How to Test Your Drinking Water (And Why You Should Do It)
While we would love to be able to trust the liquid flowing from our faucets, anyone who pays even half-hearted attention to the news knows that we can no longer expect safety in our drinking water unless we confirm it ourselves.
The EPA and Michigan’s Gov. Snyder have now added to the list of reasons that I have trust issues. Water is one of the most important survival topics around – it’s so important to me that I wrote an entire book about it.
Every day, new horrors are being uncovered in relation to the drinking water in Flint, Michigan. Residents of the city have been drinking water that was presumably safe for the past year without knowing that it was actually contaminated with chemical byproducts, E. coli, Legionnaires’ disease and lead. It appears that both the EPA and the governor of Michigan knew the water was unsafe for quite some time, but no one said a word to warn the people of Flint. To heap insult onto injury, the water company has had the audacity to bill people for the poisoned water and has even sent out shut-off notices.
So, do you really think you can trust the water flowing from your own taps? If Flint was the last straw for you, it’s time to take matters into your own hands and test your drinking water for contaminants. Whether your water source is private or municipal, the onus for your family’s safety is on you.
Where to get a water testing kit
Water testing kits are readily available on Amazon.
- The Watersafe Well Water Test Kit was specifically designed to help you test quickly and easily for the 10 most common contaminants found in private well water, including: iron, copper, lead, bacteria, pesticides, nitrates, nitrites, chlorine, pH and hardness. (order here)
- The PurTest Home Water Analysis kit is a comprehensive EPA-based test kit that allows you to quickly and easily test your drinking water for various contaminants and conditions. Tests included: 1 test each for bacteria, lead, & pesticide. Two (2) tests each for iron, alkalinity, pH, hardness, chlorine, copper, nitrate & nitrite. (order here)
- The Essential Indicators test is the most thorough, but you have to send the water to their lab to get the results. The test checks for 170 health-related contaminants including Volatile Organic Compounds, Essential Elements, Heavy Metals and Inorganic Chemicals. You simply fill the bottles with your tap water and return them to our lab using the same box you received with the test kit. Within about 6 business days you will receive an email containing the results of your water test along with recommended treatment suggestions if a problem was found. The one family of contaminants that you will test for yourself are pathogenic bacteria, which, if present, can cause infectious diseases. (order here)
From a preparedness perspective, it makes sense to keep a few of these DIY kits on hand in the event you need to test water during a disaster situation. (Obviously, not the one you have to send off to a lab.)
Be sure to also test the pH of your water. Your water’s pH level is very important because if it is too low or too high, it can cause corrosion of lead and copper from household plumbing. To be safe, drinking water should not have a pH lower than 6.5 or greater than 8.5.
Following, please find an excerpt from my book, The Prepper’s Water Survival Guide. Chapter 9 of the book discusses the importance of testing your own water, how to do it, and what to test for.
…We’ve already discussed the infinite possibilities for contaminants in water sources. Bacteria, viruses, parasites, nitrate, PPCPs, and toxic chemicals could be lurking beneath the surface of virtually any water source you can think of. It is safest to assume at least some of those pollutants and impurities are present and plan accordingly.
Even if you are getting presumably safe “city water” from a municipal supply, you should be provided with an annual report that explains what kind of testing was done on your water and what was found, if anything. Of course, if you aren’t the trusting type, you can still test that water yourself as an added precaution.
If you have a well or are collecting water from a source that is not monitored and regulated, you will need to take responsibility for testing and purifying your water yourself.
Studies have shown that around 50 percent of private water systems fail at least one drinking water standard.
Many common pollutants do not cause water to smell, taste, or look funny, so you can’t rely on your senses to determine safety.
Water is a “universal solvent,” meaning that it has the ability to dissolve almost anything it comes into contact with. This characteristic means that it is very easily contaminated.
Most testing isn’t expensive, and the time and financial investment will provide you with priceless peace of mind. Not only is your family’s health at stake, there are possible legal consequences involved. Think about how litigious our society is: If someone consumes your water and becomes ill, you’ll want to be able to prove that you conducted the proper testing on a regular basis. And, should you suspect your water supply has become contaminated by an outside source, you’ll want to have documentation to support your case.
