How do i know if my tap water is safe?

How Do I Know If My Tap Water Is Safe?Photo: Shutterstock

There are a lot of different forms of drinking water out there: tap, bottled, filtered, the kind with added electrolytes—the list goes on. But do we really need to spend the money on fancy water, or is it OK straight from the tap? Here’s what you need to know.

Dear Lifehacker,

We have so many kinds of bottled water and filtering options. While I prefer the taste over tap water, does it really matter? Does tap water pose any risk, or can I drink it without cause for concern?

Sincerely,Water Boggled

Dear W.B.,Generally speaking—in most parts of the United States, at least—you can drink from the tap without any risk to your health.

If you choose to buy water, you should do so because you prefer the taste or because you fall into a small group of people who put themselves at risk by drinking tap water (more on this later).

But generally speakin, the water from your faucet will serve you well. Here’s what you need to know.

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How Do I Know If My Tap Water Is Safe?

Differences between water types

To learn more about the differences between water types and their health benefits (or lack thereof), we spoke with Dr. Carly Stewart—the medical expert over at Money Crashers. She explains:

There are three different types of drinking water to choose from: tap water, filtered water and bottled water. However, the differences between each type are less distinct than you might think.

For example, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, approximately 25 percent of bottled water is nothing more than bottled tap water.

Also, federal regulations that govern the manufacturers of bottled water are typically much less strict than those regarding tap water.

Let’s break it down a bit more:

Tap water

How to Test Your Tap Water

How safe is your tap water? Finding out can take some time, effort, and money, but it’s worth doing.

Most people on municipal water who pay their own bill should receive an annual water quality report called a CCR, or Consumer Confidence Report. If you don’t receive yours, call your local water supplier. And if you rent, contact your landlord.

Systems with 100,000 or more people must also post reports online. You can find them on the Environmental Protection Agency website.

In the report, look for a summary that shows whether any contaminants were found above government cutoffs and, if so, what the potential health risks are, what is being done to fix the problem, and what you should do in the meantime. For questions, call your local supplier or the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791.

If you’re on well water, you won’t get a CCR, so you should get your water tested. That’s also a good idea if your home was built before lead-free pipes were mandated in 1986: Even if your CCR says that the municipality’s water is free of lead, it can leach into your water from the pipes in or leading to your house.

Many kits are available for do-it-yourself tap testing, but it’s not always clear what they test for or how accurate they are. The EPA recommends using a certified lab. Find one on the EPA’s website. Testing typically costs $20 to $150; your community might provide test kits free of charge.

Once you know what’s in your water, choose a filter that suits your needs.

For multiple or high levels of contaminants, reverse osmosis filters are often best. They can remove lead, arsenic, bacteria, and other contaminants.

But they take up a lot of space (typically under your sink), require additional plumbing, and often go through several gallons of water for every gallon of filtered water. They’re pricey, too, some costing $1,000 or more.

You might also have to pay a professional to periodically service the system.

For improving taste or odor, or dealing with less serious contamination, a carbon filter can help. But it might not remove all lead.

Regardless of which filters you choose, make sure it meets standards set by American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and NSF International for removing the contaminants you're concerned about, and that it is certified by an independent lab. Such labs include NSF International as well as the CSA Group, Underwriters Laboratories (UL), and the Water Quality Association (WQA).

A pitcher filter is good for drinking water. A filter that attaches to your sink is a good choice for that as well as for water used to cook and wash dishes. CR members with digital access can read on for ratings of the three top water filter pitchers from our tests.

Unlock Water Filter Ratings Become a Member or Sign in

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Do you have bad-tasting water? Consumer Reports experts Perry Santanachote and James Dickerson explain how to find out about water testing and the best filtration systems. 

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the November 2019 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

What Do You Know About Your Drinking Water?

Most of us don’t think about the water we drink. We turn on a tap, fill a glass, and drink. But how much water do you really need to drink every day? Is the water you're drinking safe or would bottled water be safer? What can you do if your tap water suddenly became contaminated? Read on to find out how much you know about the drinking water in your own home.

Your body weight is more than 50% water. Without water, you couldn’t maintain a normal body temperature, lubricate your joints, or get rid of waste through urination, sweat, and bowel movements.

Not getting enough water can lead to dehydration, which can cause muscle weakness and cramping, a lack of coordination, and an increased risk of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. In fact, water is so important that a person couldn’t last more than five days without it.

