Guide to Water Contaminants & Water Tests
Index to Articles on Water Contamination Limits, Water Testing Advice & Procedures
POST a QUESTION or READ FAQs about when, how, and why to test well water for contamination: advice for property or home buyers and property or home owners who use a private well for drinking water
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This article gives advice on water testing for property or home buyers or home owners, with focus on a strategy for assuring the quality of well water by site inspection, property history investigation, and strategically-selected water tests for contamination.
Discussed here: Water potability testing guide - water bacteria test guide. Articles Describing Types of Water Potability Tests, Water Purity Tests, Test for Other Water Contaminants. How to conduct water tests, what water tests to order, how to avoid dishonest or cheating on water tests.
The articles listed on this water testing advice page will answer most questions about drinking water testing, focused on testing water supplied from wells, & water tanks as well as many other building plumbing system inspection or defect topics.
We also provide a MASTER INDEX to this topic, or you can try the page top or bottom SEARCH BOX as a quick way to find information you need.
Water Testing Advice
How to Investigate for Water Contaminants at a New or Unknown Property or a Private Drinking Water Well
General advice on water testing when buying a rural property:
The minimum test for water potability elected by many property owners or buyers looks only at bacteria. Some government lenders require more extensive tests such as the FHA and Title-5 water potability testing series. Those and similar "water test package" deals offered by water testing labs can be a good way to spend your water testing dollars as they test for the most common contaminants found in well water in many areas.
Watch out for "False Negative" assurances that Well Water is "Pure"
First of all, no water test assures against all possible contaminants in water. Second, water tests that focus on water potability (is the water safe to drink) may miss other important water conditions, such as water that is too high in mineral content, clogging pipes and water heaters (see MEASURE WATER HARDNESS), or water that is too acidic or corrosive, causing leaks in copper piping (see CORROSIVITY or ACIDITY of WATER).
Watch out: even so, property buyers should beware of ordering water tests arbitrarily, Because of the enormous number of potential chemical contaminants that might show up in water, there is a risk of accepting a "false negative" result, that is, a risk of assuming that there are no contaminants in drinking water after a specific water contaminant tests shows a negative result.
It may simply be the case that a contaminant that is present was not detected because it was not within the scope of the tests performed.
Therefore to be more confident about the quality of water at a property whose water and land history may be unknown, we recommend a series of escalating steps in water testing and other investigative measures. At several points in the investigation process a property buyer or new owner may decide that the information obtained so far provides enough confidence, or that the information suggests that additional levels of water testing are appropriate.
Site investigation for well water quality concerns
This important step in investigating well water quality includes
A visual inspection for things that might raise a red flag: evidence of chemical, fuel, or fertilizer storage on the property or nearby at sites that drain onto the property, nearby industry (industrial chemicals), nearby orchards (pesticides) or farms (fertilizers) whose land drained across or onto the property.
Among the most basic observations will be the location of the well and its proximity to septic system drainfields, barns, livestock pens, or farm chemical storage tanks or fuel tanks. And of course the type of well (dug, driven point, steel well casing) and depth also have implications for the probability of contamination by surface runoff or subsurface contaminants.
Investigation by asking neighbors, the local health department, and nearby water testing laboratories to determine if they know of specific water quality problems that have been discovered in the neighborhood. This step can sometimes provide surprising payoff such as questions by one of our clients whose Pawling NY well had tested as "OK" for several contaminants.
A neighbor pointed out that a paper company had for years dumped acetone and other waste chemicals in an empty field across the street from the client's well. Testing found unusual levels of acetone in the water - an uncommon contaminant as acetone is so volatile, and not something that anyone would have tested for without a clue from a helpful neighbor.
Professional investigation services are available from environmental inspection and testing firms who will research government data bases of known sources of water contamination, but watch out: such investigations may not disclose small local industries or contamination sources.
Some Community Drinking Water Wells May Also Be Contaminated
In the U.S. and most other countries community water supplies, often defined as serving 25 or more homes, must be tested and found to comply with national or federal drinking water standards.
In the U.S. "The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) is the federal law that protects public drinking water supplies throughout the nation. Under the SDWA, EPA sets standards for drinking water quality and with its partners implements various technical and financial programs to ensure drinking water safety. " - original source: https://www.epa.gov/sdwa retrieved 2018/02/13
However recent studies reported both in professional journals and in the national press point out that local water companies frequently fail to meet federal safe drinking water standards.
