The answer to this question depends on which kind of drinking water you’re talking about. There are multiple agencies responsible for regulating water quality in the U.S., and there are some who are more critical about the way it’s handled.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is in charge of overseeing the water that comes out of your tap. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees and regulates the quality of bottled water.

Individual states are responsible for regulating water that is bottled and sold within their borders. Finally, your municipality must make sure it is following federal and state standards regarding water quality.

The EPA does not regulate private wells, and rules for testing differ from state to state. In many cases, it is the homeowner’s responsibility to make sure their well water is safe.

According to the EPA, the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) defines water contaminants quite broadly. A contaminant can be anything that isn’t a water molecule. So if it’s not H2O, it’s technically a contaminant.

LThis means that not every contaminant is unsafe to consume. For instance, the dissolved minerals found in 80% of the water in the U.S. pose no health risks. However, minerals like calcium and magnesium can cause hard water problems.

There are many other water contaminants that could lead to health problems. The  EPA says water contaminants can be:

  • Physical– sediment or organic material that changes water’s physical properties.
  • Chemical– either naturally-occurring or man-made.
  • Biological– microorganisms like bacteria, viruses, and parasites.
  • Radiological– chemical elements that emit radiation such as cesium, plutonium, and uranium.

According to GroundWater.org, more than half of the U.S. depends on groundwater, which can be used for municipal water and as the source of water for people with private wells.

Groundwater is an important resource, but it can become easily contaminated and polluted. As the experts at The Groundwater Foundation explain …

“Groundwater contamination occurs when man-made products such as gasoline, oil, road salts and chemicals get into the groundwater and cause it to become unsafe and unfit for human use. Materials from the land’s surface can move through the soil and end up in the groundwater.”

Those materials also include pesticides, fertilizer, and other agricultural runoff like manure, as well as toxic material from hazardous waste sites and leaky landfills.

Municipal water is processed at a water treatment facility before it’s delivered to the public, which should make it safe for residents to use.

Municipalities add chemicals to the water when it is treated. One of the most common chemicals used in water treatment is chlorine, which is used as a disinfectant to kill bacteria and other microbes. Sometimes chloramine, a combination of chlorine and ammonia, is also used.

A small, but potential risk of these chemicals comes from byproducts they create in the water when reacting with organic compounds. Those byproducts are trihalomethanes (THMs) and haloacetic acids (HAAs). Some studies indicate THMs and HAAs are linked to increase risk of serious health problems like cancer and heart disease.

However, it’s important to note that water quality would be much worse if municipalities did not use these chemicals to eliminate what could be harmful. The World Health Organization (WHO) says health risks from chlorine are small compared to the dangers of failing to properly disinfect public water.

Due to the media attention Flint, Michigan, received over its water crisis, a lot of people have questions about lead in public water systems around the U.S.

Lead (as well as copper) typically enters the public supply by leaching into water from corroded fixtures and outdated plumbing. Homes built before 1986 will likely have plumbing with copper pipes using solder that may contain lead.

Lead can cause serious negative health effects, especially in children. The challenge is that it is undetectable by human senses. You can check with your local water authority for information about lead levels, but it’s important to note that the CDC and EPA say there’s no level of lead recognized as safe for consumption.

If you have concerns about the presence of lead in your water, you can have it tested in a state-certified laboratory. You can also read more in our article on lead in drinking water.

You might think the safest bet is to purchase bottled water at the store if you want to avoid contaminants in the water you drink. In the past 10 to 15 years, regulations surrounding the quality of bottled water have improved, and bottlers need to back up their claims concerning how their product is marketed. However, bottled water may not be the most cost-effective or environmentally-friendly way to get quality drinking water.

In many cases, bottled water is nothing more than tap water that has usually been treated. This means you could be wasting your money and creating unnecessary waste by drinking bottled water when other filtration options can give you the same quality in your home.

Certain things can affect the flavor, odor, and appearance of your tap water, not all of them are necessarily harmful.

Many people with public water can taste the chlorine, although the most noticeable problems tend to come from private wells. Contaminants like sulfur can impact the smell, while iron will cause discoloration and staining.

The overall amount of total dissolved solids (TDS) in your tap water will definitely affect the taste, smell, and appearance. While many of these issues are not serious concerns, they can certainly be a nuisance. Water filtration systems, including a high-efficiency water softener to reduce hardness, can provide solutions.

Sometimes shortened to the acronym RO, these systems force water, under pressure, into a module that contains a semipermeable membrane and a number of other filtration steps. A typical RO system has a prefilter designed to capture larger particles, chlorine, and other substances; a semipermeable membrane that captures more contaminants; an activated carbon filter that removes residual taste, odor, and some organic contaminants; and a storage tank to hold the treated water for use. 

Hard water is a common quality of water which contains dissolved compounds of calcium and magnesium and, sometimes, other divalent and trivalent metallic elements. The term hardness was originally applied to waters that were hard to wash in, referring to the soap wasting properties of hard water. Hardness prevents soap from lathering by causing the development of an insoluble curdy precipitate in the water; hardness typically causes the buildup of hardness scale (such as seen in cooking pans). Dissolved calcium and magnesium salts are primarily responsible for most scaling in pipes and water heaters and cause numerous problems in laundry, kitchen, and bath. Hardness is usually expressed in grains per gallon (or ppm) as calcium carbonate equivalent.

Hardness minerals – calcium and magnesium – are in plentiful supply. While they are not found in their elemental form in the earth, they occur in combination with other elements in an abundance of forms. Common calcium minerals include chalk, limestone, and marble. These substances are chiefly calcium carbonate (CaCO3) or mixtures of calcium and magnesium carbonates and other impurities. The hardness in water that is caused by calcium, magnesium, and other cations is usually described in terms of the calcium carbonate equivalent.

Softening hard water can mitigate many of its objectionable effects. Water softening can be done either at point of entry or point of use. One of the unique advantages offered by point-of-use water softening is the opportunity for homemakers to have either hard or soft water for drinking. This choice is not available if the water supply is softened municipally. Hardness minerals can be reduced in water to make it “softer” by using one of three basic means:

  • Chemical softening—lime softening, hot and cold; lime-soda softening
  • Membrane separation softening—Nano filtration
  • Cation exchange softening—inorganic, carbonaceous, or organic base exchangers
  • Softening water for home needs is done almost exclusively through the use of cation exchange.

This process is called “reverse” osmosis because the pressure forces the water to flow in the reverse direction (from the concentrated solution to the dilute solution) to the flow direction (from the dilute to the concentrated) in the process of natural osmosis. RO removes ionized salts, colloids, and organic molecules down to a molecular weight of 100.

You can get a whole-house RO, but more commonly, a point-of-use RO system would be on your countertop or installed under the sink. They’re great for treating water for cooking and drinking, but they don’t usually produce large amounts of treated water — more like 3 to 10 gallons a day. For that reason, typically people choose to install RO-treated faucets in the most popular areas of the home such as kitchens and bathrooms, as opposed to installing it for every drinking tap. Just like any other kind of filter technology, reverse osmosis systems require regular maintenance. That includes periodically replacing the unit’s prefilters, postfilters, and membrane modules.

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