You can test your water yourself or have a professional lab or service do it for you. Drinking water quality test kits are available for purchase online and at most superstores and home improvement stores. Basic kits usually test for bacteria, lead, nitrates/nitrites, pesticides, chlorine, hardness, and pH. They are fast, simple to use, and inexpensive. Your test kit will have instructions specific to that kit. Kits that test for less-common contaminants are also available. Some test for 15 or more contaminants, including the ones in the basic testing kits, plus iron, sulfate, copper, and sulfide.
Even more in-depth testing kits are available, but most of them require you to send your samples to a professional lab. Most of them check your water for around 100 different contaminants, including volatile organic compounds, toxic metals, heavy metals, and bacteria. The pricing for these comprehensive kits is typically in the $100 range, and results can take about a week to receive.
What to Test For
At a bare minimum, you should test your water once a year for coliform bacteria and nitrates because of the serious health risks associated with those contaminants.
It is best to test for nitrate during the spring or summer following a rainy period, if possible.
If someone in your household becomes pregnant, test your water supply for nitrate in early months of the pregnancy. Test it again before bringing a newborn home, and again during the first six months of the baby’s life. Remember, in the body, nitrate is converted into nitrite, which can cause brain damage and death in infants because it reduces the amount of oxygen in the baby’s blood. .
Test for total dissolved solids and pH every one to three years. These tests will provide you with an overall picture of the health of your water. The total dissolved solids content of drinking water should be below 500 milligrams per liter (mg/L). This value should not change much from test to test. If it does, further testing is necessary because it is likely that pollution has occurred.
Lead is a naturally-occurring element that can be found in air, soil, and water. Lead from natural sources is present in tap water to some extent, but analysis of both surface and groundwater suggests that lead concentration is generally fairly low. The main source of lead in drinking water is (old) lead piping and lead-combining solders. Homes that were built before 1986 are more likely to have pipes made of lead, but even “lead-free” piping can contain up to 8 percent lead. If you don’t have lead pipes in your house, your water probably doesn’t contain any; it is rarely found in source water.
Even though it is unlikely that your water supply contains lead (unless you have lead pipes), testing for it is a good idea.
Lead can damage various systems of the body, including the nervous and reproductive systems, the kidneys, and the bones. It also can cause high blood pressure and anemia and can interfere with the body’s use of calcium and vitamin D. High amounts of lead in the blood of children can cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and mental retardation, all of which may be irreversible. At very high levels, lead can cause convulsions, coma, and death.
If your water source tests positive for lead, you’ll need to use a filtration system that is certified for lead removal or find a safer drinking water source.
Something else you don’t want in your water supply is arsenic. This naturally-occurring element is found in rocks, soil, water, air, plants, and animals. Natural events like volcanic activity, forest fires, and erosion of rocks can cause it to be actively released into the environment. Arsenic is also used in agricultural and industrial practices and is used in some fertilizers, paints, dyes, metals, drugs, and soaps. It is also used as a wood preservative and can be released by mining and coal burning.
Arsenic is highly toxic and can affect nearly every organ system in the body.
There are short- and long-term health effects associated with arsenic exposure. Some effects appear within hours or days of exposure, and others develop over many years.
Long-term exposure to arsenic through drinking contaminated water can cause chronic arsenic poisoning, leading to life-long problems. This most commonly affects the skin in the form of lesions, discolorations, thickening, and cancer. Cancer of the bladder, lungs, prostate, kidneys, nasal passages, and liver are other possible devastating diseases arsenic can cause.
Arsenic can also affect the cardiovascular, pulmonary, immunological, neurological (with symptoms including numbness and partial paralysis), reproductive, and endocrine systems.
Severe arsenic poisoning can cause vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. These symptoms are followed by numbness and tingling of the extremities, muscle cramping, and, in extreme cases, death.
Water that contains high amounts of arsenic should not be used for drinking, cooking, or watering crops. Plants can take up arsenic through their roots, causing the product of the plant to contain high levels of arsenic, which is then passed on to the person or animal who consumes it. Rice has been found to have particularly high levels of arsenic, so much so that many holistic nutrition experts recommend eating rice infrequently or not at all.