So how much water do you need? Enough to replace what you lose daily through urination, sweating, even exhaling. And your need for water increases:

  • In warm or hot weather
  • With vigorous physical activity, such as exercise or working in the yard
  • During bouts of illness, especially if you have a fever, are vomiting, having diarrhea or coughing
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You often hear that you need to drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water each day. The Institute of Medicine's Food and Nutrition Board recommend that women drink more than 11 8-ounce glasses (91 ounces) of water daily, and men drink more than 15 glasses of water(125 ounces) per day.

How Polluted Is Your Drinking Water?

Amr Dalsh/Reuters

This story originally appeared on Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

More than 4 million Americans live in places where contaminants in drinking water exceed a legal limit—and poor, rural areas are often more affected than wealthy, urban and suburban ones. Those are some of the key takeaways from a new database that the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released this week.

The database pulls about 30 million records from 2010 to 2015, mostly from state agencies. With the handy tool, you can enter your ZIP code and get a report on the contaminants that flow from your tap.

Although EWG has not yet analyzed all the data it collected according to demographics, it did find some preliminary patterns.

“We’re seeing a lot of problems in places that are more rural and lower income,” said Bill Walker, vice president and managing editor of EWG.

Walker emphasized that agriculture is one of the biggest pollutants of drinking water in the country and that, while pesticides and fertilizers are used in many places, toxic runoff from these pollutants are found at higher readings in rural communities.

6 Ways to Find Out If Your Drinking Water Is Safe

The news is full of dire warnings about pollutants, toxins, bacteria, and other worrisome extras turning up in drinking water. But how do you find out if the water coming out of your kitchen tap is safe? It’s not as hard as you might think—there’s a surprising amount of information out there, if you know where to look for it.

Here’s how to become your own clean-water sleuth.

1. Check With Your Water Company

You know that bill you pay every month, or every quarter, for your drinking water? It’s the first stepping-stone on your search.

Every year, your water agency is required by the United States Environmental Protection Agency to supply you with a Consumer Confidence Report, which is an annual water quality report that details any and all contaminants that may be present in your water and alerts you to the health risks they pose.

Every water agency has to provide this report to its customers by July 1 each year. Typically, it comes with your bill, or if you pay online, you should get an alert to a downloadable PDF.

You can also go directly to your water utility’s website; the latest report should be posted there. (You may have to do some digging.

) If you don’t know the name of your water agency, you can use the EPA’s clickable map to find it, but you’ll have to wade through a cumbersome alphabetical list of agencies. More detailed information on how to get your CCR is available from the EPA.

2. Search the Environmental Working Group’s National Drinking Water Database

This watchdog agency maintains a handy-dandy (and easier to use) database of water quality reports, searchable by zip code and by water company.

At first glance, the results can be scary. That’s because the EWG highlights chemicals that are found to be above what it terms the “health limit” in addition to those that exceed the legal limit for safe water.

The EWG’s data also includes many chemicals that aren’t regulated—meaning chemicals for which the EPA has not set legal limits.

For these chemicals, it uses zero as the baseline, so water that contains any amount of the chemicals is flagged.

Drinking Water FAQ

Where does my drinking water come from?

The drinking water that is supplied to our homes comes from either surface water or ground water. Surface water collects in streams, rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. Ground water is water located below the ground where it collects in pores and spaces within rocks and in underground aquifers. We obtain ground water by drilling wells and pumping it to the surface.

Public water systems provide water from surface and ground water for public use. Water treatment systems are either government or privately-held facilities. Surface water systems withdraw water from the source, treat it, and deliver it to our homes.

Ground water systems also withdraw and deliver water, but they do not always treat it. For more information on public water systems, visit CDC’s Public Water Systems page.

For more information on how public water systems treat water, visit CDC’s Water Treatment page.

A private well uses ground water as its water source. Owners of private wells and other individual water systems are responsible for ensuring that their water is safe from contaminants. For more information on private wells and individual water systems, visit CDC’s Private Wells page.

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Public Water Systems

What type of health issues can be related to water quality?

The presence of certain contaminants in our water can lead to health issues, including gastrointestinal illness, reproductive problems, and neurological disorders.

Infants, young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and immunocompromised persons may be especially at risk for becoming ill after drinking contaminated water.

For example, elevated levels of lead can cause serious health problems, especially for pregnant women and young children. Federal law requires that systems reduce certain contaminants to set levels, in order to protect human health.

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How do I know that the water in my home is safe to drink?

The United States Environmental Protection AgencyExternal (EPA) is responsible for making sure that public water supplies within the United States are safe. In 1974, Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water ActExternal.

This law sought to protect the nation’s public drinking water supply by giving EPA authority to set the standardsExternal for drinking water quality and oversee the states, localities, and water suppliers who implement those standardsExternal.

