How Safe is My Drinking Water?
Nathan Trowbridge, Client Services Manager, Eurofins Eaton Analytical
In 20 years of customer service at a drinking water laboratory, I’ve answered hundreds—if not thousands—of phone calls from residents that want to get their home drinking water tested. When I ask “What would you like it tested for?” the response I most commonly get is “I want to make sure my water is safe to drink.” My first thought when I hear this answer is “How much money do you want to spend?” because this lab has hundreds of things to test that could be considered a drinking water contaminant. In most cases, I offer a bacteria test, nitrate and lead (Pb), as these are fairly common contaminants that can have shorter term health effects and keep the total cost generally under $100.
While Eurofins Eaton Analytical rarely does residential testing, the phone calls still occur and we don’t ignore them. We refer them to another business that specializes in the residential market or answer some of their questions, provide pricing and then usually never hear from them again. Many of the inquiries come from residents using municipal water, so it’s very easy to refer them to their utility’s Consumer Confidence Report (CCR) that is a required notice published for consumers of all Public Water Supplies (PWS) on an annual basis.
So how do you answer the question “Is my water safe to drink?” Maybe the answer lies in what it is we are testing it for.
George Warren Fuller designed and implemented the first chlorinated drinking water system in the US in 1908. This resulted in an explosion for chlorine use for drinking water treatment and effectively defeated many waterborne diseases. Before 1908, these waterborne diseases were the cause of thousands of deaths across the United States every year. But, in 1908, was Fuller aware of/concerned with disinfection byproducts (DBPs)? Not likely. It wasn’t until 1974 that trihalomethanes (THMs) were regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act. Since 1974 more than 600 other DBPs have been identified. These THMs have been present since chlorination began, but because they weren’t tested, they went unnoticed.
There are many examples of specific contaminants being introduced to drinking water where human causes resulted in the contamination. Dioxin in Love Canal, NY, hexavalent chromium in Hinkley, CA, Cryptosporidium in Milwaukee, WI and now perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in Hoosick Falls, NY and many other locations just to name a small few.
As technology and research progresses, new contaminants are discovered. Many are discussed within the science community and EPA, some are researched in great detail and a few are added to the existing list of regulated contaminants. While EPA has completed 3 cycles of the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR), there have yet to be any new additions to the regulated compounds. There have been health advisory limits published, but these do not require additional monitoring. Several States have regulated additional contaminants, most notably hexavalent chromium, perchlorate and PFAS.
Luckily, water treatment technology is also progressing rapidly. New ways to remove contaminants are being developed and employed where needed, and as technology advances new techniques are being evaluated.
PWSs are required to monitor multiple contaminants at frequencies ranging from daily to once every 9 years. Private wells do not require testing, but are recommended to be tested for bacteria annually. Understanding that each water sample is just a snapshot in time, answering the question “Is my water safe to drink?” becomes a question that may be impossible to answer.