Contaminants in community or municipal water supplies can vary from the infamous lead contamination of water supply in areas of Flint Michigan to other contaminants such as nitrates, arsenic, or pathogens. There may also be municipal drinking water contminants that are themselves a byproduct of the disinfection process used by the municipal water treatment facility.
In a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that, since 1982, between 3 and 10 percent of the country’s water systems have been in violation of federal Safe Drinking Water Act health standards each year.
In 2015 alone, as many as 21 million Americans may have been exposed to unsafe drinking water. - Plumer, Brad, Nadja Popovich, " Here Are the Places That Struggle to Meet the Rules on Safe Drinking Water", The New York Times, 2018/02/12 original source: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/12/climate/drinking-water-safety.html retrieved 2018/02/13, with more citations at REFERENCES.
Choosing Specific Water Test Lab Tests for Water Quality
Informed by step 1 above, the minimum water test that is performed is a bacteria test or "water potability test". While the minimal "presence/absence" test is popular and inexpensive, the test gives a "go / no-go" result (there is or is not a coliform bacteria level at or above 1 colony forming unit (CFU) per 100 ml of water).
Keep in mind that no water test assures a zero level of bacteria in water nor do health regulations require it. A more costly water test for bacteria provides an actual count of the bacteria level found, if above certain thresholds - this is a much more useful test as it is diagnostic both before and after attempts to correct a bacteria problem.
Bacteria testing does not itself assure anything about the presence or absence of chemical contaminants or aesthetic contaminants (silt, odors, hardness) in well water.
But nevertheless, if a water test "fails" a bacteria test, because a common source of high bacterial levels in well water is the leakage of surface runoff into a well, that means that there is also a higher risk of the presence of other contaminants that might be found on the ground surface (pesticides, fertilizers).
Therefore even if a home owner/buyer decides to perform only the most minimal bacterial testing, the result can be a red flag that more thorough testing for other contaminants is in order.
Where a well is on or near farmland or orchards, water testing labs will often recommend one of two pesticide tests (depending on property age and whether or not it's appropriate to test for DDT or chlordane or newer pesticides, as well as tests that can detect common ingredients in fertilizers.
At a property in Dutchess County, NY, where we found a "permanently-parked" trailer that had been used by Terminix™ to store pesticides I was worried about possible storage leaks and thus pesticide contamination in the nearby well. Tests for pesticides found that there was no contamination of the well nor of soil around the trailer. The pest control company had been careful.
But a subsequent investigation of the property's history disclosed that a metal plating shop had been present in one of the buildings on the site. Tests found high levels of chromium contamination of soils, water, and even a nearby stream bed, resulting in a serious environmental contamination issue that involved the new property owner as well as local, state, and federal environmental officials.
Where the visual inspection or a study of the property history discovers specific potential sources of contamination, it makes sense to discuss these with the water test lab director to decide what tests are most useful to perform.
Watch out: this discussion has focused on well water quality - what is "in" the well water that may make it unsafe or unpalatable to drink. We also mention and refer readers to other important water conditions, such as water that is too high in mineral content, clogging pipes and water heaters
Water Contaminants, Water Tests & Test Parameters, Water Treatments
Best bet for getting help with water contaminationor water tests, treatments, cures: use the search box found near the top or bottom of any InspectApedia article.
1-Bromo-3-chloro-5,5-dimethylhydantoin (C5H6BrClN2O2) is produced world-wide and is also used in cleaners and bathroom disinfectants and deodorizers. Here is an example MSDS for this product, provided by Leisure Time
ARSENIC in WATER - arsenic contaminants in water may occur naturally in some soils
BACTERIA TEST GUIDE - tests the level of microbial ccontaminants in water. The basic "present/absent" or "P/A" test is the minimum water potability test required by many home mortgage lenders. Also see HPC Heterotrophic Plate Count and be sure to see these articles
Each of these water tests for bacterial contamination has different advantages, disadvantages, and sensitiities.
CHEATING on WATER TESTS: how people use bleach & well disinfectants to hide unsanitary wells or failed septic sytems. Testing Water for Real Estate Transactions - how to make sure your water test is valid
"Chemicals and Our Health", Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times, 16 July 2009, p. 27. This outstanding editorial calls for improvements in public health policy to address phthalates and other environmental contaminants from common chemicals and products in everyday use. - DJ Friedman
Chlorine in water:
"Bacteria in Drinking Water" - "Chlorine," Karen Mancl, water quality specialist, Agricultural Engineering, Ohio State University Extension. Mancl explains factors affecting the effectiveness of chlorine in water as a means to destroy bacteria and other microorganisms. OSU reports as follows:
Chlorine kills bacteria, including disease-causing organisms and the nuisance organism, iron bacteria. However, low levels of chlorine, normally used to disinfect water, are not an effective treatment for giardia cysts.
