The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for overseeing the quality of water that comes out of your tap.
When water is transferred from a treatment plant to your home, it must meet a series of strict safety standards enforced by the EPA. But even with these standards in place, harmful contaminants can make their way into your tap water.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the most common sources of contamination in the US water system are related to local land usage and manufacturing processes. For example, pesticides and fertilizers from farmland or industrial waste can leak into surface water sources like streams, rivers, lakes and reservoirs.
Contaminants can also reach our water through human or animal fecal matter, improper disposal of pollutants, or excess rainfall resulting in mud and other contaminants leaking into local water supplies.
Recent Examples of Water Contamination
In 2014 local water supply in Flint, Michigan became compromised after the city switched from the Detroit water system to the Flint River in an effort to save money. Inadequate treatment and testing led to water quality issues so severe, the city is still suffering over 5 years later.
Before Flint, came the decades long legal battle against chemical company DuPont, who were ultimately found to have poisoned over 70,000 local people and hundreds of animals after releasing a toxic chemical into Parkersburg, West Virginia’s water supply. This case was made famous in recent news after the release of the 2019 film, Dark Waters, which follows defense attorney Robert Bilott in his case against the company.
Water contaminants are known to cause a variety of health issues, including cancer, liver and kidney damage, or heart damage, all in severe cases. People most at risk for disease as a result of unclean water include:
- People with HIV/AIDS
- Those undergoing chemotherapy
- Transplant patients
- Pregnant women and their unborn babies
So how can you tell if your water is contaminated?
There are several resources available online that allow you to simply type in your zip code to learn more about the contaminant levels in your local water. There are also several things you can look out for using your own senses.
Ways to Monitor Tap Water in Your Own Home
In general, healthy tap water should appear clear, without any turbidity or cloudiness. While a cloudy appearance doesn’t necessarily mean unhealthy water, in some cases it could be due to the presence of dangerous pathogens or chemicals.
“Hard” water is often the result of a buildup of substances like calcium and magnesium, leaving deposits in your sink or faucet. Whereas calcium and magnesium don’t lead to water contamination, an increase in water hardness could also be coming from metals like lead, aluminum or manganese, which can be harmful.
When water appears yellow, orange or brown, it could be due to a number of harmful substances, including chromium-6, a chemical linked to causing cancer. It may also point to excess iron, manganese, lead, or a buildup of rust in your pipes that can breed bacteria.
If your water appears blue or green, your water may contain excess copper due to corroded pipes. Small doses of copper are not harmful, but excess amounts can lead to anemia or liver and kidney damage.
Strange smells can often point to various water contaminants. For instance, when water smells like bleach, it may contain excess levels of chlorine. A small amount of chlorine is deliberately added to US water supply, but when too much is added, it can result in the production of harmful byproducts linked to kidney problems, skin irritation, and increased cancer risk.
When water smells like rotten eggs, it may contain hydrogen sulfide, a chemical known to cause dehydration or diarrhea.
If your water has a fishy smell, it could be a sign of chemical barium or cadmium. Barium levels above the EPAs recommendation could cause increased blood pressure, muscle weakness, or kidney, liver and heart damage. Cadmium can cause kidney, liver, and bone damage.
When water has a metallic taste it could be due to rusty pipes releasing iron, manganese, zinc, copper, and lead into your local water supply.
Doing research on your local water supply and keeping a lookout for these signs of contamination is a good practice. However, the best and most sure fire way to test the tap water in your own home is to have it tested professionally.
There are at home kits available. But those tend to be better for tracking changes in your water supply, rather than testing for its overall safety. Try hiring a water testing agency in your area if you are at all concerned about the safety of your water supply.