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Water contaminants 101: Making drinking water healthy and safe

In order to live a healthy life, we are told to do a few basic things: exercise daily, eat fruits and vegetables every day, and drink plenty of water. But what if your water source is contaminated?

Americans commonly believe that when we turn on the faucet, the water that pours out is safe. Residents in Flint, Michigan thought so—until an investigation revealed dangerous levels of lead in their water. Similarly, 6 million people living in eight states within the High Plains region were impacted by the results of a study that found two aquifers contained uranium levels significantly higher than the EPA’s maximum contaminant level.

WHAT ARE CONTAMINANTS?

A contaminant is defined by the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) as “any physical, chemical, biological, or radiological substance or matter in water.” The EPA says, “Drinking water may reasonably be expected to contain at least small amounts of some contaminants.” It’s an important to look at the precise level of the contaminant because according to the EPA, “the presence of contaminants does not necessarily mean that the water poses a health risk.”

HOW DOES WATER BECOME CONTAMINATED?

The way water becomes contaminated depends on the type of contaminant. Water pollutants like oil are the most well known because of ocean oil spills, but the pipes in your home can just as easily be the source. Because of factors like old pipes, keep in mind that your neighbor’s contaminated water does not mean your water is also contaminated. Get you water tested, whether you are on city water or well water. The results will fall into four general types of drinking water contaminates:

Physical contaminants primarily impact the physical appearance or other physical properties of water. Examples of physical contaminants are sediment or organic material suspended in the water of lakes, rivers and streams from soil erosion. These types of contaminants are common in city water systems.

Chemical contaminants are elements or compounds. These contaminants may be naturally occurring or man-made. Examples of chemical contaminants include nitrogen, bleach, salts, pesticides, metals, toxins produced by bacteria, and human or animal drugs. Well water is often at risk of these contaminants.

Biological contaminants are organisms in water. They are also referred to as microbes or microbiological contaminants. Examples of biological or microbial contaminants include bacteria, viruses, protozoan, and parasites. Biological contaminants can found in both well water and city water systems.

Radiological contaminants are chemical elements with an unbalanced number of protons and neutrons resulting in unstable atoms that can emit ionizing radiation. Examples of radiological contaminants include cesium, plutonium and uranium. Contaminants like these are typically the result of erosion of natural deposits.

TYPES OF WATER CONTAMINANTS

Alkalinity

By acting like a buffer, alkalinity protects water and its life forms from sudden changes that would make water acidic.

Ammonia

A colorless, pungent-smelling gaseous chemical, ammonia is occurs naturally in groundwater and the human body. It’s commonly used in fertilizer, animal feed, and fiber manufacturing, as well as in cleaners and as a food additive.

Arsenic

A chemical element that occurs in different minerals, the inorganic type of arsenic is toxic and has been linked to cancer.

Chloramines

A chemical compound used as disinfectants and formed when ammonia is added to chlorine to treat drinking water.

Chlorine Taste & Odor

A chemical element and a powerful disinfectant that is commonly used in municipal water treatment plants and swimming pools to kill bacteria and other harmful microorganisms, chlorine has a noticeable taste and odor.

Parasitic cysts

Most commonly found in the form of cryptosporidium and giardia, they burrow into the walls of their host’s intestinal tract and cause flu-like illnesses.

e. Coli

Escherichia coli (E. coli) are bacteria found in the environment, foods, and intestines of people and animals.” Some kinds of e. Coli can cause diarrhea and other symptoms, and can be transmitted through contaminated water or food, or through contact with animals or persons.

Fluoride

A naturally occurring mineral, fluoride is commonly used for preventing tooth decay.

Iron, Rust and Corrosion

Iron is a natural element that is critical to the healthy and wellbeing of humans, plants and animals. It’s used to create one of the most important types of metal. Rust is a type of corrosion and it’s the result of iron coming into contact with moisture or air.

Lead

A naturally occurring element, lead was once a commonly used in a wide variety of products found in and around our homes. It’s now known as a highly toxic metal can cause a variety of health issues in humans and animals — including death.

Sediment

Made up of tiny grains of organic materials like silt, sand, rust or clay, sediment is the mysterious “stuff” that can be seen floating in your water glass. It’s generally harmless to humans but can cause issues with pipes and plumbing systems.

MY WATER IS CONTAMINATED, NOW WHAT?

Here’s the good news: there are number of different ways successfully treat contaminated water so that it’s safe for drinking. Once you’ve tested your water and have determined the contaminant you need to filter out, it’s a matter of choosing a filtration system that meets your needs and budget. From bag filter to reverse osmosis to whole house systems, there are a variety of options to consider. Review the list of individual contaminants to find out which solution is best for you.

WHEN TO REPLACE YOUR FILTRATION SYSTEM

Regular replacement of the filter and/or cartridge is critical to maintaining their effectiveness and reducing bacterial contamination. An overused or out-of-date filter can become dangerous because the filter will no longer trap contaminants, allowing them to leach back into your water. For the safety of you and your loved ones, it’s important not to put off replacement too long.

The average replacement frequency ranges from two to six months, depending on water quality and use. If there’s a lot of sediment in your system, it may need to be replaced more frequently. If you have a large family that uses a lot of water for showering, washing clothes and doing dishes, you’ll likely need to replace your filters more often than a single person who uses a laundromat to wash clothes.

There are four effective ways of knowing when it’s time to replace your water filter:

  1. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations. Their specified replacement timing will err on the side of caution so you can be assured that your water quality will always be safe.
  2. Measure usage. Install a filter measurement meter or filter monitor that connects to the incoming water line that feeds the filter system and measures the number of gallons that pass through. Then using the manufacturer’s recommended usage limit, program the monitor to alert you when you’ve reached the allowed number of gallons. You’ll know exactly when it’s time to replace the filter.
  3. Read your water bill. If your home is supplied with municipal water, your water bill will tell you exactly how much water is used monthly. Compare your actual usage to the manufacturer’s recommendation and plan the replacement accordingly.
  4. Monitor manually. If you have non-municipal water, the most cost effective method is to monitor your filter manually—either with your palate or a water testing kit. Start with routine water tests that look for lead, microorganisms and other contaminants to verify whether your filters are still removing them. For drinking water systems, simply fill a glass with water and check the flavor yourself. You’ll be able to see or taste when the filter is exhausted and no longer purifying your water because the water flavor will be unpleasant.

CHOOSING A FILTER

While there are a variety of sediment filters on the market, these three systems are highly rated and are top performers:

GOOD

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BETTER

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BEST

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For answers to contaminant-related questions, recommendations on the best filter for your home or general drinking water questions, contact us.