A chlorine level of over 10 mg/1 must be maintained for at least 30 minutes to kill giardia cysts. -- http://ohioline.osu.edu/b795/index.html is the front page of this bulle
DRINKING WATER CONTAMINANT WATER LIMITS - what are the maximum allowed or limits on various contaminants found in drinking water. Health Effects of Chemical Contaminants in Drinking Water, US Environmental Protection Agency, others.
"Drinking Water Safety in Emergencies", University of Minnesota extension, extension.umn.edu/info-u/nutrition/BJ646.html
ENDOCRINE DISRUPTOR EXCHANGE, Dr. theo Colborn (also see Our Stolen Future). From that website: The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, Inc. is the only organization that focuses primarily on the human health and environmental problems caused by low-dose and/or ambient exposure to chemicals that interfere with development and function, called endocrine disruptors. ...
TEDX's work focuses on the endocrine system, which is the exquisitely balanced system of glands and hormones that regulates such vital functions as body growth, response to stress, sexual development and behavior, production and utilization of insulin, rate of metabolism, intelligence and behavior.
Hormones are chemicals such as insulin, thyroxin, estrogen, and testosterone that interact with specific target cells. The interactions occur through a number of mechanisms, the easiest of which to conceptualize is through a lock and key arrangement.
Filters for water
Crystal Clear Supply provides portable ceramic water filter purifiers and portable reverse osmosis water treatment equipment - see http://www.crystalclearsupply.com/category_s/7.htm
HYDROGEN PEROXIDE for WATER DISINFECTION - how to use HYDROGEN PEROXIDE to treat, purify, or sterilize drinking water in an emergency. What concentration of H202 hydrogen peroxide to use for drinking water disinfection? Health warning about drinking hydrogen peroxide
Wikipedia on history of use of hydrogen peroxide: Information on Hydrogen peroxide as a sterilant is in Wikipedia at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sterilization_(microbiology) HO2 has been
used for a long time, including by vaporization for sterilizing freeze dryers.
Hydrogen Peroxide warning: US FDA Warning about drinking hydrogen peroxide: www.truthorfiction.com/rumors/h/hydrogen-peroxide.htm This article cites a 2003 entry in Journal
of Food and Science on using Hy.Perox to sterilize vegetables, referring to E.coli - NOT to Giardia.
IODINE: "Do Iodine Water Purification Tablets Provide an Effective Barrier against Cryptosporidium parvum?", Starke, Jeffrey A., Bowman, Dwight D., Labare, Michael, Fogarty, Elizabeth A., and others, Military Medicine, 25 October 2001 [possibly a later version of this article appeared in 2005 -DF] http://www.amsus.org/military medicine/milmed.htm
Nitrate level in water, identifies contamination from septic system effluent or possibly from nearby animal or livestock facilities or barns. See NITRATE / NITRITE TOXICITY ATSDR: [Big, Slow-Loading File] U.S. Government ATSDR Science Corner - 2.5MB PDF
SWIMMING WATER TESTS - CONTENTS: options for testing swimming water for coliform level for swimming safety at lakes, rivers & ocean or salt water beaches. Marine water or seawater sanitation tests, testing standards, test procedures, & contaminants.
TDS WATER TEST - Total dissolved solids in water (also measures conductivity or a "conductivity test") identifies the mineral content of water. Water with high levels of salts or minerals may be a health hazard, and high mineral content or "hard water" risks problems with clogged plumbing equipment, pipes, water heaters. Also see WATER SOFTENERS & CONDITIONERS.
TITLE 5 WATER TEST - water test parameters - how to check for pesticide contaminants in drinking water
UV ULTRAVIOLET LIGHT WATER TREATMENT - Water treatment for bacteria using UV Lights - ultraviolet light sterilizers on water systems. How does an ultra violet light fixture correct bacterial contamination in well water? How do UV lights work? Details of proper UV light installation and maintenance for well water treatment. Water treatment methods for contamination, bacteria, lead, minerals, etc. Water treatment choices for odors, smells, sediment, cloudiness. Choices of types of water treatment equipment
UV light: This patent application for UV light sterilization www.patentstorm.us/patents/6565803.html Lists good references on water
purification for Giardia et als
VEGETABLE DISINFECTION - what produce disinfection methods are suitable for home use? Warnings about the limitations of some DIY at home vegetable washes & produce disinfection. Surprise: distilled water performs as well as or even better than some store-bought produce disinfectant washes.