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In 1986 and 1996, the law was amended to protect drinking water and its sources, which include rivers, lakes, reservoirs, springs, and ground water wells.

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  • How do contaminants (germs and chemicals) get into my drinking water?
  • There can be many sources of contamination of our water systems. Here is a list of the most common sources of contaminants:
  • Naturally occurring chemicals and minerals (for example, arsenic, radon, uranium)
  • Local land use practices (fertilizers, pesticides, livestock, concentrated animal feeding operations)
  • Manufacturing processes
  • Sewer overflows
  • Malfunctioning wastewater treatment systems (for example, nearby septic systems)

Many contaminants that pose known human health risks are regulated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). EPA makes sure that water meets certain standards, so you can be sure that high levels of contaminants are not in your water.

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Who do I need to contact to find out more information about water quality in my area?

Every community water supplier must provide an annual report, sometimes called a Consumer Confidence Report, or “CCR,” to its customers. The report provides information on your local drinking water quality, including the water’s source, contaminants found in the water, and how consumers can get involved in protecting drinking water.

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How often does our public water system test our drinking water?

Frequency of drinking water testing depends on the number of people served, the type of water source, and types of contaminants.

Certain contaminants are tested for more frequently than others, as set forth by the Safe Drinking Water ActExternal.

You can find out about levels of regulated contaminants in your treated water for the preceding calendar year in your annual Consumer Confidence Report (CCR).

  1. Learn more about your CCR and water quality in your area.External
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  3. What common contaminants are included in this testing?

The EPA sets standards and regulations for the presence and amount of over 90 different contaminants in public drinking water, including E.coli, Salmonella, and Cryptosporidium species. More information regarding the specific contaminants and maximum contaminant levels can be found on the EPA’s website (Drinking Water Contaminant Candidate List and Regulatory DeterminationsExternal).

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What should I do if I want my household water tested?

The United States has one of the safest public water supplies in the world.

However, if you are concerned about contaminants in your home’s water system, contact your state drinking water certification officer to obtain a list of certified laboratories in your state.

Depending on how many contaminants you wish to test for, a water test can cost from $15 to hundreds of dollars. The Safe Drinking Water HotlineExternal can give you information on testing methods.

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Who should I contact if my water has a funny smell, taste, or appearance?

A change in your water’s taste, color, or smell is not necessarily a health concern. However, sometimes changes can be a sign of problems. If you notice a change in your water, call you public water system company.

If you want to test your water, your local health department should assist in explaining any tests that you need for various contaminants.

If your local health department is not able to help you can contact a state certified laboratory to perform the test.

To find a state certified laboratory in your area call the Safe Drinking Water Hotline at (800) 426-4791 or visit the State Certified Drinking Water LaboratoriesExternal list.

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How can I find out if there has been a violation in our public water standard?

When water quality standards have not been met, your public water system must notify you through the media (television or radio), mail, or other means. Your annual Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) is another way to find out about the water quality in your area. It provides information regarding contaminants, possible health effects, and the water’s source.

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How do I find out if there is a boil water advisory or other water advisory in my community?

Your public water system is responsible for notifying residents if the water quality does not meet United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or state standards or if there is a waterborne disease emergency. The EPA sets guidelines for when residents must be notified depending on the seriousness of a contamination event.

You should be notified by the media (TV, radio), mail, or other means. For more information, see CDC’s boil water advisories page.

There are three levels of public notification. A Tier 1 notification pertains to the most serious and acute contamination events. Notification must be broadcast by local media within 24 hours. Tier 2 allows for a 30-day notification. Tier 3 provides notification through the annual Consumer Confidence Report (CCR).

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If there is a boil water advisory in my community, how do I disinfect my drinking water?

In order to disinfect your drinking water during a boil water advisory, you should boil your water at a rolling boil for at least one minute (at altitudes greater than 6,562 feet (> 2000 meters), boil water for 3 minutes). Boiling your water for at least one minute at a rolling boil will inactivate all harmful bacteria, parasites, and viruses from drinking water.

Chemicals (for example, bleach) are sometimes used for disinfecting small volumes of drinking water for household use. The parasite Cryptosporidium can survive a long time, even after the water is treated with chlorine or iodine.

Cryptosporidium can be removed from water by filtering through a reverse osmosis filter, an “absolute one micron” filter, or a filter certified to remove Cryptosporidium under NSF International Standard #53 for either “cyst removal” or “cyst reduction.” See A Guide to Water Filters. Filtering does not remove bacteria and viruses.

