How Is Water Quality Defined? What to Know About the Safety of Your Drinking Water

Levels of bacteria, solid particulates, salinity, and dissolved oxygen — these all affect water quality. Read on to find out more.

Darrell Smith
08.2019
Water Quality
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Did you know that less than 1% of the fresh water on earth is easily accessible to human beings? Shocking, right?

The rate of water pollution is ever rising, and the effects are devastating. Every year, the deaths caused by unsafe water far exceed those that result from war and other forms of violence put together.

So, water quality continues to be a subject that generates huge interest. But how is water quality defined? And more importantly, how safe is the water that you’re drinking?

How Is Water Quality Defined?

Water quality refers to the state of water in regards to its chemical, physical, and biological features, especially with respect to how suitable it is for a certain purpose like drinking, swimming, or growing plants.

Measuring Water Quality

How exactly is water quality measured? Well, experts take several factors taken into consideration:

  • Concentration of dissolved oxygen
  • Salinity of the water
  • Levels of bacteria
  • Levels of TDS (total dissolved solids)

When dealing with certain bodies of water, the concentration of the following materials is also measured to determine the quality of water:

  • Pesticides
  • Herbicides
  • Heavy metals

While scientific measurements are usually used to determine the quality of water, it’s not always easy to label a certain sample of water as good and another sample as bad. The determination, as previously stated, must always be done in relation to what the water is intended for: for example, is the purpose of the water for drinking or cleaning a floor?

Quality of Drinking Water

When we're dealing with drinking water, safety and purity are paramount. If your body is deprived of clean water, you'll almost certainly be dead within five days. Water also plays a myriad of vital roles in your body, including regulating your body temperature, removal of waste, and joint lubrication.

That’s why you need enough water per day to replace what you lose through exhaling, sweating, urinating, and maintaining other bodily processes.

However, drinking unsafe or impure water can do harm to your body and damage those processes, which is why ensuring the safety and quality of the water you and your family drink should be a top priority.

How Safe Is Tap Water?

Generally speaking, the tap water in homes across America is considered safe if it's supplied and maintained by a public municipal or regional water system. There are stringent health standards set forth by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) to make sure that the water coming from your tap is safe.

How Does Water Get Contaminated?

Accidents, equipment failures, or maintenance breakdowns can result in contamination of your water supply. Contaminants can include the following:

  • Microorganisms such as parasites and bacteria from fecal matter
  • Chemicals from industrial waste and farms
  • Nitrates from fertilizers
  • Minerals like mercury from underground deposits or poor disposal of pollutants
  • Lead from old pipes

All these contaminants pose serious health risks to people. To make sure that the levels of contaminants remain safe, the EPA provides minimum testing schedules for certain pollutants.

The Quality and Safety of Well Water

Private wells, not public water providers, are the main source of drinking water for about 13 million households in the US. Since the EPA doesn’t regulate private wells, if you use well water, it’s imperative that you take the necessary steps to guarantee the quality of your drinking water.

Here are several factors to consider and examine:

  • The manner in which your well was built
  • The location of your well
  • How well you maintain it
  • The quality of the aquifer water supplying your well
  • The potentially polluting activities ongoing in your area

To make sure that your well water stays safe, it’s best to contact local experts to have the water tested regularly. Make sure that any problems you notice are promptly addressed.

How Safe Is Your Bottled Water?

Americans purchase about 42.6 billion individual one-liter bottles of water annually, with the figure increasing steadily each year.

Why is the use of bottled water so popular in the country? One answer is that people generally see bottled water as being safer than tap water. Interestingly, though, while the EPA and your local water provider regulate and purify your tap water, the same isn’t the case with bottled water.

The FDA regulates bottled water, but doesn't require that bottled water undergo a mandatory testing program the same way the EPA does for tap water.

The FDA can order a recall for bottled water in case a problem has been identified, but the fact is that, in general, tap water is cleaner and safer than bottled water.

The Safety of Drinking Water Fountains

Drinking fountains are found in many public places around the country, especially in schools where students are encouraged to drink water instead of unhealthy sugary beverages. The benefits of drinking water from a drinking fountain are many:

  • Free: Bottled water can be pricey in some cities, with restaurants charging as much as $4 for a single bottle. Drinking water from a fountain costs you nothing.
  • Accessible: Given that drinking fountains are so widespread, you can easily find one when you need to refill your water bottle on the go.
  • Eco-Friendly: Disposable water bottles add a staggering amount of plastic waste to our planet. Also, manufacturing all of those disposable bottles greatly increases carbon dioxide emissions and drives global temperatures up. Drinking from a water fountain helps reduce reliance on water bottles and your carbon footprint.
  • Low Maintenance: Fountains are designed to last a long time, requiring only an occasional water filter replacement.

But the big question is whether drinking fountains are safe to drink from or not. Contrary to popular belief, the presence of pathogens and contaminants in a drinking fountain doesn't automatically mean there's a health issue.

Other factors that must be taken into account include the type of pathogen/contaminant, the level of exposure, the duration of exposure, and the health vulnerability of those who drink from the fountain.

In fact, very few studies have linked any kind of a sickness or disease outbreak with contaminated drinking fountains.

According to a comprehensive report on drinking fountains and public health, “Overall, the identified health risks of water fountains are limited, especially when looking at the public drinking water system as a whole.”

So, use drinking fountains frequently and avoid buying disposable water bottles.

What If Water Gets Contaminated?

Although it's highly unlikely, if contaminants somehow make their way into your drinking water, they can cause illnesses and other issues. For instance:

  • Lead causes physical and mental problems
  • Cryptosporidium causes gastrointestinal disease
  • Nitrates are an immediate threat to infants, hindering the transportation of oxygen by the blood

Once contaminants are detected in your water in levels that pose a health risk to people, they need to be addressed right away.

How Can You Get Rid of Those Contaminants?

You’ve certainly heard that boiling water can make it safe for drinking, but how true is that? Well, it depends on what contaminant is in the water. Germs can be killed through boiling, but lead, pesticides, and nitrates remain unaffected.

Against these contaminants, it’s best to use other purification methods such as reverse osmosis, distillation, and ion exchange.

Final Thoughts

If you're concerned about your water supply and want to learn more about testing, filtering, and purifying your water, please read the other articles in WaterZen's blog section. Providing such information is one of the main reasons this website exists.

WaterZen

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, what you're informed about the quality of your water and then empowered to protect your family (and your community), you've achieved "water zen".