How to use bleach to purify drinking water. Five years of testing & how to use SinBac™ or other vegetable disinfectants to prepare fruits, vegetables, or other foods for eating.
VINEGAR as a disinfectant; Use of vinegar as a vegetable or fruit wash;
WATER CONTAMINANT REMOVAL - removing aesthetic or functional contaminants in water such as Hardness, Odors, Sediment, Etc: choices of systems, recommendations
WATER QUANTITY REQUIRED - For Home & Outdoor Living - how much water do people use, how much water do people need? This data is helpful for assessing well flow rate adequacy and for septic system or other wastewater disposal system design
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Allaire, Maura, Haowei Wu and Upmanu Lall, "National trends in drinking water quality violationsNational trends in drinking water quality violations", PNAS 2018; published ahead of print February 12, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1719805115
Ensuring safe water supply for communities across the United States is a growing challenge in the face of aging infrastructure, impaired source water, and strained community finances. In the aftermath of the Flint lead crisis, there is an urgent need to assess the current state of US drinking water. However, no nationwide assessment has yet been conducted on trends in drinking water quality violations across several decades.
Efforts to reduce violations are of national concern given that, in 2015, nearly 21 million people relied on community water systems that violated health-based quality standards. In this paper, we evaluate spatial and temporal patterns in health-related violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act using a panel dataset of 17,900 community water systems over the period 1982–2015. We also identify vulnerability factors of communities and water systems through probit regression.
Increasing time trends and violation hot spots are detected in several states, particularly in the Southwest region. Repeat violations are prevalent in locations of violation hot spots, indicating that water systems in these regions struggle with recurring issues.
In terms of vulnerability factors, we find that violation incidence in rural areas is substantially higher than in urbanized areas. Meanwhile, private ownership and purchased water source are associated with compliance.
These findings indicate the types of underperforming systems that might benefit from assistance in achieving consistent compliance. We discuss why certain violations might be clustered in some regions and strategies for improving national drinking water quality.
Ohio State University article on the concentration of chlorine necessary to act as an effective disinfectant, and the effects of the water's pH and temperature: See http://ohioline.osu.edu/b795/b795_7.html for details.
Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence, and Survival?--A Scientific Detective Story, Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, John Peter Meyers. Plume-Penguin Publishing, 1997, ISBN 0-452-27414-1., ISBN13: 9780452274143. This book is a seminal work on endocrine disruptors (chemical contaminants having impact at extremely low levels in the environment).
Recommended by Daniel Friedman, this book is a critical update to the landmark Silent Spring by Rachel Carson and discusses the effects of minute trace amounts of chemical contaminants in the environment. The text "Identifies the various ways in which chemical pollutants in the environment are disrupting human reproductive patterns and causing such problems as birth defects, sexual abnormalities, and reproductive failure. Reprint. Tour. NYT."
Amazon.com Review: By O T (Ontario, BC) - 'Our Stolen Future' is a great introduction to one of the most important scientific discoveries in our time. Having recently completed a thesis project at university on Endocrine Disruptors, I have reviewed hundreds of papers on the subject. This book is a good clear overview of the scientific literature on EDs. The authors are experts - Theo Colborn is largely responsible for creating the field by bringing together diverse researchers so they could see the big picture of their work. Many of the principle investigators are interviewed and quoted at length on the way chemicals participate in and interfere with delicate hormonal systems in animals (including humans). The major accomplishment of the book is to make an easy-to-follow story out of complex research. Many resources are available to help you assess the reliability of this story, and the best thing to do if you have any doubts is read review articles in scientific journals (which are easier to understand than technical papers). The Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) have a guidebook for health-care professionals on Endocrine Disruptors, and the US EPA has many reports on the matter. Beware of people or websites who try to 'debunk' this book (or the science behind it) by simply declaring it false, flawed or disproven. There is far too much supporting research for so simple a refutation.
OPINION: Significant and discussed in this book is the observation that at certain critical points in the development of animals, presumably including humans, exposure to extremely low levels of endocrine disruptor chemicals (EDC's) (such as BPA - Bisphenol-A or BPA, Diethylstilbestrol - DES, dioxins, PCBs, and chemicals used in the production of certain cleansers, dyes, flame retardants, plastics, pesticides, white papers ) perhaps just a few molecules, or in the parts per trillion, is sufficient to cause disruption of the animal's development, including proper sex differentiation, or the lack of it that produced androgynous ducks unable to reproduce under such conditions.
