How to keep your drinking water safe

How to keep your drinking water safe

As with lead paint in older homes, trace amounts of the metal in tap water can, over time, lead to developmental problems in children, and increase incidence of high blood pressure and compromise kidney function in adults. Radium in water can cause cancer. Even too much chlorine disinfectant applied to clean water supplies can irritate the nose and eyes and cause stomach discomfort.

But consumers needn’t feel powerless — or wholly rely on a utility or municipal water provider — to protect the quality of water coming into their homes.

Here’s what you can do:

Test your water

If you get your drinking water from a well, like more than 1 in 7 Americans, you should have it tested regularly by a state certified environmental testing lab to account for ever-changing conditions, including contaminants like coliform bacteria and nitrates, that can seep slowly through the soil into underground aquifers.

Experts recommend testing every year, or at least every other. Consider also testing for specific contaminants like lead if you have concerns about drinking water supplied by a utility — such as relating to recent Environmental Protection Agency violations or old plumbing infrastructure in your home (see the next and fourth tip).

Read your utility’s water quality report

Despite federal regulations that set limits on contaminant levels in drinking water, public systems routinely exceed these. Read up on any violations in your utility’s annual Consumer Confidence Report, also sometimes called the Water Quality Report. This EPA-mandated report should be mailed to your door by July 1 each year and detail ways in which your utility plans to fix any cited issues. But you needn’t wait if you don’t have it in hand.

“I would urge consumers ... to contact their local utilities,” says Alex Formuzis, spokesman for the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization. Request and review the report they provide each year, and pay attention to potential violations that indicate the presence of contaminants in drinking water at levels higher than EPA-set maximums, which can result in fines for a utility and added risk for water consumers.

Filter your water

Filtering water at home provides another line of defense against contaminants that past the local utility. Though some experts say it’s not necessary, many recommend this to homeowners to further protect water quality. Formuzis calls reverse-osmosis the “Cadillac” of in-home water purification technology. You can also buy filters at non-Cadillac prices that target specific contaminants that concern you. Shopping for a filter, but not sure what to get? Here’s an unbiased guide from EWG, which doesn’t sell filters.

Keep your home’s plumbing updated

Paint flecks aren’t the only carriers of the toxic metal in older homes. If you have lead pipes in your home, it’s past time to change those out. Lead from pipes can contaminate water, which can cause developmental problems in children and other issues, such as raising blood pressure and compromising kidney function in adults.

Replace corroded copper pipes as well, a major source of copper in drinking water. Long-term exposure to copper at levels that exceed EPA-mandated maximums for drinking water can cause liver or kidney damage.

Don’t poison the well — or reservoir

Go easy on the fertilizer and pesticides on your lawn, and take used oil or antifreeze to a service center or recycling station. As with industrial agriculture — a leading source of water pollution — chemicals applied to green the yard, and those that drip on the driveway, can seep into groundwater. This can ultimately go into lakes, rivers and streams from which we draw water. Over time, pollutants can sometimes seep into wells, too, despite being dug deep enough to avoid most issues that affect groundwater.

Don’t flush unused medications, either, which can further contribute to the trace amounts of pharmaceuticals that — along with medicines taken as directed and, ahem, naturally disposed of — can end up in drinking water. Experts debate if these trace amounts of drugs have an effect on health, but better safe than sorry.

Drink boiled or bottled water

At least temporarily.

When directed by local government or health authorities, follow all orders to boil water from the tap, or drink bottled water. Boil-water advisories typically go into effect in response to concerns about drinking water contamination, such as after a large main break or natural disaster.

To avoid getting sick, in the most extreme circumstances, consider making a change from tap to bottled water as many residents in Charleston, West Virginia, did after a toxic chemical spill in January.

Additional sourcing: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

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Samples of water to be tested at Fredericktowne Labs in their Myersville, Maryland, location. (Photo by Bill Green)
Samples of water to be tested at Fredericktowne Labs in their Myersville, Maryland, location. (Photo by Bill Green)

The water supply in the U.S. remains relatively safe, but concerns over quality still make headlines. Learn how to protect your water quality at home.

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