Ultraviolet light treatment of water is not effective against Cryptosporidium at normally used levels.

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Wells

What are the main types of ground water wells?

Water and health

Water companies provide essential services to treat and deliver safe drinking water and to remove wastewater and dispose of it with minimal impact on the environment.

Answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about water supply in the UK are below.

Absolutely. Staying hydrated is important for feeling energized and concentrated. Our bodies are on average 60% water and maintaining a water balance is absolutely vital for our health and survival.

Opting for plain water rather than sugary drinks also contributes to overall fitness as it hydrates the body and mind without unnecessary calories.

Tap water is of the highest quality in the UK and given its wide availability, it offers an ideal daily choice for a healthy lifestyle.

Exactly how much water you need is depends on your body constitution, age, sex, physical activity levels, and also on environmental conditions such as temperature and humidity.

The adequate daily fluid intakes as set by the European Food Safety Authority and by the NHS vary between 1.6-2.5l a day.

These volumes apply to conditions of moderate environmental temperature and moderate physical activity and ought to be consumed throughout the day.

For the sole purpose of hydration, there is no qualitative difference between plain water and water from foods and other beverages.

According to the Annual Review on Nutrition, food and metabolic oxidation can in fact cover up to 20-40% of the daily fluid intake. Yet when compared to many other beverages, water has the advantage of being sugar-free.

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition has recently recommended that consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks should be minimised by both adults and children.

Yes, British tap water is among the best in the world. Millions of tests are conducted annually to guarantee the best possible quality of water for consumers. That makes tap water the most regulated drink out there. You can find out more about water quality at DiscoverWater.co.uk.

Tap water is the freshest drink you can quench your thirst with. It takes anywhere from a few hours to a few days to get it from the treatment plant to your home.

Unless your water company issues a specific boil notice, it is not necessary to boil your tap water.

By law your local water company has to supply wholesome water that is suitable for all domestic purposes, including drinking, cooking and washing.

All public water supplies are regularly tested in England and Wales and the results which are published and available to every consumer on request show that tap water is safe to drink and there is no need to install additional treatment within the home as a health protection measure.

You should avoid using hot water for drinking or cooking because it often comes from a storage tank within the home and is not as fresh as water directly from the mains.

All tap water intended for human consumption supplied by water companies is subject to stringent standards, which make sure you can drink it on a daily basis without any harm. Occasional failures are mostly attributable to poor tap hygiene or inappropriate plumbing arrangements which can result in objectionable tastes or odours.

Chlorine is a disinfectant used by water companies around the world to maintain hygienic conditions within the public water supply network of pipes. At the very low levels used in drinking water – routinely at 0.5 mg/l or less (WHO sets the maximum guideline at 5mg/l) – it is perfectly safe.

Yes, as long as it’s compliant with the legal quality standards. However, you should always use unsoftened mains water for preparing babies’ feeds.

Refill is the UK’s leading ‘app for tap’ – connecting people looking for water with shops, businesses, fountains and transport hubs where they can refill their water for free on-the-go. Find out more here.

Yes. Establishments that sell alcohol are legally obliged to have free tap water available.

About one third of tap water in England and Wales comes from underground sources (aquifers), in Northern Ireland and Scotland this figure is 6% and 3%, respectively. The rest comes from reservoirs, lakes, and rivers. Namely, surface water in the UK accounts for 68% and mixed sources for 4% of the supply.

Two litres of tap water costs around a third of a penny. To find out more about billing and charging, take a look at DiscoverWater.co.uk.

Is your tap water safe to drink?

Reports of lead in drinking water have sounded alarm bells in several communities across the U.S. Maybe that's got you wondering what’s in your tap water, and how safe it is. The answer isn't always easy to find out. Consumer Reports reveals some tips for how to test the water from your tap.

Most municipal water in the U.S. appears to be safe to drink and free from harmful contaminants, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But how do you know if water passing through your pipes into your tap is safe? Finding out can take time, effort, and money. But it’s definitely worth doing.

If you’re connected to a community water system and pay your own bill, you should receive an annual water-quality report called a CCR or Consumer Confidence Report. If you haven’t been getting one, call your local water supplier. And if you rent, contact your landlord.

If you’re on a noncommunity public water system or use a private well, you won’t get a CCR. So Consumer Reports recommends having your water tested once a year and anytime you notice a change in taste, color, or odor. You should also get your water tested if your home was built before 1986 when lead-free pipes were mandated.

Consumer Confidence Report

To test your water, the EPA recommends using a certified lab, which you can find on its website. If the test finds contaminants, it’s probably time to choose a filter to clean up your water.

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