Groundwater sources tend to have higher levels of arsenic than surface water sources. That’s because the demand on groundwater is usually higher. It is more commonly used in municipal systems and private wells. This heavy use can cause water levels to drop, allowing arsenic to be released from rock formations.
Certain regions of the United States tend to have higher levels of arsenic in their water supplies. The EPA’s standard is 10 parts per billion (ppb), and some western states have levels that are higher than that. Some parts of the Midwest and New England have levels that high, or close to it.
Because of this toxic element’s prevalence in the environment, testing your water source for arsenic contamination is a good idea. Most home-testing kits cost less than $15, and you’ll see your results within minutes.
Radon is a gas that comes from the natural radioactive breakdown of uranium in the ground. It has no color, odor, or taste. Radon can dissolve and accumulate in groundwater, which means it can be found in water from wells. Not all groundwater contains radon, but drinking water that contains it can cause internal organ cancers like stomach cancer.
You can buy a simple kit to test your water source for radon, or you can contact your state radon office for assistance.
Fluoride is an ionic compound that contains a reactive element called fluorine. It is naturally found in many rocks
Because it is believed to protect teeth from decay, it has been added to public water supplies since the 1940s. By 1960, water fluoridation had become widely used in the US, reaching about 50 million people. This is also the main reason my family never, ever consumes municipal water if we are in an area that deliberately adds the compound to the public supply.
The incidence of tooth decay has declined in the United States since fluoridation began; however, it has also declined in other countries that do not fluoridate. Many argue the reduction in tooth decay is because of more accessible dental care and better dental hygiene, not water fluoridation.
Backing them up is research conducted within the last 15 years that has shown that fluoride primarily works topically, such as when it is applied to the teeth in toothpaste that contains fluoride.
Water fluoridation has been the subject of much controversy, and for good reason. Studies have shown that fluoride intake may cause a startling array of serious health problems, including increased risk of bone fractures, thyroid disorders, impaired immune system functioning, and cardiovascular disease. There is also some evidence that fluoride can cause osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer. Researchers suspect a connection to cancer because half of ingested fluoride is deposited in bones, and fluoride stimulates growth in the end of bones, where osteosarcoma occurs.
A study published in the fall of 2012 in Environmental Health Perspectives found a link between high fluoride levels found naturally in drinking water in China and elsewhere in the world, and lower IQs in children. The paper looked at the results of 27 different studies, 26 of which found a link between high-fluoride drinking water and lower IQ. The average IQ difference between high and low fluoride areas was 7 points, the study found.
Children aged eight years and younger have an increased chance of developing dental fluorosis. In mild cases, this shows in white streaks on the teeth. In severe cases, it can include brown stains, pitting, and broken enamel. As of 2010, 41 percent of children from ages 12 to 15 had some level of dental fluorosis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Fluoride consumption over a lifetime may increase the likelihood of bone fractures, and may result in skeletal fluorosis, a painful and potentially crippling disease. The EPA has determined that safe exposure of fluoride is below 4 mg/L in drinking water to avoid those effects.
Naturally occurring fluoride concentrations in surface waters are generally low, but that depends on location. However, groundwater can contain much higher levels than the 4 mg/L recommended maximum.
Community water systems in areas with levels higher than that are required to lower the fluoride level below the acceptable standard. But the levels in private water sources, such as wells, may still be higher.
This means you will need to test your well water for fluoride, and will need to remove the fluoride if your levels are above 4 mg/L.
When Should You Test Your Water?
Even if your water is crystal-clear, odorless, and tastes great, you still should test it for contaminants and pollutants on a regular basis. But sometimes there are signs that your water supply may need to be tested even more frequently. Here are some of those signs, and what they might mean.
Taste and Odor
- Strong chlorine taste or smell. Generally this occurs when the water is treated at a water treatment plant to disinfect it and kill off bacteria and other harmful microorganisms.
- Metallic taste. Some water systems have a high mineral concentration, resulting in a salty or soda-like taste. In the case of iron and manganese, a strong metallic taste is noticeable.
