How Often Do You Need Water-Quality Testing?
When was the last time you had the quality of your water tested? Here's how often you need to invest in water-quality testing for your home.
Each year, an estimated 4-32 million cases of gastrointestinal illnesses (GI) occur in the US due to unsafe water. Worse, this figure is only for cases caused by public drinking water and doesn't include private wells, recreational water, irrigation, etc.
Of all acute GI cases, waterborne pathogens account for 8.5% to 12%. Chemicals and heavy metals are also common culprits behind these diseases.
From diarrhea to hypertension and even cancer, contaminated water can be the chief cause. Unfortunately, water contaminants aren't always visible or tangible. Sometimes, toxic water can taste just like potable water.
This is why you should regularly test the quality of your water to determine how safe it is and if it contains contaminants or chemicals.
The questions we want to address here are: How often should you be running these water quality tests? And how do you even conduct these tests?
How Often Should You Perform "Routine" Testing?
The Environmental Protection Agency recommends testing water quality at least once a year. The test should cover contaminants like total coliform bacteria, nitrates, pH levels, and total dissolved solids.
Below are more details of these common water contaminants and why you should test for them.
Total Coliform Bacteria
Most total coliform bacteria are harmless as they're widely present in the environment. However, their presence in water can mean that pathogens are also in the water. Pathogens are disease-causing organisms such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites.
If your water tests positive for total coliform bacteria, then you should also test for E. coli. Not all E. coli strains are dangerous, but some are, especially those that produce Shiga toxin. In the US, the most common Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) is the E. coli O157:H7 strain.
This strain causes 36% of the estimated 265,000 STEC infections that occur in the US each year. Regardless of the strain, STEC infections can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps. Some are merely mild infections, while others can be deadly.
Nitrate (NO3) is a chemical classified as an acute contaminant. Its main sources are manure, fertilizers, and liquid waste from septic tanks, and it can leak into the soil and mix with groundwater through rain or irrigation water.
NO3 is usually harmless unless it exceeds the standard of 10 milligrams per liter (mg/L). Moreover, natural bacteria found in soil can turn it into nitrite, which could be toxic.
Either way, exposure to high levels of nitrate can affect humans by reducing the red blood cells' ability to carry oxygen.
In adults, this isn't life-threatening because the blood cells return to normal right away. However, babies' bodies are too underdeveloped to counter the effects. Babies exposed to too much NO3 can develop a condition known as "blue baby syndrome."
The pH level of water indicates if it's acidic, neutral, or alkaline. The higher the pH level, the more alkaline the water, and the lower the pH level, the more acidic it is. You want your drinking water to have a pH level of 6.5 to 8.5 because the neutral level is 7.
Any lower or higher than that, and it could mean that you have contaminated water, especially if it's acidic (below 6.5) and more likely to have higher levels of contaminants. Moreover, it can damage metal pipes and cause leakage of toxic chemicals into the water.
Total Dissolved Solids (TDS)
Sewage, water runoff, wastewater, and chemicals can increase the TDS (total dissolved solids) level of water. Salt deposits, such as those from road salt, can also increase the TDS content in water.
High levels of TDS can make water corrosive, which can then damage your pipes. It can also be an indication of higher levels of arsenic, lead, and nitrate in water.
Situations that Call for More Frequent Water Quality Testing
Changes in Appearance
Test your water at least twice a year if it changes color. This could be a sudden greenish, brownish, or reddish hue that can indicate algae growth. Red and brown water can result from high levels of iron in the water. Yellowing of water could be due to excessive dissolved organic matter.
Your Water Tastes “Weird”
Water can taste "weird" in many ways, such as being "moldy", "fishy", pool-like, sweet, salty, or bitter. The causes can range from algal blooms to high chlorine or metal content.
These odd tastes don't always mean they're harmful, but they can be a sign of contamination. In such cases, run a water-quality test at least twice a year.
A Rotten Egg Smell
If your water smells like rotten eggs, there's likely hydrogen sulfide gas present, which means you have a lot of sulfur bacteria in your water, especially if it's groundwater.
Granted, hydrogen sulfide in water has no known health effects, but it can still corrode pipes made of brass, copper, iron, and steel. When this happens, your water can turn a shade of black and even feel slick or greasy.
Test your water at least twice a year if you notice these stinky odors. This way, you can take the necessary steps to pipe damage.
If There's a Pregnant or Nursing Mom in Your Household
Get your water tested at least every six months if you have a newborn in your household. The same goes if there's a pregnant woman or a nursing mom in your family because they're more vulnerable to the hazards of contaminated water.
You Have Plumbing Fixtures Manufactured before 2014
In the US, 20% of lead exposure is due to lead in water. In babies, this goes up to 40% to 60%.
One of the main ways that lead can get into your water supply is through plumbing materials and fixtures. When these corrode, they can leach lead into the water. Acidic water or water with low mineral levels is more likely to corrode these materials.
Again, children are the most vulnerable because even low lead levels can be harmful to them, causing serious developmental and behavioral problems, anemia, and hearing problems.
Pregnant women exposed to lead are also at risk of giving premature birth. Their babies may also be born smaller than normal.
In adults, lead exposure can result in high blood pressure and other heart problems as well as malfunction of the kidneys and the reproductive system.
The problem is that plumbing materials made before January 01, 2014 still contain at least 8% lead. If your home contains any of these "outdated" materials, it's best to test your water quality at least twice a year.
When to Perform Immediate Testing of Your Water Quality
There are some situations when you should test your water quality right away. Below are a few examples of such events.
Construction at Home or Nearby
You should carry out water-quality testing during and after construction projects. The same goes if there’s a construction site near your home. Metals and chemicals used in building projects can contaminate your water supply.
A Chemical or Oil Spill
Chemical or oil spills may not be that common, but their effects can linger for decades. If you're planning to move into a new area where such an event occurred, get your water tested first. And of course, run a water-quality test ASAP if something like this happened recently in your area.
After a Huge Storm or Flooding
Water from storms and floods can carry pollutants and contaminants. The storm or flood water could have passed by surfaces tainted with toxic chemicals. All types of water supply systems, be they public or private, are at risk of contamination.
If a recent storm or flood affected your area, be sure to test your water quality ASAP.
How to Test Water Quality: Your Options
(Note: these unofficial categories have been invented by WaterZen to help clarify the water-testing process. They're not used or endorsed by the EPA, CDC, or any other government agency or private corporation.)
Category I water testing kits are economical and give you the results right at home, although they only test for a few types of contaminants. There are also contaminant-specific kits that you can use, such as lead-testing kits.
For more accurate results, consider using a Category II kit, which require you to send a sample of your water to a lab. These kits test for more contaminants than Category I kind.
For the highest level of accuracy, contact a state-certified and -accredited laboratory. You either have to collect a water sample and send it to them, or they'll have a technician go to your home. These Category III tests are the most expensive, but they're also the most reliable.
Find Out the Truth about Your Water Now
There you have it, your ultimate guide on how often you should perform water-quality testing. Once a year should be the minimum, but do it more often if you have family members who are more vulnerable.
If you've never had your water tested, then now is the perfect time to do so. Start by searching for your water provider in our database and contacting them. Your local supplier is a great source of information about the quality of your water.
WaterZen exists to improve your family's health by making information about the water you drink more accessible, straightforward, and easy-to-understand. We do this by providing clear, simple water-quality information for your area based on data from your local water provider, unbiased comparisons, health standards, and expert opinions.
The way we see it, when you're informed about the quality of your water and then empowered to protect your family (and your community), you've achieved "water zen".