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Is Your Tap Water Safe to Drink? Here’s How to Find Out

By Dan Bookbinder
August 18, 2022
Image credit: Lindsey Engelken for Clean Plates

Access to clean, safe drinking water is essential to our survival and well-being — but the water that flows through the pipes in our homes can sometimes be of questionable quality. In the United States, millions of people get their tap water through a community health system, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention refers to as “one of the safest and most reliable drinking water systems in the world.” 

However, we know that’s not always the case. Lead-filled drinking water famously flowed through the city of Flint, Michigan, for many years, and while their water situation is now better than it was, residents are still being advised by the EPA to filter their water before drinking it. Although the case in Flint is certainly the most famous (and among the most egregious) examples of this, there have been plenty of others; lead has been detected in 80% of Pittsburgh homes, and many drinking water systems across the country are flooded with perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). So if you’re wondering “is tap water safe to drink?” that’s a pretty reasonable question — and the answer isn’t terribly positive. 

According to a 2018 report, nearly 21 million Americans (about 6% of the United States population) were getting water from systems that violated health standards. The CDC warns that contaminants in our water can lead to health issues ranging from gastrointestinal illness to reproductive problems and neurological disorders. This is concerning for everyone, but especially our most vulnerable populations, specifically infants, children, pregnant people, the elderly, and the immunocompromised, who are all at potentially increased risk. So the prospect of dangerous materials contaminating our water is frightening, to say the least. 

As a new homeowner in South Florida, I wanted to ensure that the water in my home was safe for my family — and if it wasn’t, find a water filtration system that could actually help. So I set out to learn how we can protect ourselves from harmful contaminants in drinking water and determine whether or not the filtration system we choose is actually worthwhile.

The key, I discovered, is to follow a three-step process: understand the signs of different types of contamination; discover which harmful materials are present, if any; and choose the best type of filter to treat those particular substances.

Health issues aside, there can be some simply unpleasant qualities to your water that can be reduced or eliminated by a filtration system. As an EPA fact sheet on the subject puts it: “In addition to illness, a variety of less serious problems such as taste, color, odor and staining of clothes or fixtures are signs of possible water quality problems.” 

1. Observe your water using all five senses

There are certain indicators of potential water issues that we should look out for. McCall Knecht of Berkey Filters recommends starting out by using your own senses to check for water quality. “Avoid water that doesn’t look clear,” Knecht said. “It shouldn’t have any cloudiness, color, or visible objects.” 

I found this water safety pamphlet helpful. It’s co-authored by Tom Scherer, an extension agricultural engineer, and Roxanne Johnson, a water quality associate, and it was published in 2010 by the North Dakota State University Extension Service. It’s a great guide to helping you identify any issues with the color, appearance, smell, and taste of your home’s water, which is the first step on your path to quality water. 

So for instance, if your water has a reddish hue, that indicates the presence of metals, namely iron, in your water. Spottiness on glassware is also a visual indicator of hard water, as is a metallic taste. Hard water is more of an inconvenience than a health hazard, as it can leave deposits and scaling in pipes and in appliances. It lowers the effectiveness of soap and detergent, causes appliances to run less efficiently, and can clog pipes — but it doesn’t pose a risk to members of the household.

A salty taste, on the other hand, could indicate the presence of excess nitrates, which can be seriously unpleasant, according to the CDC. Although the nitrates that enter your body can usually leave without harm, sometimes nitrates can change to nitrites, which can cause changes to your hemoglobin, so that you have less available oxygen in your blood. Clearly, that’s not a great side effect.

Nitrates are especially harmful for pregnant people and infants under four months since their gastrointestinal systems are not yet developed. In adults, the salt content may have a laxative effect in some cases. 

Water shouldn’t have an odor, but since chlorine is used to clean municipal systems, there might be a hint of that scent. If there is a strong chlorinated smell, there might be a dangerous amount of bleach in the water. A rotten egg smell could signify excessive sulfur, and a fishy odor might indicate excess barium. The smell of mildew or dirty rags might mean there is corrosion in the pipes.

If your skin feels dry and itchy after washing, or you feel a film on your skin, there may be excess calcium in your water. 

2. Consider your location 

Your region, neighborhood, and home itself can all provide clues as to what might affect your water, and there are local resources that report on possible local contaminants. “We’re really fortunate in the US because there’s a required water quality report that your municipality has to put out once a year,” says Richard Andrew of NSF, who also notes that it typically comes out in July. 

The EPA produces the Annual Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) on July 1, which is included with your water bill. The report is based on set standards and regulations for the presence and amount of over 90 different contaminants in public drinking water. It contains information on contaminants found, possible health effects, and the water’s source. The CCR tests for inorganic contaminants, radioactive contaminants, disinfectants and disinfection by-products, lead, and copper. The test also includes averages and action levels. 

“What’s particularly concerning is that the US Health Standards are based on adults over 150 pounds, not children,” Knecht said. “So the acceptable levels could be much higher than what’s safe for smaller bodies.” 

“EPA standards for when tap water is unsafe to drink haven’t been updated in about 20 years,” Knecht said. She recommends using the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Tap Water Database, where you can enter your zip code to learn about your local utility, compare how your municipality complies with federal legal standards, get detailed reports about detected contaminants and possible health effects, and learn more about how to reduce contaminant levels.

After taking a look at the CCR results and checking the tap water database, you should have a greater sense of the possible contaminants in your community water — so the next step of protection is to test the water inside your home. 