A endocrine disruptor is a synthetic chemical compound that mimics natural hormones when it is taken into the body of a human or other animal. It "disrupts" the endocrine system by turning on or off normal chemical signals that in turn can affect normal hormone levels, bodily functions, and significantly, the development of embryos. Further, unlike naturally occurring hormones ingested, for example from plants (phytoestrogens), synthetically-generated hormones accumulate in the body and can have a half-life of decades or longer.
One significance of this finding includes the observation that an important medical effect that occurs with exposure to chemicals in extremely low concentrations means that experiments to test for correlations between chemical exposure and subsequent serious medical problems will be deeply flawed if, for example, the experimental design does not include testing for the presence of the chemical at extremely low levels. A related concern is that even if harmful effects from exposure to extremely low concentrations of an endocrine disruptor are occurring, teasing out and proving that relationship can be also extremely difficult.
Silent Spring, Rachael Carson, Mariner Books; Anv edition (October 22, 2002), ISBN-13: 978-061824906.
Silent Spring, released in 1962, offered the first shattering look at widespread ecological degradation and touched off an environmental awareness that still exists. Rachel Carson's book focused on the poisons from insecticides, weed killers, and other common products as well as the use of sprays in agriculture, a practice that led to dangerous chemicals to the food source. Carson argued that those chemicals were more dangerous than radiation and that for the first time in history, humans were exposed to chemicals that stayed in their systems from birth to death. Presented with thorough documentation, the book opened more than a few eyes about the dangers of the modern world and stands today as a landmark work.
Books & Articles on Building & Environmental Inspection, Testing, Diagnosis, & Repair
When Technology Fails, Matthew Stein, Chelsea Green Publisher, 2008,493 pages. ISBN-10: 1933392452 ISBN-13: 978-1933392455, "... how to find and sterilize water in the face of utility failure, as well as practical information for dealing with water-quality issues even when the public tap water is still flowing". Mr. Stein's website is www.whentechfails.com/
Carson, Dunlop & Associates Ltd., 120 Carlton Street Suite 407, Toronto ON M5A 4K2. Tel: (416) 964-9415 1-800-268-7070 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. The firm provides professional home inspection services & home inspection education & publications. Alan Carson is a past president of ASHI, the American Society of Home Inspectors. Thanks to Alan Carson and Bob Dunlop, for permission for InspectAPedia to use text excerpts from The Home Reference Book & illustrations from The Illustrated Home. Carson Dunlop Associates' provides extensive home inspection education and report writing material.
The Illustrated Home illustrates construction details and building components, a reference for owners & inspectors. Special Offer: For a 5% discount on any number of copies of the Illustrated Home purchased as a single order Enter INSPECTAILL in the order payment page "Promo/Redemption" space.
TECHNICAL REFERENCE GUIDE to manufacturer's model and serial number information for heating and cooling equipment, useful for determining the age of heating boilers, furnaces, water heaters is provided by Carson Dunlop, Associates, Toronto - Carson Dunlop Weldon & Associates Special Offer: Carson Dunlop Associates offers InspectAPedia readers in the U.S.A. a 5% discount on any number of copies of the Technical Reference Guide purchased as a single order. Just enter INSPECTATRG in the order payment page "Promo/Redemption" space.
The Home Reference Book - the Encyclopedia of Homes, Carson Dunlop & Associates, Toronto, Ontario, 25th Ed., 2012, is a bound volume of more than 450 illustrated pages that assist home inspectors and home owners in the inspection and detection of problems on buildings. The text is intended as a reference guide to help building owners operate and maintain their home effectively. Field inspection worksheets are included at the back of the volume.
Special Offer: For a 10% discount on any number of copies of the Home Reference Book purchased as a single order. Enter INSPECTAHRB in the order payment page "Promo/Redemption" space. InspectAPedia.com editor Daniel Friedman is a contributing author.
Special Offer: Carson Dunlop Associates offers InspectAPedia readers in the U.S.A. a 5% discount on these courses: Enter INSPECTAHITP in the order payment page "Promo/Redemption" space. InspectAPedia.com editor Daniel Friedman is a contributing author.
The Horizon Software System manages business operations,scheduling, & inspection report writing using Carson Dunlop's knowledge base & color images. The Horizon system runs on always-available cloud-based software for office computers, laptops, tablets, iPad, Android, & other smartphones