How to Make Sure Your Drinking Water Is Safe

Pensive blond woman drinking water in her kitchen

Access to safe and affordable water is considered one of our basic human rights. In the U.S. we are fortunate that the vast majority of us don’t have to think about where our next sip will come from. But even here, things can go wrong and our water can become contaminated. The situation that has been developing in Flint, Michigan over the last few years is an unfortunate example. As we discussed on today’s show, residents of Flint have been advised to drink bottled water due to the potential of exposure to high levels of lead and other possible contaminants in the water flowing from their taps. This problem is a result of terrible neglect by government officials and a confluence of issues that plague many of our municipalities: shrinking budgets and aging infrastructure.

Hopefully a situation as extreme as this doesn’t happen where you live, but problems with your water, even on a smaller scale, can occur anywhere. So let’s go over what you can do to make sure the water you’re drinking is safe.

First, it’s good to know where your water comes from and what’s in it. When the Safe Drinking Water Act was passed in 1974 it mandated that all water companies make this information available to residents every year. These reports, called Consumer Confidence Reports, or Water Quality Reports, are available online and can be found on the EPA’s website. You can search for your town on the EPA site and download the report. In it you will find the source of your water, all of the tests that have been done on it with the levels of the different chemicals found in the water and whether any of them exceeded the allowed amounts. There are a variety of sites that can help you understand how to read these reports such as this one from Food and Water Watch.

Second, it’s good to know about both the pipes in your house and the service lines that supply them. The pipes in your house and service lines can influence what comes out of your own tap, which can be different than what the water looks like when the water company tests it at the source. If your house was built after 1986 you don’t have to worry about lead in your pipes, but lead was commonly used before the 1930s and even sometimes afterwards. You should check with your local health department or water company to find out about the pipes. You can’t see or taste lead in your water, so the only way to know for sure is to get it tested. If you are concerned about lead or anything else in your water, again you should contact your water company, local health department, or local environmental protection department and ask them to test your water. This page from NSF has useful information about how to get your water tested as well as links to certified labs in your state. There are some basic test kits you can buy in stores, but professional labs are more reliable for testing for things like lead, arsenic, and other dangerous contaminants.

Now if you live in one of the 15 million households that get their water from a well water company, reports won’t apply to you. It’s important to have your water tested regularly-at least once a year, to make sure it stays safe. Ground water can change with time, so this regular testing is key. Contact your local health department or department of environmental protection to find out what they recommend for testing where you live.

Finally if your water does contain something it shouldn’t or just doesn’t taste the way you want it to, you can filter your water. Different types of filters are designed to reduce different things. NSF is an organization that ensures all types of products including water filters comply with standards that mean you can trust their claims. If lead is your problem, you want to look for an activated Charcoal Filter with an NSF/ANSI 53 certification. A reverse osmosis filter is more expensive, but also can reduce more contaminants than activated charcoal. When buying a reverse osmosis filter, look for NSF/ANSI 58 certification. Simple carbon filters are designed to improve the taste and appearance of water, and while great for this purpose they are not good for removing dangerous contaminants. Simple carbon filters should have an NSF/ANSI 42 certification. All filters need maintenance to continue to work, so whatever type of filtration device you use, be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions. To learn more about which type of filter you need check out this guide from NSF. And if you ever have general questions about your drinking water, the EPA has an extensive Q&A to help you.