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How can I ensure that my drinking water is safe?

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A

Every day Americans drink more than one billion glasses of water. Public drinking water in the United States is generally safe; however, it is wise to be aware that water can become contaminated.

Contaminants often have no odor or color and are hard to detect. Some of them are1: bacteria and viruses may cause upset stomachs, diarrhea or more serious illnesses; 2: lead can get into water from corroded plumbing and can cause children to have learning and behavioral problems as well as other illnesses; 3: chemicals such as pesticides can wash off lawns and fields or leak from storage containers, or gas and oil can seep into the ground water and then into drinking water where even a small amount can cause cancer, damage to kidneys, liver or other organs, or present health risks to pregnant women; 4: radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas found in some well water escapes into the air in the home from showers and washing machines and has been linked to lung cancer — most of the risk comes from radon that seeps into homes from the ground soil; 5: nitrate gets into water from animal and human waste and from fertilizer. Some experts believe nitrate can cause miscarriages in pregnant women, birth defects and illness to some infants under six months old.

Though contaminants can be hard to detect, there are things you can do to prevent them from harming your water. Consider these suggestions.

* If you think you have a water problem, have your water tested. Call the Department of Health for assistance in obtaining a water sample.
* If you find your water's radon level is 10,000 pico curies per liter or higher, contact the State Department of Health or the Department of Environmental Quality for methods of aerating the water before it enters your house.
* If you have pipes soldered with lead, do not use hot water from the tap for cooking or drinking because heat can dissolve the metal. If you must use the water and haven't used your tap for several hours, clear out the pipes by letting cold water run until you feel the temperature change. Very soft water, which is more corrosive than hard water, is especially likely to leach lead from soldered pipes or brass fixtures.
* Prevent the backflow of contaminated water from entering your water supply by leaving an air gap between the water supply and any reservoir of dirty water. For example, if you are filling a swimming pool with a hose, leave an air gap between the hose and the water in the pool. Toilets and washing machines have built-in air gaps. If an air gap cannot be maintained, a backflow prevention device such as a check valve or vacuum breaker should be installed on the water supply line. Inexpensive backflow prevention devices can be purchased from plumbing suppliers. Backflow of contaminated water into your water supply can occur if your system undergoes sudden pressure loss, if there is a line break in the public water system or if a well fails.
* If your water comes from a well, have your water tested at a laboratory at least yearly. Call your county health department if you have questions. Also have your well inspected by a qualified well driller or pump installer every 10 to 15 years. Keep records of well construction details and dates and results of maintenance visits so you and future owners can follow a regular maintenance schedule.
* If you have questions or concerns about water safety, call the EPA's Safe Drinking Water Hotline at (800) 426-4791.

Posted on 30 Aug 2001

Leona Hawks
Extension Housing Specialist

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