The purpose of testing is to determine if bacteria are being carried into the well by the water source. If the water source supplying the well brings in bacteria, any chlorine left in the well will kill it and give a false negative test. What To Do Now If you have not done a safety check, do one now. If you tested before, do the same inorganic test set that is used as the initial test for a public water source. This set will include tests for arsenic, lead and fluoride. The lab you use can provide you with the list of chemicals in this inorganic set. Include gross alpha, radon water and radon air tests. If you suspect contamination from a farm, golf course, buried tanks or landfill, do screening tests for pesticides and volatile organic compounds. Once all this is done and you have the test results, consult with water-treatment specialists and your local governmental agencies to help interpret the results and determine the best course of action, if any. If you decide to install equipment to reduce a specific problem, first perform a follow-up test to confirm the level of contamination. Follow-up testing after the installation of equipment should always be done. Use two tests. One of the tests will be of the treated water and one will be of the untreated water. Two tests are necessary to show if performance standards are being met. Few things are more important to our health than good, clean water. You owe it to yourself and your family to do all you can to make sure yours is up to standard. Jeffrey A. Twitchell is vice president of Air & Water Quality Inc. of Windham, Maine.