There are many reasons to wonder about the safety and quality of your water. Maybe you’ve just moved into a new home, or perhaps you’ve noticed your water has a peculiar taste or smell. You also could be one of the millions of Americans and Canadians who use well water in their homes.
The fact is that despite a drinking water supply that’s among the safest in the world, contamination can and does occur. This can result in health and safety issues, as well as problems with the water’s aesthetic factors, such as taste, odor and hardness.
An understanding of the most common water problems can help you keep your drinking water safe for you and your family.
You may have heard the term hard water, but what does it really mean? It’s simply a measure of the amount of dissolved magnesium and calcium in the water. Water with 61 to 120 mg/L of calcium carbonate is considered moderately hard; 121 to 180 mg/L is considered hard; and more than 180 mg/L is very hard, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Some areas of the country are more prone to hard water. While high levels of magnesium and calcium pose no health danger, these substances can cause issues. Mineral deposits can corrode pipes and plumbing fixtures. Hard water can shorten the life and reduce the efficiency of water-using appliances and water heaters. Hard water is also a common cause of cloudy glassware and dishes.
Other effects can be felt after bathing in hard water. For example, lathering with soap and hard water can leave you feeling like there is a residue on your skin. Or, hard water can leave your skin dry and your hair dull.
While not a health hazard, a high level of total dissolved solids, or TDS, can negatively impact your water quality. It may cause an unpleasant, sometimes even salty or metallic, taste. The most common dissolved solids found in water include calcium, magnesium, sulfate, sodium and chloride. Even if the source of these elevated levels of dissolved solids is natural, such as mineral springs, salt deposits and sea water intrusion, the impact on taste can be undesirable.
TDS presents a challenge to the consumer because you can’t see dissolved solids in your water, and not all filtering techniques effectively remove them. Like hard water, a high level of total dissolved solids can corrode plumbing fixtures and shorten the life of water-using appliances.
The EPA recommends public water systems maintain a pH of between 6.5 and 8.5. However, because pH is considered a secondary drinking water contaminant (more of a concern in terms of aesthetics like taste and smell than health), communities are not required to measure it. Acidity of water is indicated by a pH of less than 7 on a range from 0 to 14, with 7 being neutral. It’s an important measure of water quality because water with a low pH can be corrosive. Acidic water can cause premature damage to pipes by dissolving unwanted metals, such as lead, copper, iron and zinc, in your home’s water supply. Of greater concern is the potential for elevated levels of heavy metals (such as lead and mercury) in drinking water, which can cause a variety of health issues, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, kidney disease, liver disease and nervous system problems. Young children are especially vulnerable.
If your pipes are made of copper and you have acidic water, you may see blue-green stains on sinks and drains. Water may be colored red or blue-green and can have a metallic taste. Rust stains can appear on laundry. If pipe deterioration reaches an advanced stage, water pressure will slow.
High pH or high alkalinity has its own negative impacts. While not a health threat, drinking water with a pH level above 8.5 can cause aesthetic problems such as a bitter taste, buildup in your plumbing, and lowered efficiency of water-using appliances.
Chlorine has been used to disinfect drinking water since the early 1900s. It reduces the harmful bacteria that cause waterborne diseases such as cholera, typhoid fever and hepatitis. Chlorine levels up to 4 mg/liter are considered safe in drinking water. However, testing is dependent on local water treatment facilities that vary considerably, leaving consumers at risk from higher concentrations of chlorine. If you experience a bleach-like taste or smell in your tap water, it is a good indication of a high level of chlorine in your water, which can cause illness.
Rust stains on dishes, laundry, toilets, sinks or showers are one of the more common signs of iron in your water supply. Your water may appear clear, because ferrous iron is colorless when dissolved. However, when exposed to air, water with iron turns cloudy and a reddish-brown substance begins to form. This oxidized, or ferric, form of iron will not dissolve in water. Iron can give your drinking water a strong metallic taste and affect the taste of food and beverages prepared with it. Like other minerals, iron can damage water-using appliances such as the washing machine, dishwater and sprinkler system.
Nitrate is a common form of nitrogen found in soil. It can find its way into the water supply come from both manmade and natural sources including fertilizers, animal feedlots, septic tanks and decaying plants. The contaminants flow through the soil into the groundwater. The EPA standard for nitrate in drinking water is 10 mg/L; drinking water at or below that level is considered safe. Higher levels of nitrate can cause health issues, particularly for babies. Nitrates in the blood combine with hemoglobin to form methemoglobin, which reduces the blood’s ability to carry oxygen. Infant methemoglobinemia, also called “blue baby syndrome,” causes the baby’s skin to turn blue. Those who live in rural areas or have a private well system are more likely to see high levels of nitrates in their water. Since nitrate contaminants are tasteless, odorless and colorless, water testing is the only way to ensure they are not present.
In the U.S., required Community Confidence Reports reveal the quality of the water at your local treatment facility. In Canada, there is no similar public notice requirement except in the province of Ontario. But neither of these can definitively tell you the extent of these common water problems in your home–that requires in-home testing.
A Culligan in-home water test is a great place to start. It’s free and will measure overall water hardness, chlorine, pH, iron and total dissolved solids, among other potential issues. Depending on the results, as well as other observations about your water quality, your local Culligan water expert may recommend a comprehensive lab test. Water samples from your home are sent to our IL EPA-Certified lab, where tests can measure contaminants such as arsenic, lead, e-coli, nitrates and more. Your local Culligan water expert will be able to discuss the results of the lab test with you within a few days.
Don’t worry about the safety and quality of your water any longer. Set up a free home test with your local Culligan Water Expert.