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How To Tell If Your Water Is Safe
How can I tell whether the water in my house is safe to drink?
The Water Quality Association offers an interactive Diagnose Your Drinking Water tool on its Web site, which can help you figure out why your tap water smells like rotten eggs, tastes like salt, or spots your glasses. Advice is also available on how to treat a problem once you’ve identified it. But some of the most serious — and most common — contaminants, such as bacteria, viruses, lead, and other chemicals, can’t be tasted or smelled.
The water from most municipal systems in the United States is safe, because any system that serves 25 people or more is required to comply with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Your water comes from a municipal system unless you have a private well on your property or live in a rural area where a number of families share a well. The water system must test regularly for potentially harmful contaminants and alert the public if any are above acceptable limits.
How can I test my tap water?
If you’re on a public or municipal water line in the United States, call your local water supplier (the number’s on your water bill). By law, the supplier must test its processed water regularly and provide you with a copy of the results, called a Consumer Confidence Report, annually as well as on demand.
Many water agencies across the country now make their annual water quality reports available online. You can access these reports on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site.
If you contact your local agency by phone, ask for a test of the water from your own faucets to find out whether any contaminants are getting into the water between the treatment plant and your drinking glass. Some suppliers will do this test free of charge.
If your water supplier won’t test your water, you’ll need to have the test done by a state-certified lab. To find one in your area, call the Environmental Protection Agency’s Safe Drinking Water hotline at (800) 426-4791, go to the EPA’s Web site for a list of state certification offices, or look in the Yellow Pages under “Laboratories — Testing.”
Although the EPA says that more than 90 percent of water systems in this country meet its water quality standards, several contaminants can make their way into the water supply. These include arsenic, viruses and other disease-causing organisms, chlorine by-products, industrial and agricultural pollutants, and lead.
Have your water tested for lead if you have lead pipes or brass faucets (which may contain lead), and for copper if you have copper pipes. Lead solder could legally be used to join plumbing pipes until 1986, but lead is a concern even if you live in a brand-new home. Faucets and pipes are still allowed to contain as much as 8 percent lead and have been shown to leach the metal in significant amounts, particularly when they’re new.
Should I test my well water?
Federal drinking water standards don’t apply to private wells, so it’s up to you to have your water tested (and to pay for the test). To find a certified testing lab, call the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water hot line at (800) 426-4791, use a national testing agency such as Underwriters Laboratories.
Your local health department or public water system can advise you about possible well-water contamination in your area. However, even if no advisory’s in place, you should still test your water regularly.
Am I better off just drinking bottled water?
Not necessarily. Bottled water is not only more expensive than tap water, but in some cases it’s no healthier — and may even be less healthy — than your local tap water. (Of course, that depends on the quality of your local water supply.) In fact, about one-quarter of bottled water is simply tap water that has been processed and repackaged, according to a 2000 report by Consumer Reports.
A less expensive alternative to using bottled water is to install an Instapure Faucet filter sytem on your kitchen sink and refrigerator.