We’ve learned to trust it. Whether it’s when we turn on the kitchen tap, take a shower, water the lawn, or brush our teeth, we’re counting on the water that comes out of the faucet to be safe, clean, and free from pollutants. We’re talking about potable, or drinking, water: the water you drink and use in your home that comes from a public water system or a private well. We cook with it, shower in it and, of course, drink it. But how do we know it’s safe?
Depending on where you live, your drinking water comes from various sources. It could be from a river, lake, stream, or reservoir – or, in some cases, from deep in the earth.
Regardless of the source, water treatment plants in your municipality clean the water to make it safe. Each region’s water has a unique combination of naturally-occurring minerals, which is why it tastes and feels different depending on where you are (it may also affect residue left behind on your shower head, as well as how your body processes it, for some, resulting in kidney stones). Some of us drink water that comes from deep in the earth in the form of “groundwater,” while others drink water that originates as “surface water” in streams and rivers. Rural areas may receive water from individual and public, “community” wells (a hole drilled deep into the ground to access aquifer water). Both sources are vulnerable to pollutants. These pollutants are most commonly soil, nutrients, and bacteria.
All water has some level of contamination. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set safe levels for more than 90 contaminants that pose a risk to human health. At low levels, these do not harm you, but if certain levels rise, they can cause health problems. Arsenic and lead are the chief concerns. If you live in a metro area, generally your water is tested regularly. In rural areas, where a large part of the water supply is from private wells, testing can be non-existent or sporadic, raising the risk in these locales. If you live in an older home with lead pipes, it’s important to be aware of the risk. You should monitor your water and add anti-corrosive agents when necessary to prevent pipes from leaking lead into the water as it passes through your home.
There are steps we can all take to mitigate problems with water. Never pour cleaning products, medicines, paint, or lawn care products down the drain. Throw grease, diapers, and personal hygiene products in the garbage can, and always clean up after your pets. If your water comes from a well, test the water annually for any trace of nitrates or other contaminants. Local and state health agencies, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), offer information on how to reduce your exposure. You can also check the quality of your area’s water by reading the local Consumer Confidence Report. The EPA encourages all citizens to take an active role in protecting their water on a local level, while the National Water-Quality Assessment Project is a great way to review where, when, and why the nation’s water quality has changed, including human and natural factors. Their website includes useful maps and publications to understand more about your area’s water status.