If your water smells or looks strange, or you’ve heard about contamination risks nearby, you might be wondering if your water is safe to drink. Water is essential for your health, but there are many different contaminants that can make your water unsafe. Here’s how to tell if your water is safe to drink, and what you can do if you think your water might be contaminated.
Is My Water Safe to Drink? 4 Clues to Look For
1. Strange Smell
The human nose is extremely sensitive. If your water doesn’t smell quite right, it can be a sign that your water isn’t safe to drink. Different smells in your water can mean different things, but not all of them mean that your water is unsafe.
For example, a chemical smell might be due to chlorination. Chlorine is used to sanitize water in many municipal water systems, and is used to remove harmful bacteria and viruses. This is usually not a problem. However, a smell like rotten eggs, fish, or mold can indicate that bacteria is growing in your pipes or it is present in the water source.
2. Strange Taste
In most cases, you will smell something strange about your water rather than tasting it. However, if your water does have a strange taste, it can be an indicator that your water is not safe to drink.
The strange flavor you pick up in your water may be similar to the strange smell. You might notice a chemical taste, or a taste like rot, mold, metal, salt or even gasoline. These tastes, like the smells, are not always bad. Your water may be safe to drink still, but this is a good reason to look for water advisories in your area or get your water tested.
3. Water Advisory
If your area has seen heavy rainfall or fast snowmelt, the wastewater system can become overwhelmed. This can cause wastewater water to mix with the drinking water, and make your water unsafe to drink. If this happens, your municipality will introduce a water advisory.
Your state or city will issue a water advisory and tell consumers when or how it’s safe to use the water or how long they should wait. This might include a “boil water” advisory, a “do not drink” advisory,” or a “do not use” advisory, depending on the situation.
4. Water Database
If you’re concerned about contamination in your water but you’re not sure what the source might be, a water database might help. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is an non-profit activist group tracking water sources and other potentially harmful contaminants in other consumer products. The EWG tap water database is one source you might look for information about the safety of your water supply. You might also check with Mytapwater.org or the EPA’s water data and reports.
What to Do If Your Water Isn’t Safe to Drink
If you think your water isn’t safe to drink, there are a few things you can do. It’s helpful to use the previous clues to determine what might be contaminating your water. Some solutions will help to prevent bacteria in your water, but might not solve other problems, such as contamination from heavy metals.
If you suspect bacteria are contaminating your water, boiling it can make it safe to drink. The CDC recommends boiling water for about a minute to make it safe. However, if your municipality has issued an advisory recommending that you don’t consume or use the water, follow these instructions. Boiling water will kill many bacteria and viruses, but it won’t destroy other contaminants, like heavy metals.
Use a Water Filter
There are many different types of water filters you might use. Different water filters will remove different contaminants. This includes pitcher filters, which filter water as it drains into a pitcher, faucet filters, which filter water as it leaves the faucet, and other filters that filter the water supply for the entire home.
Read the box, specifications or instructions that come with your water filter. This should show what the water filter will remove from the water. For example, an activated carbon filter can remove metals such as lead and copper, but will not remove nitrates, bacteria, or dissolved minerals. An ion exchange unit can remove minerals, and, in some cases, radium and barium.
Sanitize Your Water System
If your water source is not contaminated but your water system is to blame—for example, if mold or bacteria is growing in your pipes—sanitizing your water system can make your water safe to drink again. Biofilm, a sticky mix of bacteria and fungi, can build up in your pipes, especially if they aren’t used for long periods of time. In some cases, simply running the taps for ten to fifteen seconds is enough to wash out the system. In other cases, shock chlorination can help to sanitize the water system and remove biofilm.
Use an Alternative Water Source
If you’re wondering whether or not your water is safe to drink, consider an alternative source. If your pipes at home are contaminated or if your local water supply is contaminated, you might try vended water from another town. Water and ice from vending machines use the municipal water source at the location and a combination of filtration and sanitation measures to provide clean, clear water and ice. So, if your local water source is not currently useable, perhaps due to flooding or another issue, another town’s water source might be okay. Be sure to check the town’s water alerts first. If there are no water advisories, you can fill any container with clean, clear, safe water from an ice and water vending machine. This is a great alternative to bottled water, which can get expensive quickly, and produces a lot of single-use plastic.