Is tap water safe to drink? A home water test kit in use

3. Test your own tap water — and if you’re in an old house, try it from every tap 

“Your water quality report might look great,” Andrew says. “But you could have an older lead service line or there could be some other premise plumbing inside the house that may have lead in it.”

The United States Congress banned the use of lead pipes in 1986, but if your residence is an older construction, there is a chance that lead soldering was used in your water service lines, particularly in homes constructed prior to 1950.

For more concerning contaminants such as lead, bacteria, chlorine, and mercury, there are multiple home tests available, some with instant results and some that are sent to a lab for analysis. The test prices vary based on the potential contaminants.

If something concerning pops up on your home test kit, the next step is to find a lab to test your water. There is no baseline test for all possible impurities, but labs can test the hardness and pH of your water, as well as the presence of minerals, chemicals, and bacteria. The EPA suggests you test for chemical contaminants, such as volatile organic compounds, and notes that since these tests can be expensive, you should limit them to possible problems specific to your situation — it’s a good idea to rely on local experts, who can tell you about possible impurities in your area. So using the results of regional reports and tests can determine what type of test to request from a laboratory. 

Accredited labs can be found by contacting your local health department. Some county health departments provide water testing services or can direct consumers to a local accredited laboratory. The EPA also maintains a list of certified laboratories. Costs of these tests vary by region and test, but be aware they’re not cheap. “We have a set fee of $60 per test,” says Ben Martin, Laboratory Director of Everglades Lab, Inc., an accredited independent analytical testing laboratory located in West Palm Beach, Florida. “We pick up a bottle, put it on ice, and test it within 24 hours.”

A note on microplastics: although they’re primarily found in the marine ecosystem, microplastics in drinking water have become a growing concern. Testing for microplastics in water is still in its infancy, with laboratories recently developing techniques. The California State Water Resources Control Board developed the first standardized analytical methods in the world for the testing and reporting of microplastics in drinking water in 2021. If microplastics are a concern in the water sources in your area, make sure to inquire about the use of Raman spectroscopy and infrared spectroscopy for the presence of microplastics. Luckily, the common filtering techniques of carbon filters, reverse osmosis, and ion exchange can be effective in removing microplastics. 

Once you’ve determined which contaminants you need to treat, you’ll be able to correctly identify the system that will best filter your water.

4. Choose the filtration system that corresponds to your home’s needs

There are two main types of filters: point-of-entry and point-of-use. A point-of-entry system requires installation and uses electricity to operate, but treats all of the water fixtures and appliances within a house. This type of system is expensive to install and maintain, but a point-of-entry system is useful in filtering lead from the entire house. Lead is particularly harmful when water converts to steam and is inhaled, like when a shower warms up, so if you have an issue with lead in your water, a point-of-entry system is especially valuable. 

A point-of-use unit is a pitcher or a countertop system that needs to be filled, and relies on gravity to slowly flow water through the system — think of a Brita filter or a filter on your fridge or shower. These filter systems are more affordable but need to be monitored and replaced on a more frequent basis. 

According to the experts, neither system is definitively better; it’s up to the consumer’s budget and needs to determine which system works best for their household. But whichever type you select, you’ll want to choose a water filter approved by the international nonprofit NSF, which certifies filtration systems. In addition to their blue seal on products that meet their health standards, NSF maintains an official listing that’s regularly updated. This database is useful because it lists the specific contaminants that each product addresses.

So although there is no one-size-fits-all solution to water filtration, once you’ve determined the unique contaminants present in your water, you can move forward by selecting a system based on your particular goals. For instance, you may want to…

Change your water’s pH. A water softener uses salts to “soften” hard water, or reduce the amount of alkalinity. 

Address bacteria and viruses. Ultraviolet purification is a point-of-entry system useful for bacteria and viruses, but has limited use with other types of contaminants. 

Remove particles. Sediment filters are used in point-of-entry systems for removing bits of dirt, clay, and sand from pipes.

Absorb particles and molecules. Carbon filters are considered the most effective. A point-of-use system uses a holding container with loose granules or a block of carbon to both filter out sediment and absorb minuscule molecules. 

Personally, I wanted to find a water filtration system that was effective in removing contaminants while being reasonably priced. After consulting the Palm Beach County CCR and seeing that most contaminants were under or at actionable levels, a point-of-use carbon filter was the best option. After consulting the NSF, I found a Chlorine Reduction and Nominal Particulate Reduction filter that fit our model refrigerator. I had considered a point-of-entry system, but the maintenance and installation costs were too much for the same level of protection against local contaminants. And with the threat of power outages during hurricane season, having a point-of-use system that didn’t need electricity to run was a big selling point.

5. You’ll almost certainly want some type of water filter

Experts and agencies agree that filters are a useful tool for water safety. The answer to the question “is tap water safe to drink?” might technically be yes, but a home water filter makes it considerably safer, especially for people who weigh less than 150 pounds, pregnant people, infants, and the immunocompromised — but really, it’s a good idea for all of us. “Get a water filter. Period,” Knecht says. “Some filtration is better than nothing.” Martin agrees, noting that it’s a good idea to test your water regularly and that it’s important to refresh your filters on schedule.

One happy side effect: getting a water filtration system may actually encourage you or members of your household to drink more water. Andrew notes that survey after survey of consumers who filter their water says that the number one reason they do so is because it improves the taste. “I think if having better-tasting water is going to encourage people to stay hydrated and be healthy, that’s a great thing,” Andrew says. “And one of the best ways to accomplish that is through a filtration system.”

Read next: Is Stevia Better for You Than Sugar?

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