Trust what you see, smell and taste—but there’s more
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tests water for less than two dozen different contaminants, but there are thousands of other known contaminants that could impact your water. You just don’t know about them, and you can’t taste, see, or smell most of them. Nevertheless, in certain amounts, they can be harmful to your health.
As a starter, when it comes to water quality, you can definitely trust your senses to alert you to possible impurities. If your water looks bad, smells bad, or tastes bad, it could be an indication of contamination. Your senses can alert you to the potential presence of bacteria, solids, turbidity (like cloudy water), metals, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, toxic substances, and more.
Distribution System: Pipes
In this country, most water piped into homes is “potable”; that is, safe to drink. The untreated water taken from wells, streams, and reservoirs is processed at local water treatment plants, where it is filtered and disinfected with chlorine and, increasingly, with chloramine, a combination of chlorine and ammonia. The treated water then flows through a huge distribution system involving cast iron, lead, galvanized steel, copper, PEX, and PVC pipes, with the latter two being high-grade plastic. PEX is used for plumbing houses, but not approved in all states, and PVC is used solely for irrigation purposes.
The recent news out of Flint, Michigan and the high quantities of lead in their water, has made this topic very relevant today.
In the early 20th century, galvanized iron and steel piping began to replace cast iron and lead in cold-water plumbing. Galvanized steel pipe is coated with zinc to improve its longevity, and it is sometimes coated only on the outside and other times on the inside as well. Because galvanized pipes rust from the inside out, their life expectancy is about 70 years. Degradation occurs over time as plaques build up inside the pipes, which can cause water pressure problems and eventual pipe failure. Additionally, these plaques eventually flake off, leading to visible impurities in water and a slight metallic taste. Since World War II, piping for drinking water has been replaced by copper and PEX, but galvanized steel pipes are still used in outdoor applications that require steel’s superior mechanical strength.
While the galvanizing process (coating with zinc) will inhibit attack of the underlying steel, rusting is inevitable over time, especially if exposed to acidic conditions, marine or salty environments, or sulfur dioxide in the air. In non-corrosive environments, galvanized steel can last up to 100 years.
The distribution system described above can enable other contaminants to enter the water after treatment process. For example, water can pick up metals, such as lead and copper, as it travels through distribution pipes to consumers.
Total Dissolved Solids (TDS): What Are They, and What Do They Mean?
Dissolved solids generally refer to any minerals, salts, metals, and other elements in water other than pure water (H2
O). Some dissolved solids come from organic
sources like leaves, silt, plankton, and industrial waste and sewage, as well as road salts, fertilizers, and pesticides. Other dissolved solids come from inorganic
sources, including rocks.
Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) are measured in parts per million (ppm) and relate directly to the purity and quality of water. Zero TDS is a measure of pure water: two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, H2
A high TDS may create an unpleasant salty, bitter, or metallic taste in drinking water, and it could indicate the presence of toxic minerals. Some of the most common problematic mineral salts include nitrates, sulfates, barium, cadmium, copper, and fluoride.
A high TDS also may indicate hard water. Hard water caused by elevated levels of calcium and magnesium might leave a visible white residue on your bathroom and kitchen fixtures. You may also have difficulty getting your dishes clean or lathering up in the shower. It also makes clean clothes look dingy. Eventually, the hard water buildup will cause premature failure of your pipes, water heater, dishwater, faucets, shower heads, fixtures, and other appliances throughout your home that come in contact with hard water.
Water treatment plants are allowed to release water containing a specific amount of TDS. The EPA recommends a maximum level of 500 ppm for TDS in drinking water. When TDS levels exceed 1000 ppm, it is generally considered unfit for human consumption. When your water is contaminated with TDSs above the permissible range, your water may not only taste unpleasant, but even contain floating specks of debris. A high level of TDS usually indicates potential concerns and warrants further investigation.
As mentioned above, these solids represent both inorganic and organic substances that are small enough to survive filtration through a filter with two-micrometer pores. While TDS is not generally considered a primary pollutant, it can indicate the presence of a broad array of contaminants, as well as other unaesthetic characteristics of drinking water (like turbidity or cloudiness).
