What Is Potable Water? Everything You Need to Know

Are you curious about potable water? About what it is and what makes it so? If yes, check out this complete guide to potable water.

Darrell Smith
02.2020 in Water Quality
What Is Potable Water? What Is Potable Water?

We often take our water systems for granted, and it's easy to understand why. With advances in technology, our water treatment methods have become much more effective.

But even though technology has greatly improved the quality of our drinking water, water treatment isn't perfect.

The CDC recently reported that "although the US has one of the safest drinking water systems in the world, there are an estimated 4-32 million cases of acute gastrointestinal illness (AGI) per year from public drinking water systems." That doesn't even include the cases of waterborne illness cases caused by wells or direct sources of untreated water.

Waterborne illnesses occur when drinking water that was supposed to be potable turn out to be contaminated. But what is potable water, and how can we be sure our water is okay to use?

So What is Potable Water?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines potable as "suitable for drinking.” We collect water through two main sources: surface water collection occurs overground (such as lakes and rivers), while groundwater is collected through aquifers and other water sources running underground.

The water collected through these methods is then processed and made potable in different ways. Surface water is collected and piped to water treatment centers where the water is disinfected and sent through a complex filtration system to remove sediment and harmful particles.

Groundwater experiences a different treatment plan. Living organisms have difficulty surviving without air or light, so they're rarely found in underground water. Because of this, groundwater doesn't usually require as much treatment, but this doesn't necessarily make it a safer choice than surface water. Since water absorbs materials from its surroundings, it can collect contaminants that are potentially harmful to humans.

How Does Water Become Contaminated?

One of the main reasons that people still get sick from non-potable water is that errors are sometimes made by water providers.

Water contamination at a water treatment facility can occur in a couple of ways: when the plant is experiencing mechanical issues and when employees are not following proper sanitation protocols. In the case of the worst waterborne outbreak in US history, both of these errors occurred.

A Couple of Misconceptions

Waterborne illnesses are also still common because citizens aren't always adequately educated about the many risks of water contaminants. There are some false assumptions about water potability that we should iron out:

"Water that's clear will not make you sick"

The truth is that many of the agents in water that can make us sick can't be seen with the unaided eye.

"Water that has been boiled is completely safe to drink."

While boiling water will kill living contaminants in the water, it doesn't remove non-living toxins that can prove to be equally as harmful.

"Water in plastic disposable bottles is safer than tap water."

Water in plastic disposable bottles is less regulated than tap water, so it's actually more likely to contain contaminants and be non-potable. In fact, some companies put tap water in their bottles and market it as purer water.

What's Hiding in Our Water?

Here's what you should look out for in your drinking water.


One of the more common sources of water contamination is bacteria. These microorganisms can be found in places where oxygen is present, such as surface waters, wells, and tap water.

Common bacteria found in water are E. coli, salmonella, and coliform, all of which come from mammalian bodies and fecal matter. If you know that other humans or animals are sharing your water system, there's a greater chance that you have these bacteria in your water.


Technological advances and vaccinations have made many waterborne viruses such as polio a thing of the past. However, there are still other waterborne viruses at large within the country.

Hepatitis A, norovirus, and rotavirus are just a few of the more common viruses to look out for in your drinking water. Many symptoms of these viruses are similar to stomach bugs or what you'd experience if you drank bacteria-infested water.


Many chemicals have a distinct taste or smell that may warn you about water contamination. However, there are also harmful chemicals that are clear, scentless, and odorless. These chemicals often enter our water systems without us even knowing it and are highly dangerous if they're present in large amounts or for a long span of time.

Because chemically contaminated water can be highly dangerous, especially for children, it's very important that you're making sure your water is chemical-free.

Natural Elements

There are also a couple of natural elements that we should look out for in our water systems. A potentially lethal element sometimes found in groundwater is arsenic, which seeps into waterways through surrounding dirt. As another tasteless and odorless agent, arsenic is a silent killer known to have impacted millions through contaminated water sources.

A more commonly known toxic natural element in drinking water is lead. Because many cities still use old lead water pipes, lead can flake off into the water as it reaches the consumer's tap.

One well-known case of lead water poisoning occurred in Flint, Michigan in 2014-15. While this incident is still commonly referred to in the news, there are also many other cases of lead poisoning occurring throughout the United States.


There are many parasites that can end up in water supplies, typically in those contaminated by feces. Some parasites such as giardia and cryptosporidium cause short-term gastrointestinal illnesses. However, other parasites such as parasitic worms can cause symptoms that unfortunately last much longer. No matter what species it is, you don't want to risk ingesting waterborne parasites.

Radiological Water Contaminants

Naturally occurring radioactive materials (or "NORMs") are often stirred up through industrial activities such as the mining of natural gas, uranium, metal, and coal. Surprisingly, even activities such as building and recycling can negatively impact water sources through radiological contamination.

Like chemicals, radioactive materials can enter water systems and be difficult to detect. Interested in learning more about the facts and risks of NORMs? Check out this safety report made by the World Nuclear Association.

Testing and Treating Your Water

Testing your water is more important than you might guess: in 2019, it was reported that 43 out of 50 states within the U.S. had toxic drinking water sources somewhere in their boundaries. Clearly, there are potentially a lot of dangers lurking in your water.

But by testing and treating your water, you're much more likely to have potable water at hand. There are multiple types of water testing kits and guidelines on how frequently you should be checking for contaminants , which may vary based on your location and your method of water collection.

For water from any source, you'll want to check for chemicals, NORMs, and natural elements, especially if you're noticing these signs.

It's important to remember that if you're drinking water from an untreated source, such as a private well or a "raw" source, you're at greater risk of drinking contaminated water. The CDC recommends that if you don't have access to treated water, you should boil all of your drinking and cooking water for at least one minute.

You can also find portable water filters that are able to remove living contaminants through various types of filtration processes. Portable filtration methods include iodine tablets, physical filters, and reverse osmosis.

You can also purchase whole-house filtration systems that wipe out the majority of water contaminants (including the nonliving ones) from your home water system.

Practice Water Safety

You and your family deserve 100% potable drinking water. If you believe your water is contaminated, contact your public health department. By doing so, you may very well help people in your community avoid discomfort, illnesses, and even death.

Looking for more info on water safety? Check out our blog for more ways to keep your water clean and safe to consume.

In this post: potable water
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