Water, Water Everywhere — How safe is your water?

water faucet fibromyalgia supportOnly 1% of the world’s water is safe to drink. Is yours?

More and more people today are questioning the quality of their drinking water. “Nobody should just assume their water is safe.

They should know for sure,” says Joseph Cotruvo, Ph.D. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Drinking Water is telling many what’s been feared for years. But how does one really know about the quality of their water?

Potential contamination of the water supply is a great concern. Most contaminants fall into four categories:

1. Organic chemicals. Included are pesticides, herbicides and trihalomethanes, a by-product of chlorination.

2. Inorganic chemicals. These include lead, copper and nitrates.

3. Bacteria. This most common is coliform bacteria.

4. Radiological pollution, including radon, radium and uranium.

For most people, the first step is to analyze their own water. Once any questions about the quality of the water are answered, necessary steps to improve it can be taken more logically.

The first question to ask regards the source of your water. For most people, this is either a public water system, or a well. Individuals on public systems have the legal right to ask their water supplier for the results of past tests. They must also inform you of any problems, past or present, in meeting federal requirements for safety.

If your source of water comes from a well, you’ll have to take the initiative and have the water tested yourself. At times, however, the health department may do certain tests, especially if there are local pollution problems. Deeper wells generally have less contamination than more shallow, often older, dug wells. Many problems come from water runoffs and chemical leaks, at times from far away.

Whether you drink public or well water, another potential source of contamination is your pipes. Copper pipes may pose two different problems: the copper mineral itself, and also the lead solder. Lead is sometimes used in solder, and can be seen at the joints of your pipes as a dull gray sheen. A bright, shinny color means a silver-nickel-tin product was used, which is thought to be much safer. Lead solder is not used on plastic or galvanized piping. If in doubt, a test kit available in many hardware stores can help give you the answer.

Copper pipes can also leach the mineral into your drinking water. High copper occurs in areas where there is soft water, (sometimes referred to as a low pH or high acidity). Although not as serious as lead, excess copper can be a health problem. This may cause disturbances of mineral balance (zinc, iron, and manganese).

Because lead is a serious health hazard, lead pipes were outlawed in 1986. However, in older houses built before 1930, the plumbing may include lead pipes. These soft, dull gray metal pipes are very dangerous, especially with soft or acidic water. Some cities, like Chicago and New York, have lead connector pipes. These are the sections that connect the city water supply with your home. The water department or city engineer should be able to tell you whether this is the case with your home.

Some homes, especially in the northwestern U.S., have pipes (or tanks) made of galvanized steel. These metals can leach cadmium, and like copper, may pose health dangers.

Corrosion of pipes can also cause excess contamination. This is typical in areas where basements are damp year round. The most common source of corrosion is from the grounding of your electrical system. This is easy to inspect. Electrical grounds should never be attached to your water pipes.

Hot water potentially can leach lead and other contaminants out of pipes which normally may not be a problem. If in doubt about lead in your water, use cold water for cooking.

Although the most accurate method of analyzing your water is through a lab, observing the stains in your sink may be a clue for some contaminants. The exception is lead, which won’t render any discoloration. Copper, however, will produce a blue-green stain, and iron a brown streak.

Having your water tested by a competent laboratory will remove all the guess work regarding its safety. Samples should be taken from a frequently used source, such as the kitchen sink. A morning sample would generally have the highest levels of mineral contamination, as water sitting in the pipes all night tends to accumulate these substances.

The health department may test your water without charge. However, if your area has never had a problem, they may not. If, on the other hand, other water sources in your area have been contaminated, or if several members of your household have symptoms which may relate to contaminated water (such as diarrhea, vomiting or seemingly bizarre problems), the health department will most likely do a thorough testing. At the least, they can give you names of reputable labs in your area where you can get your water tested. These labs use EPA standards, and although some feel their ranges of normal are too conservative, at least you are assured of accurate testing. Don’t take your own water samples. The lab should provide their own containers, as some samples need to be properly preserved.

Costs for these tests will vary. Some labs may charge anywhere from $5 for one test, and up to $250 for several dozen tests. 
If you obtain abnormal results, you should inform the health department. Toxic substances, whether from a septic or any other source, is their concern too.

In some instances, such as high lead content, you may ask your doctor about testing the levels in your blood. The EPA has changed the standard for this toxic metal from 50 parts per billion (ppb) to 10 ppb when testing home water. But even at low levels, a long term build up in the body is always a possibility. Children are most susceptible to lead toxicity.

If you still have questions about your water, the EPA has a “Drinking Water Hotline” in Washington, D.C.: 800-426-4791. They can provide you with a list of contaminants and their allowable levels.

If you find contaminants in your water supply, there are several things you can do to remedy the problem. If the source can be changed, such as your septic or someone dumping toxic waste, this becomes an obvious priority. If the source is in your home, or other circumstances which are difficult to change, a water filtering system can usually solve your problem.

Water Filters

With annual sales of home water filtering units and other water treatment devices approaching four billion dollars, how viable is this method for improving the safety of your water?

The first step in considering a water filter is knowing what contaminants are in the water. Once you know what (if anything) needs to be filtered, you can use the appropriate system. Unfortunately, there is no single water filter which will solve all your water problems.

Basically, there are four categories of water filters: activated carbon systems, reverse osmosis systems, ion-exchange resin filters and distillation units. Each one will filter specific contaminants.

Carbon filters, used by the ancient Greeks and Romans, traps contaminants as the water passes through the carbon filter. The newer, solid-carbon-block filters are the most effective for this process (as opposed to granular carbon devices). Reverse osmosis has been used for large scale projects, such as the desalination of seawater, in industry. Basically, its a more complex filtration system which includes carbon. Home units generally are more expensive when maintenance is considered. Ion exchange, a simple unit made of a resin, filters only a few contaminants. Distillation, like carbon filtration, is also an ancient method of treating water. The process involves boiling the water to be treated, capturing and cooling the steam, giving you cleaner water.

Here’s a list of the different types of filtration systems and the substances they best eliminate:

Activated Carbon Systems (using solid-carbon-block filters)

… removes most organic chemicals, such as pesticides and herbicides, chlorine, bacteria, metals (lead, iron, copper) and radon

… won’t remove minerals (won’t soften water), nitrates, viruses, and radioactive particles

… usually improves the taste of the water some carbon filters have silver nitrate to prevent bacterial build-up—this has the potential to leak silver, which is toxic

… can cost as little as $40 and as much as several thousand dollars or more for a large system

… ideally, the carbon part must be replaced every 6-12 months to maintain effectiveness and normal water flow.

Reverse Osmosis Systems

… removes toxic metals and radiation contamination (except radon)

… will not remove many organic chemicals or radon

… interferes with normal water flow (by 25-50%), and for every gallon of clean water, 6-8 gallons of water are wasted.

… may cost $150 to several thousand dollars

Ion-Exchange Resin Filters

… removes nitrates and nitrites, toxic metals and radiation contamination (except radon)

… does not remove many organic chemicals

… cost $200-$500

Distillation Units

… all around best method, as it “filters” more items than any other one device

… removes toxic metals and radiation contamination (except radon)

… will not remove all organic chemicals

… removes minerals (softens the water) 

… makes water taste “flat”

… cost from $300 to $3,000

The manufacturer of these filtering devices can provide you with more information on what contaminants it removes as well as proper use, installation and maintenance costs. Also, it is well worth testing your water again after installing a water filter to be certain it is performing properly.

Most importantly, if your water is contaminated you should attempt to find the source of that problem and correct that. rather than just remedying it with a filter.

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