Water Quality Testing

Trouble on tap..What's really in your Water?

Most of our nation's water may be safe most of the time, but the exceptions are frightening

Consider the traumatic episode last April in Milwaukee when a microscopic parasite called cryptosporidium contaminated the water supply. An estimated 400,000 fell ill and nearly 50 died as an indirect result.

An isolated incident? Perhaps. But Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) records indicate there's trouble at the tap for Americans. A recent study revealed that 43 percent of the nation's water systems serving about 120 million people regularly violate requirements set down in the Safe Water Drinking Act.

This is troubling because sources of pollution are everywhere. Rusting underground tanks slowly leak chemicals and gasoline into our groundwater. Fertilizers and pesticides routinely wash off farm fields into rivers, lakes, and streams. Old landfills leach toxins. Homeowners dump millions of gallons of hazardous chemicals down the drain or onto the ground.

Readers voiced their concerns about clean water in a Family Forum survey published in the March 1993 issue of Betten Homes and Gardens[R] magazine. Survey respondents identified water pollution as the country's worst environmental problem.

There's no need for panic, but every reason for precaution. Fortunately, there are steps homeowners can take to protect themselves, even where government agencies are letting us down.

Reducing your family's exposure to these environmental risks requires that you find out what toxins may be in your water and, if necessary, get rid of them. You don't have to be a scientist, you just have to invest a few hours of effort. You may have to buy some equipment, but the most expensive systems are no more costly than a home water softener and they can provide your family with a reassuring margin of safety.

First, you need to know if pollutants are in your water. If you get your water from a public source, you can avoid expensive water testing by asking utility officials for their water quality analysis. It will list the names and the levels of contaminants affecting your religion. Lead is the only exception. Because it usually infiltrates water through a household's pipes and fixtures, lead tests must be done at your tap. Reliable, inexpensive lead test kits are available at hardware stores. One precaution: Beware of sales-people offering in-home water tests. Too often these are scams designed only to turn on the money tap.

If you get your water from a private well, contact your region's public health office for test guidance.

Buying a filter. After you know what's in your water, you can buy a filtration or purification system for your home. Systems combining several features are often necessary. Common equipment choices include:

* Carbon filters. These may be mounted at the faucet or under the counter for the removal of many chemicals, dangerous organic compounds, pesticides, radon, and unpleasant odors from water. Prices range from $50 to $300.

* Reverse-osmosis filters. These clean out lead, nitrates, pesticides, and many organic compounds by forcing water through microscopically fine screens. While effective, even the best systems use three gallons of water to produce one drinkable gallon. Prices range from about $400 to $1,000 and annual maintenance can run as high as $150.

* Distillation. For removal of lead and other metals, distillers are the choice. You'll pay $200 to $600.

Questions? For more information about such issues as testing or equipment, call the EPA's safe drinking water hotline: 800/426-4791. For a complete listing of equipment, write the National Sanitation Foundation, 3475 Plymouth Road, Ann Arbor, MI 48105.

Radon in your water?

What about Radon in Well water?

Underground well water can transport the radon from the soil into the house, when taking a shower, doing laundry, or washing dishes. The EPA says it takes about 10,000 pCi/L of radon in water to contribute 1.0 pCi/L of radon in air throughout the house. The ratio of radon in water to radon in bathroom air while showering can be much higher, typically from 100 to 1; to about 300 to 1. The average Colorado well tests about 3,000 pCi/L with one well testing more than 3,000,000 pCi/L.

What about Radon in city water?

If your water comes from a municipal reservoir supply, you need not worry about radon in the water. When radon in water is stored in a reservoir for more than 30 days, the radon decays away to practically nothing. Every 3.825 days half the radon disappears through natural radioactive decay.