- Rotten egg smell. This is usually a result of decaying organic material underground. As water flows through these areas, hydrogen sulfide gas is picked up. When the water reaches the surface or comes out of your faucet, the gas is released into the air. Hydrogen sulfide gas is what produces the rotten egg smell. In large enough quantities, it is toxic to aquarium fish. You’ll be able to taste as little as 0.5 parts per million (ppm) in your water. If your water smells like rotten eggs, it also may indicate the presence of bacteria.
- Musty or other unnatural or unusual smells. These smells are normally a result of organic matter or even some pesticides in the water supply. Even very low amounts can make your water smell funny.
- Turpentine taste or odor. This smell can be a result of MTBE contamination in your water. MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether) is a flammable, colorless liquid fuel oxygenate chemical that dissolves easily in water. MTBE is added to gasoline to increase its oxygen content to lower carbon monoxide and other air pollutants that are emitted from vehicles. While MTBE may help reduce air pollutants, it certainly isn’t good for your drinking water. It spreads quickly through water and can easily contaminate it. This includes private drinking water systems like wells. Even a small amount will make your water undrinkable. According to the EPA, MTBE has not been used in significant quantities in gasoline since 2005. But groundwater in some areas of the US might still contain MTBE. It can enter water sources through leaking underground or aboveground gas storage tanks and pipelines, as well as from gasoline spills. It isn’t known if MTBE causes health problems in humans, so it is best not to drink water that contains it.
Your drinking water should be clear. Here is a list of possible coloration issues you way encounter, and what they may indicate.
- Red or brown. A red, brown, or rusty color is generally a sign of iron or manganese in your water. Iron in your water may cause stains in sinks or your laundry. A bit more on iron and manganese: While these metallic elements may cause frustration if they stain your laundry or sinks, they generally are not harmful to health. But it is important to find out what type of iron is contaminating your water. That’s because there are three kinds: ferrous iron, ferric iron, and iron bacteria. You’ll want to treat your water to remove all three, but especially iron bacteria, because while they are not known to cause disease, they often help create an environment that is friendly to more harmful types of bacteria. Iron bacteria can also make your water taste and smell terrible. If you notice a cucumber or sewage-like smell coming from your water, the likely source is iron bacteria.
- Yellow. This color occurs in regions where the water has passed through marshlands and then moved through peat soils. In the United States, this is more likely to occur in the Southeast, Northwest, New England, and Great Lakes regions. It is more commonly found in surface water supplies and shallow wells. Although the yellow color may be displeasing, it presents no health hazard, as it is only small particles suspended in the water.
- Blue or green. A green or blue color generally indicates that there is copper in your water supply, or copper pipes and corrosive water. The copper can cause staining of your fixtures and your laundry. Copper is regulated in drinking water by the EPA at 1.3 ppm. This is at a low enough concentration that the copper won’t be tasted (the taste threshold is around 5 ppm). However, copper can become a problem if it is higher than 30 ppm in your water. At this level, copper can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and general gastrointestinal issues. If you are using well water as your primary source of water and copper is a concern in your area, it would be to your advantage to have your water tested for copper.
- Cloudy, white, or foamy. Cloudy water is usually due to turbidity. Turbidity is caused by finely divided particles in the water. When light hits the water, it is scattered, giving a cloudy look to the water. The particles may be of either organic or inorganic in nature. Cloudiness itself isn’t dangerous, but the cause of it may be.
Other Reasons to Test Your Drinking Water
- There is recurring gastrointestinal distress in your family or visiting guests.
- You are pregnant or have a child less than six months old living in your household.
- Your well is next to a septic tank, and it is questionable if the septic tank is placed far enough away from your well.
- Your property has an underground storage tank that is close to your well.
- Your property has a leaking gas tank that is next to your well.
- You have a new well and want to test the purity of your water.
- Your well is next to an area where livestock are kept.
- You have mixed pesticides or other chemicals near your well, or accidentally dropped these into your well.
- You have noticed an increased amount of turbidity (cloudiness) in your water.
- Your property is near a chemical plant, a gas station (either abandoned or not), mining operation, landfill or dump, dry cleaner, junkyard, heavily salted roadway, or oil or gas drilling company.