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A Guide to Iron Water Contamination and Testing

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iron water symptoms - rust stains in sink
iron water symptoms - rust stains in sink

A Guide to Iron Water Contamination and Testing

Culligan

The world would be a lot simpler if you could always look at your water and tell right away whether something is wrong. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The truth is that contaminants could be masquerading as a perfectly clear glass of water without even an odd taste or weird smell to give them away.*

Things get especially tricky when it comes to elements that actually belong in your body — for example, iron. Although the average recommended daily intake of iron is 14mg, that doesn’t mean your drinking water should be “all iron all the time.”

Here’s what to know about iron water contamination and testing.

 

Common Iron Water Problems

Although iron is necessary for many natural processes in the human body, it is possible to have too much of a good thing: Extremely high iron intake can have significant health effects. Luckily, the amount of iron typically found in food and water isn’t dangerous to the human body.

Here are a few more key things to know about iron in water:

How Does Iron Get into Drinking Water?

Iron makes up at least 5% of the Earth’s crust. That means there are plenty of opportunities for rainwater to pick up iron as it seeps across soil and through layers of rock that may contain this metallic element. This water ends up in aquifers, lakes, rivers and other sources of municipal water supplies and private wells.

What Is Iron Poisoning?

Iron poisoning is most common in children and usually occurs when too many iron supplements or iron-containing medications are swallowed. The symptoms include stomach upset, abdominal pain and other gastrointestinal disturbances. That’s because iron can corrode the intestinal lining — but remember, the amount of iron generally found in food and drinking water isn’t enough to cause this.

Does All Tap Water Have Iron in It?

Iron is commonly present in tap water, but the amount can depend on the geographical location of your water supply. For example, the concentration of iron in Canadian drinking water is often less than 0.3mg per liter. Meanwhile, 27% of wells in North Carolina had iron levels exceeding that amount.

 

Signs of Iron in Water

The good news about iron water contamination is that it has a few telltale signs. Here’s what to look for:

What Are the Signs of Iron in Water?

When iron concentrations exceed 0.3mg per liter, you may start to see evidence of its presence. These sgns can include:

  • A metallic taste in drinking water
  • Clogged wells, pumps and more
  • Yellowing teeth
  • Red, yellow or brown stains on dishes, laundry and more
  • Rust stains/iron stains on water fixtures

What are Iron Stains

Iron stains are the same thing as rust stains, and they’re just one more irritating result of iron-rich water. They can be sneaky, though, because water often comes out of the faucet completely clear and only leaves stains over time. Remember, these stains can appear anywhere you use water, like on your clean laundry and dishes or inside bathtubs and showers.

 

Iron Water Testing

While iron levels in water rarely impact your health, they can be bad news for your plumbing, fixtures and water-using appliances. For that reason, it’s important to have regular water quality tests.

What are Iron Water Tests?

Iron water tests help make your water quality a little more transparent. They tell you how much iron is present in your water and suggest whether certain issues — like a metallic taste — can be attributed to this element.

How to Test for Iron in Your Water

The best way to test iron levels in your water is to have an in-home water test performed. Instead of having to test the water yourself, drive to your health department or interpret complicated results, just relax while an expert takes a quick sample and provides answers in as little as 30 minutes. Better yet, they’ll explain what those results mean for the water in your home, including whether you have iron levels that should be concerning.

Of course, that’s not all you can learn from a water quality review. Many tests check for other common issues, including chlorine, total dissolved solids (TDS) and even water hardness levels. It’s like a checkup for your water supply.

While iron itself isn’t often a health concern, it can bring buddies — and that could lead to more significant issues. This is what’s called “iron bacteria,” which occurs when iron and oxygen band together to cause trouble for your water supply. Signs of iron bacteria include:

  • Water that smells like rotten vegetables, sewage or must
  • Red, brown or orange discoloration
  • Water with a rainbow “sheen” quality
  • Slime deposits

If you notice any of these signs, you’ll need to do a more in-depth water quality test to look for more serious issues. An IL EPA-certified lab can run water tests that identify the presence of bacteria as well as other issues like the presence of lead or copper. If an in-home test is a checkup, this one is like an in-depth examination for your water supply.

Are There Acceptable Levels of Iron in Drinking Water?

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established secondary drinking water standards for iron. This means that, while iron in water isn’t a direct hazard to your health, it can be a nuisance with its odd tastes and unpleasant stains. For these reasons, the acceptable level of iron in drinking water is 0.3mg per liter (this guidance is the same in Canada). Beyond this amount, you could start to notice this uninvited guest and its frustrating aesthetic effects.

 

Iron Water Solutions

If the results of a water test show there’s more than 0.3mg per liter of iron in your water, there are a few things you can do to solve this problem. Let’s take a closer look:

How to Remove Iron From Water

There are actually several different types of iron that could be present in your water:

  • Ferrous: If you have ferrous iron in your water supply, you’ll notice clear water turning red or brown if left in the sink or tub. 
  • Ferric: When your water is rich in ferric iron, you’ll notice discoloration as soon as you turn on the faucet. 
  • Organic and Colloidal: Organic and colloidal iron can be yellow, brown or colorless. These types are most often found in well systems.

The best solution is a whole-house filter system designed to reduce the types of iron present in your water. For ferrous  iron, a water softener can also be effective for treatment.

Does Boiling Water Remove Iron?

No. Boiling water kills most disease-carrying microorganisms, but it does not remove heavy metals.

Iron Water Filters

If you want to turn on the tap and get a drink of water free from metallic tastes and unpleasant colors, one of your best options is an iron reduction water filter. These systems can remove iron along with sulfur, sediment and more.

Are There Iron Water Filters for the Whole House?

Whole-house filters for iron are the best solution for iron in your water. These can protect your drinking water as well as dishes, laundry, plumbing, faucets and water-using appliances from iron’s aesthetic issues. An under-sink filter that treats water at the point of use can address a metallic taste, but a more comprehensive solution can keep iron from lurking in your pipes or staining your clothes, sinks and tubs.

 

Test for Iron in Your Water

Whether you suspect your water has high iron levels or you just want to know more about your water quality overall, Culligan’s free in-home water tests can provide you with valuable information. In as little as 30 minutes, our Culligan Water experts can find answers about where that metallic taste might be coming from, what’s causing discoloration or why your home’s pipes always seem clogged — all by testing for iron and other possible contaminants.

Schedule a free, in-home water test today.

 

*Contaminants may not be present in your water.

 

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