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Here’s something you might find unsettling: Our local water companies in the United States are required to meet strict water quality standards put out by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Yet studies by various health and environmental groups have found that we still have a high volume and broad variety of pollutants in our drinking water.
How is this possible? The reasons are infuriating.
How pollutants make it into our tap water
For starters, not all water companies comply with the EPA requirements. Perhaps it’s cheaper to just pay the fines than to install the necessary equipment? Or perhaps it just takes too much time to fix everything? Your guess is as good as mine.
The EPA also doesn’t test for, or regulate, every possible contaminant that ends up in our water supply. With countless new chemicals introduced to manufacturing every year, I imagine this would be a somewhat impossible task.
However, there are known toxins (perchlorate is a good example) that seemingly do not make it onto the EPA’s test list until they are pressured to do so by the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) or another health or environmental group.
In addition, it was found that not all water safety tests are done properly and/or are not reported to the EPA as they should be. Sheesh!
If we can’t rely on our local water suppliers and governments to ensure we have clean drinking water, then we have to take steps to protect our families and ourselves. Thankfully there are several ways to purify our drinking water, each covering a variety of pollutants.
The hard part is knowing which contaminants you face and then matching them to the right purification system, all at a price you can afford.
To find out what’s in your water, you might start with reading the most recent annual report put out by your local water company. These reports are typically included with your water bill once per year, or you can find the report on their website.
Personally, I find some aspects of the report difficult to interpret; however, it’s still worth a read. Here’s an example of the Consumer Confidence Report from my district, to give you an idea (see pages 5 through 8).
This article covers:
- What contaminants might you find in your water?
(And the pollutants that water companies don’t always catch)
- 3 ways to test your tap water
- Test, then purify your drinking water
What contaminants might you find in your water?
The type of pollutants you find in your water will depend on a number of factors including, but not limited to…
- Your home’s proximity to industrial sites such as manufacturing plants, sewage treatment plants, mining operations, gas and oil production facilities, factory farms, or nuclear facilities
- Whether you get your water from the city or from a well
- The type and age of the pipes and plumbing fixtures in your home
In addition to the above, storm runoff, leaky septic systems, people flushing unused medications or recreational drugs down the toilet — this and more can contaminate your water.
While you can often smell and taste contaminants in your drinking water, you can’t always tell which contaminants they are. Plus many contaminants – lead and arsenic, for example – do not have a detectable smell or taste, so you may not realize they are there.
Pollutants that water companies don’t always catch
Common pollutants that make their way into our drinking water, even after being processed by the local water company may include:
- Lead – from your home’s pipes and plumbing fixtures
- Arsenic – naturally occurring from arsenic-rich rocks and soil, volcanic activity, and forest fires; and human activity from manufacturing, mining, improper disposal of paints, etc.
- Farming chemicals – fertilizers/nitrates, pesticides, herbicides, etc
- Pharmaceuticals – antibiotics, antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds, painkillers, hormones
- Perchlorates – these are widespread, dangerous, and, until recently, not regulated by the EPA
- PFAS (perfluoroalkyl) – chemical compounds used to make non-stick cookware, paper and packing products, firefighting foam, carpets, leather, and water-repellent textiles
- Pathogens – viruses, bacteria, and parasites in a water supply that hasn’t been properly treated
- Cleaners – Ammonia, chlorine, and by-products of the local water chlorination process
- Fluoride – added ‘for our dental health’. (We can debate whether or not fluoride is a contaminant some other time.)
- Radioactive materials – from oil and gas production and/or naturally occurring
3 ways to test your tap water
That’s quite the laundry list of toxins that can pollute the water we drink and bathe in each day. The good news is that there are plenty of water purification systems that can filter these contaminants from your home. The thing is, different filtration systems target different substances and you can’t choose the right filter until you know what’s flowing through your pipes. The only way to know for sure is to test your water.
There are essentially 3 options when it comes to testing your tap water:
- Hire a professional
- Buy a few DIY kits
- Get professional lab testing, using DIY kits (TapScore has kits for both city water and well water.)
This hybrid solution grants you access to professional lab tests but with a DIY kit. In terms of cost and coverage, you’ll likely find this solution to make the most sense. Still, let’s take a quick look at each.
1. Professional water testing
To avoid having to do all the research and testing on your own, you might call an experienced water tester in your area. The EPA offers an easy-to-use database to find a certified water testing facility near you. Or you can simply Google “test my water”+ your city or zip code to find testing facilities nearby.
Either way, an experienced professional that is already familiar with your city should know what questions to ask, in order to determine the type(s) of tests to run. And they should know what typically affects homes in your area (for both public and private water systems), which will further help to inform their (and your) choice of tests.
That said, professional testing can be expensive. And, since the bread and butter for these companies tend to be large industrial customers, they don’t always give lower-paying individuals the attention or thoughtful answers they need.
Some companies do offer free testing. However, be aware that these free tests are often a vehicle to sell their treatment plans, which means there may be some conflict of interest.
2. DIY water testing kits
If you want to run a preliminary test yourself to see whether professional testing is warranted, or for some quick peace of mind, you’ll find tons of affordable kits on Amazon or at a big box hardware store.
There are a few things to be aware of if you go this route. First, different kits test for different things, so you will likely need to buy more than one kit to cover your bases. Plus, you’ll need to know what is commonly found in your area, so you know which tests to choose in the first place.
Finally, the kits are intended to give general results, so they rarely have the specifics you need in order to remedy the issues you find. For example, the kit may tell you that you have heavy metals in your water, but not tell you which ones. More detailed results would require the more expensive professional testing.
3. Professional lab testing with a DIY kit
This third option sits somewhere in between professional testing and DIY kits. I found a pretty cool company, called Tap Score, that was founded a few years ago by a smarty pants grad student from the University of California, Berkeley.
Tap Score is an affordable service for easy home water testing and analysis. It’s more expensive than the individual kits you’d buy on Amazon, but not prohibitively so. And the reporting and recommendations you get from Tap Score are as detailed as what you’d get from a professional tester, but far easier to read and understand.
How Tap Score works
The work on your end is easy and takes all of 2 minutes:
- Once you choose the appropriate kit, Tap Score will send you a box with a few vials.
- Fill the vials with your city tap water or well water.
- Pop the vials back in the mail, using the package and postage included in the kit.
- About 10 days later, they’ll email you an easy-to-read report detailing the contaminants in your water, as well as any local environmental water hazards.
- They’ll also include objective* recommendations for purification systems to help your specific water issues.
* I say “objective” because Tap Score does not sell (or partner with) water treatment solutions. They are 100% focused on testing, so there is zero conflict of interest.
Tap Score's Professional Home Testing Kits
Test, then purify your drinking water
The unfortunate truth is that there are many factors that can affect the integrity of your home’s tap water. Be proactive and find out what you’re up against. Armed with this information, you can confidently choose the appropriate filtration system to purify your water and to provide some peace of mind.