We guzzle water as a go-to beverage, and it flows from our taps and our shower heads every day. It is always there for us, as dependable as the sunrise. In most developed nations, it is as available as the air we breathe, and taken just as much for granted.
The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, however, has many Americans thinking: What, exactly, is in my family’s water?
The United States and Canada use more water than any other countries, even those that are as developed as we are. A typical family of four uses 350 gallons per day for drinking, bathing and washing clothes, according to waterandhealth.org.
The Flint water issue aside, we enjoy some of the cleanest drinking water on the globe. Still, there are serious potential hazards to our water, and knowledge is key to keeping our family’s water supply safe to consume, and cook with.
“Biofouling” is the development of an organic bacterial community, and is present in almost every water distribution system. It is a threat to public health when uncontrolled. We need to know what, exactly, is in our water.
“It’s so important for people to get educated about their own water,” Brian Oram, a licensed professional geologist and soil scientist with over 25 years’ experience, told LifeZette.
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Oram is also the head of the Water Research Center in Pennsylvania.
“It’s the obligation of the city or town you reside in to address any of your water concerns, but most likely you will get pushback, as it’s a bureaucracy, even if it’s a small one,” he said. “Flint is a great example, because responsibility for the disaster is unclear, and that line in the sand easily shifts.”
Oram shared some unsettling news, too. “If the real problem is in the pipes that are off the main line and run into the residences, that’s actually the homeowners’ responsibility. So its incumbent upon homeowners to get the water tested, know their pipe status, and take appropriate action.”
“The Clean Water Act under the Environmental Protection Agency sets the federal standards for water, and then each state is set up differently as to how they handle water quality. Some have regional water boards, for example, and some have city water boards,” Dave Lovejoy of the Water Quality Association told LifeZette. “They typically do a great job (with) treatment plans for the water we drink, but a lot can happen when the piping gets involved.”
The truth is, the myriad interconnecting pipes that carry our water to us are aging. Vinyl, reinforced concrete and ductile iron are the materials that make up the bulk of America’s underground water pipes.
Vinyl piping is used in new homebuilding today, in part due to its flexibility — it can be laid in both rocky and unstable soils, and bends with shifting soil. Interestingly, vinyl pipe breakage rates actually decrease with age. Vinyl is also resistant to biofilm formation. Biofilm is made of the bacteria and other microorganisms that can make us sick. Today, more vinyl pipe is being laid than all the other pipe material options combined.
At the top of the list for protecting our families: Know our water.
“Invest in testing, definitely,” advised Oram. “Testing your water — and you should test it once a year with either a service or a national testing company — is like buying insurance for your family. In your first test, test for everything. You can test for 200 different hazards for a very low cost — for $60 to $100 you can test for all those hazards and 60 different water parameters.”
Oram also suggested a working knowledge of the source of our water.
“A good testing company will also ask if you have any health problems, too; anyone undergoing chemotherapy, or with an autoimmune disorder, will be more sensitive to elements in the water such as copper, or lead,” he said.
Another pressing but underexamined issue is well water from private wells.
“There are over 1 million private wells in Pennsylvania,” said Oram. “If three citizens per household and 50 percent of households have contaminated water, this means that 1.5 million citizens of the Pennsylvania are drinking water that could make them sick.
“There are no specific regulations in most states for private wells,” he added. “The EPA only regulates wells that provide water to either 15 different connections, or 25 people. Well water needs to be tested.”
Oram offers two free services, available from the Water Research Center’s website www.water-research.net, to any of us looking for information about the quality of our water.
The first is a free smartphone app called “Know Your H20” (available on the Water Research Center’s website). After download, we can tell the app what we notice about our water — discoloration or smells, and the app will in turn tell us what to test for.
The second service is a neighborhood hazard report we can receive from their website. This report will notify homeowners about anything from a nearby drug lab to a leaky fuel tank in the area. The report is free.
For any suspected lead issues, Oram suggested, “Stop using the hot water. Let the cold water run before using, at least 5 to 10 minutes. I, myself, use a carbon filter, too.”