These contaminants could
include calcium, phosphates, nitrates, sodium, potassium, and chloride, which are found in nutrient runoff, storm water runoff, and runoff from snowy climates where road de-icing salts are applied. More exotic and harmful elements of TDS include pesticides, fertilizers, and other toxic compounds. Some naturally occurring TDS come from weathering and dissolution of rock and soils, including radon. The United States has established a secondary water quality standard of 500 milligrams per liter to provide for palatability of drinking water—considered safe to drink.
What is NOT measured in TDS are substances in the category called Volatile Organic Chemicals (VOCs), and they are often culprits in ground water contamination. While VOCs can’t be seen, they can be tasted, and some present an unpleasant smell. Examples of VOCs include solvents and refrigerants with chemical names like perchloroethene, trichlorethene, and dichlorodifluoromethane. In recent years, VOCs in the news have included hexavalent chromium, benzene, and perchlorate, which are byproducts of manufacturing processes and have contaminated underground aquifers.
Water delivered to your taps naturally contains a limited amount of manganese, mercury, copper, lead, iron and arsenic at levels deemed safe by the local government. If these levels experience an upward swing, your water may leave orange stains in your sink or tub. Water with higher levels of metals will usually have a strong metallic taste as well. Aging or corroded pipes usually cause the elevated metal levels. Because consuming high concentrations of these metals can be detrimental to your health, it is important to identify and rectify the problem as soon as possible.
Water flowing through treatment plants receive heavy doses of chemicals designed to kill bacteria, eliminate contaminants and restore the liquid to a safe state. Unfortunately, these processes can leave trace amounts of chlorine, chloramine and other disinfectants within the cleansed water. Prolonged contact with chemically treated water can worsen eczema, psoriasis, and other skin conditions.
When individuals and businesses alike pour cleaning products, paint, ink and chemical byproducts down the drain, particles of those substances remain in the local water supply. These substances can also include pharmaceuticals, which many claim are affecting the reproductive capabilities of fish.
Frequent consumption of or contact with those contaminants can have a negative effect on your wellbeing. When chemical levels rise above the safe range, quite often you can directly smell and taste the substances within the water.
Untreated water from wells, streams, or runoff can become fertile environment for problematic bacteria, which can grow unhindered at an alarming rate, reproducing millions overnight.
Bacteria-laden water often has a musty, dirty, or even fishy smell. Heavy bacteria growth can also lead to the emission of hydrogen sulfide gases, which make your water taste and smell like rotten eggs.
Microbes undetectable to the senses have the potential to contaminate the water supply as well. Giardia, cryptosporidium and e. coli, for example—all from human and animal fecal waste—can cause gastrointestinal upset without any detectable signs of their presence in water. Both giardia and cryptosporidium are microscopic parasites,
protected by an outer shell, are able to survive outside the body for long periods of time, which also makes them tolerant to chlorine disinfection. While the parasites can be spread in different ways, drinking water and recreational water are the most common modes of transmission.
Municipal and Well Water Sources
Most people in the United State have access to water that is treated by municipalities, while fewer people, often in more remote areas or on large land plots, get their water from wells, which sometimes must be treated. Wells are supposed to be sealed by thick walls of concrete according to building codes in California to avoid contamination from neighboring septic systems, pastures, chemical fertilizers from farmland, and other sources of contamination. Because water conditions can change over time, it is recommended that most wells be tested periodically for water quality.
One word of caution to well water users: improper use of water filtration systems to improve the taste and smell of well water, especially if involves activated carbon, can actually introduce bacteria into your drinking water system because the carbon collects organics, which can become a breeding ground for bacteria and cause serious illness to those who drink the water.
What To Do Next: Call and Expert and Test Your Water
Different types of filtration systems are effective in removing contaminants from drinking water. Professional labs can test your water for a fee and provide a detailed report of the contaminants in your water. If you want or need the best-tasting and highest-quality water for your home or business, please contact De Anza Water Conditioning at 408.371.5521 for a free, on-site consultation
, as well as a referral to a professional lab for a comprehensive water analysis.